Any country that interfered with his invasion of Ukraine would face “consequences greater than any you have faced in history.” He put his nuclear forces on high alert and conducted drills with them. Then he declared that Western sanctions against Russia amounted to a “declaration of war.”
The fate of humanity appears to be in the hands of an isolated, frustrated, and potentially insane Vladimir Putin. People are understandably concerned about this possibility.
At this point in the Ukraine conflict, the Russian president’s threats are most likely a bluff intended to intimidate and coerce his opponents in the West. Regardless of whether the risk of nuclear war has increased, Putin’s actions have shown how vulnerable we all are to the whims—or even the missteps or miscalculations that fallible, emotional, semi-rational human beings make when reacting quickly in a crisis—of one man and his nuclear arsenal.
Our current situation should, in fact, open our eyes even wider to the more profound problem of a similar susceptibility in the United States and other nuclear-armed countries—and to how few checks there truly are on leaders who decide to use the world’s most lethal weapons.
The reactions to Putin’s threats remind me of 2017, when Donald Trump began threatening North Korea with nuclear weapons and many Americans began to understand the president’s expansive power to use nuclear weapons. Be it Putin now, Trump then, or a Watergate-addled Richard Nixon in the 1970s, the delicate nature of the world’s framework for deterring nuclear war typically dawns on people only when leaders of nuclear states begin acting in extraordinary and seemingly reckless ways, despite the underlying condition of vulnerability being present at all times.
We don’t know much about how Russia’s authority to launch nuclear weapons works. This obscurity is on purpose. To keep your enemies guessing, all nuclear command-and-control systems, including America’s, have a “first rule of Fight Club”-like aspect to them: you don’t talk much about them. But, according to Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russian nuclear forces, the Russian president can probably order the use of nuclear weapons on his own, even if the country’s policies aren’t necessarily designed that way.
The Russian system, which dates back to the 1970s and was designed with Soviet-era collective, centralized decision making in mind, requires the defense minister and chief of the military’s general staff to be informed of any orders by the country’s leader to use nuclear weapons, allowing them to influence the decision. If Putin were to reach for his tactical nuclear weapons—a lower-yield, shorter-range variety that can be deployed on the battlefield—as some speculate, he would need to remove them from storage and prepare them for use in a relatively lengthy process that would ostensibly involve more consultations.
However, given Putin’s recent concentration of power, it appears that no actor in the Russian system would be able to veto a presidential decision to use nuclear weapons.
This concentrated executive authority, in contrast to more collective decision making in nuclear states such as India and Pakistan, where nuclear-use powers are vested in councils, is largely a Cold War legacy. During that time, the US government decided to classify nuclear weapons differently than other weapons and place them under the limited civilian control of the country’s democratically elected political leader. The approach was influenced by a protracted nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union, which placed a premium on the ability to make quick decisions, because an American leader might only have minutes to retaliate against a surprise nuclear attack.
Nonetheless, despite what Trump may have led us to believe, the proverbial “nuclear button” is a myth in both Russia and the United States; even with enormous executive authority to launch nuclear weapons in each country, any such presidential order would have to pass through other individuals with varying degrees of agency. But based on what we know of the Russian and American systems, does Joe Biden actually have fewer checks on his power to wage nuclear war than Putin does?