Anyone paying attention has seen satellite photos like this one of the Russian tanks, artillery, and trucks as well as 130,000 troops lined up neatly near Ukraine’s border to threaten an invasion. They would make an ideal target for a small tactical nuclear weapon. In a few seconds, the blast and two million degrees of heat would vaporize them.
Lest I get banned from social media, let me point out immediately that I am NOT advocating the death of 130,000 fellow human beings, even if they are Russian soldiers, nor am I advocating the first use of nuclear weapons by anyone even in a preemptive attack to stave off an invasion. Nor am I advocating that the United States use military force, even if non-nuclear, against the Russian troops that are obviously threatening to invade Ukraine — too obviously in my judgment, but more about that later. A preemptive attack by the U.S. against Russian troops, even troops who have no purpose other than to threaten to invade another sovereign country in violation of the United Nations charter, would run the risk of starting World War III, with unimaginably horrible consequences for the whole world.
Rather, I am merely pointing out the important, but frequently overlooked, fact that since the dawn of the nuclear age in 1945, no country with nuclear weapons has been invaded by another country. (The possible exception is the Six-Day War against Israel, but that occurred at a time when it was not well-known that the Israelis possessed nuclear weapons, if in fact they did.) Nuclear weapons are the great equalizer, a point not lost on North Korea or Iran who want to acquire them at least in part for that reason.
Another important, frequently overlooked fact is that at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was the third-largest nuclear power in the world. Under the far-sighted (NOT!) leadership of President Bill Clinton in 1993, we persuaded the Ukrainians to give up their nuclear weapons in exchange for a “guarantee” by Russia, the U.S., and Great Britain that they would all “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” Of course, that agreement, the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, was not worth the paper it was printed on, but it duped the Ukrainians into giving up their nuclear weapons — or did it?
Indulge me a little alternative history. Imagine that a few former Russian submarines, now flying the Ukrainian flag, were cruising underwater armed with nuclear missiles. Does anyone imagine that Russia would now be considering invading Ukraine?
I have recently written in these pages that the Biden administration seems to be inviting Russia to take over Ukraine, probably because it believes Ukraine is part of Russia’s natural “sphere of influence.” But if a smarter and more courageous administration were in power, what would it do to deter Putin?
Not attack Russia, but maybe try to convince the Russians that the Ukrainians had held back a few nuclear weapons as an insurance policy against the kind of thing that is happening now. We have spent billions over the years on a CIA that ought to be able to manufacture a credible intelligence estimate, which we could transmit over a channel that we believe the Russians have cracked so the Russians could intercept it, that the Ukrainians kept a few nuclear weapons secreted in caves somewhere. Or we might instead manufacture a report saying that the Ukrainians had bought a few nukes on the black market. Who knows, they might even have actually done so, which should make it even easier to manufacture a credible intelligence report that they have some nuclear weapons. That would explain why the Ukrainian leaders are much more confident than ours that Russia will not invade and that there will be a “full-scale” war if they do.
Putin is a very smart guy — ruthless and cynical, but smart — much smarter than our leaders, unfortunately. He might well suspect that the manufactured intelligence was a fake. But would he be willing to take the chance? That would depend on whether the CIA is competent enough at generating disinformation to dupe him into believing there is a reasonable chance that a Russian invasion could be answered by a nuclear response.
I am aware that nuclear weapons don’t deliver themselves and that the Russians are positioning fourth-generation air defenses to protect their troops. But modern nuclear weapons are relatively small and could be delivered via a tank or truck on a suicide mission, or planted along the likely invasion routes.
I don’t think that Putin is going to invade. His intentions to do so are just too obvious. It is certainly true that in today’s world with the spy satellites of multiple countries circulating the globe, it would be difficult to marshal thousands of troops and tanks on the border of another country without someone detecting it. However, that is not the only way to do an invasion. Consider Putin’s two prior invasions of Ukraine and his invasion of Georgia. No one saw them coming in the way everyone in the world sees this one coming, because he previously used “little green men,” soldiers without insignia, and other techniques to give himself plausible deniability. No, this time Putin is going out of his way to show us his invasion force, not to hide it. He wants us to understand that he could invade and that has caused our military geniuses in the Pentagon (again, NOT!) to advise our government that the Ukrainians don’t stand a chance.
The real problem is that our military, for all its high-tech sophistication, is still fighting World War II. It thinks in terms of big tank battles and air-land invasions (updated only by an occasional commando raid to kill a terrorist leader, who can quickly be replaced). Putin is way beyond that. He has entered the modern cyber era, long envisioned by science fiction writers, in which perception is reality. If computer simulations can predict the outcome of a military engagement accurately, there is no need to kill a bunch of people and destroy a lot of valuable equipment to prove what everyone already knows the outcome will be.
The only way to deter Putin successfully is to beat him at his own game. He is trying to take over Ukraine, or at least keep it out of NATO, by creating a perception that he could invade. He is betting that we will give him what he wants diplomatically but probably in secret, just like we did when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev put Russian missiles in Cuba and we secretly promised to remove ours from Turkey. The Cuban missile crisis has been sold to the American public as a victory for the U.S. That’s not how they see it in the Kremlin. Putin is trying to replay what he sees as a great Russian victory. For him, Ukraine 2022 is Cuban Missile Crisis 2.0.
The only way to counter Putin’s creation of the perception that he could invade Ukraine is to create a credible counter-perception that a Russian invasion could be answered with nuclear weapons or some other form of overwhelming force.