Deliberate acts of sabotage on critical infrastructure offer a more effective tool for Putin to disrupt Western resolve than his repeated nuclear threats, writes Constanze Stelzenmüller. This article originally appeared in the Financial Times.
Can he? Would he? Will he? Western capitals are abuzz with alarm over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s repeated nuclear threats. Joe Biden, the U.S. president, invoked a possible “Armageddon” at a Democratic party fundraising event. Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, explained to a primetime television audience how Paris would react to a Russian nuclear attack “on Ukraine or in the region” — not with a nuclear counterstroke, it was said.
In Berlin, senior officials mutter darkly and off the record about various scenarios. On Monday, the head of Germany’s national intelligence agency warned in parliament that Moscow might use “substrategic nuclear weapons”.
Putin has a tendency to double down when on the defensive — which he is now, both on the battlefield in Ukraine and against a churning undertow of criticism at home. So there can be no question that responsible Western leaders must plan for that ghastly eventuality.
But the mistake is to talk or even think about it all the time and, above all, to be distracted by it from other threats that are at least as serious and perhaps more likely.
The top man in the Kremlin is a Chekist: a secret policeman trained in the Leninist tradition of coercion through political terror. The cruelty and malevolence of his war crimes in Ukraine — murder, rape, abduction of children, the indiscriminate bombing of cities and power plants — are intended to cripple the political will and resilience of Ukrainians and of their Western supporters. So far, they have achieved the opposite.
The threats involving nuclear weapons, as well as the continuous shelling of the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, have the same goal: instilling fear and paralysis. Policymakers in Berlin should contemplate the possibility that this latest variant of Kremlin messaging is precision-targeted at German public opinion, which has been jittery about nuclear disasters ever since having had front-row seats for “mutually assured destruction” during the Cold War.
However, use of substrategic nuclear weapons — so called because they have a shorter range and lower explosive yield — would involve extensive, visible preparation and perhaps even a test. It would require top Russian military commanders to acquiesce.
Such weapons are of limited value on the battlefield, especially against a force that is as agile and dispersed as the Ukrainian military. They might endanger Russian forces. Use against Ukrainian cities would massively reinforce the push to have Kremlin leaders indicted for war crimes. Use against a NATO member state would trigger Article V, a “catastrophic” response — in the words of U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan — and very probably war. Russia’s allies in the global south would turn away.
It seems, in sum, like a really bad idea. Western intelligence officials are careful to say that so far they have seen no signs of Russian nuclear forces going on alert.
Consider, in contrast, the recent explosions which damaged the Nord Stream gas pipelines, the cable cuts which brought trains across northern Germany to a halt, and the hacking of the computers of several U.S. airports. All three incidents were deliberate attacks involving elaborate preparation and highly specialised technological expertise. These are signs that point to Russia as the probable perpetrator.
Sabotage — another Chekist speciality — offers a far better benefit-to-cost ratio than nuclear weapons. Attacks on physical and digital infrastructure are hard to prevent and even harder to attribute. They undermine confidence in government and exploit the fissures and vulnerabilities of Western societies. They permit an adversary to elude retribution and play for time. Expect more such incidents, perhaps many more.
Threats such as these are not amenable to negotiation or territorial concessions. Neither Ukraine nor the European countries which support Kyiv are safe as long as Putin is in power and the Kremlin clings to its imperial ambitions. Only Russians themselves can change these two facts about their country. Both may last a very long time.
But western governments should calmly, collectively and unequivocally spell out the consequences that would ensue if Putin became the first leader to use nuclear weapons in anger since 1945. Otherwise, they should ignore him — and quietly concentrate on thwarting him. One way of doing that is by helping Ukraine win.