(Sep 27, 2022) Threats of nuclear retaliation are easily the most complicated political issues. In time historians might decide that Feb 24, 2022 was the launching date of WW3. In this question we talk about one objective: if you personally were the National Security Advisor to President Biden (is there anyone today on the world stage with the ability to convince President Putin to not "stop the war" by nuking two cities?), what would you advise Joe Biden to SAY publically—just SAY, not actually do anything. Here I am putting forward an ultra-hawkish position that's beyond total war (ten eyes for an eye, and someone else's eye at that). What's better when the risks are enormous? To be vague or to be specific?
President Putin's warnings
Let’s assume that when President Putin said
"In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us." [boldface added]
it was indeed not a bluff. Let's assume that he is progressing beyond words and has moved into planning. Let’s further assume that President Putin is selecting the location of the first nuclear detonation, on Ukrainian territory.
He would not want to bomb any city he plans to seize. How could he? He would subsequently have to erect a barrier to stop contaminated material, let alone people who have been exposed to radiation, from moving into the rest of Russia.
Hence his only option is to bomb (whether “tactically” or “strategically”) a location deep inside western Ukrainian territory.
Ironically, he had denied that Ukraine is a nation, and declared that Ukrainian and Russians are two brotherly people (with the Ukrainians the lesser ones, of course). Yet by setting up a location he would subsequently not want to become part of Russia, he would effectively be declaring that Ukraine is a separate nation. He himself would need to set up a barrier.
If he moves further past words and it appears his future as leader of Russia is in question, it would be prudent for the world to assume that he would indeed dare detonate a nuclear weapon.
President Biden's responses
President Biden has responded swiftly on both occasions when the words of President Putin indicated thinking of a nuclear attack. On the first occasion he wrote:
"Let me be clear: Any use of nuclear weapons in this conflict on any scale would be completely unacceptable to us as well as the rest of the world and would entail severe consequences." [boldface added]
On the second occasion, during his September 2022 speech at the United Nations, he switched from the term "severe" to "consequential". It's not clear whether these two terms mean different things in political jargon.
On neither occasion was President Biden specific.
Why is being non specific more suitable than sending a specific threat, when the desired result is to convince an adversary to absolutely not think of taking this most contemptuous of actions?
What is the advantage, for instance, of President Biden not being exceedingly specific. He could declare, for example, that following a nuclear attack, of any kind, within a 100-km radius of Kyiv, the United States would detonate ten simultaneous nuclear weapons an equal distance from Moscow—to tell the Russians that even if they stop 90% of incoming attacks, they'll still suffer.
This also would be a bluff, in the sense that doing so would be as remote as a bomb near Kyiv in the first place.
Why are vague promises of responses better than specific ones?
I appreciate that pre-announcing specific responses would tie the hands of the United States. President Putin could then do something just sufficiently different for the specificity of the response to no longer apply. But there must be more compelling reasons why being specific is a disadvantage. What are they?
Related: The White House press secretary
The U.S. is not completely shying away from uttering the "nuclear" word, but the word did not come directly from President Biden. It came from his spokesperson. It would appear certain that such utterances could not possibly be made off-the-cuff. She must have been fully authorized to use these terms. She said, and that by itself is as alarming as anything the world has known since the Bay of Pigs:
We obviously take these threats very seriously,” she said, “but we have not seen any reason to adjust our own nuclear posture at this time. [boldface added]
These words say a lot. Critically, they indicate:
- the U.S. considers itself a party to the conflict—rather than a mere "weapons provider"—once a nuclear attack is contemplated, and
- the nuclear posture of the U.S. would be modified, which is as close to saying that a nuclear attack would be met with a nuclear attack as we’ve heard yet in this conflict.
Update (Sep 26, 2022)
Following the previous deterrence lingo coming from the White House
- “Severe consequences” (President Biden, in a NYTimes op-ed; May 31, 2022)
- “Consequential” (President Biden, at the United Nations; Sep 2022)
- “the nuclear posture of the U.S. would be modified”—[if merely Russia's nuclear posture is updated, rather than an actual detonation] (White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre; Sep 2022)
we now have two more ambiguous terms:
- “Catastrophic consequences” (National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan; Sep 2022)
- “Consequences would be horrific.” (Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken; Sep 2022)
but we are still left wondering what stops a madman in Moscow from subduing the Ukrainians and hoping to end the war by one or a series of nuclear detonations, other than that he would be contaminating Poland, Russia, and the Baltic countries for several generations.