"If Russia crosses this line, there will be catastrophic consequences for Russia," National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told NBC's "Meet the Press" on the 25th of this month, referring to threats to use nuclear weapons. "The United States will respond decisively."
Sullivan was responding to, among other things, a warning Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered in a televised address on September 21. "I want like to remind those who make such statements regarding Russia that our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO countries have," the Russian leader 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."
"This is not a bluff," he added.
"The idea of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, has become a subject of debate," said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres the following day at a Security Council session on Ukraine. "This in itself is totally unacceptable."
Acceptable or not, the use of nuclear weapons is fast becoming likely. The world can thank President Joe Biden for helping create the conditions for history's first total war.
Putin's threat to use nukes — presumably against Ukraine but perhaps others as well — was made at the time he announced a military mobilization, Russia's first since World War II.
The Russian leader has made a series of implicit and explicit nuclear threats this year. On February 27, for instance, he put his nuclear forces on high alert. On March 1, he sortied his ballistic missile submarines and land-based mobile missile launchers in what was called a "drill."
Russia's nuclear doctrine is called "escalate to deescalate" or, more appropriately, "escalate to win," which means threatening or using nukes early in a conventional conflict.
Even if Putin is now bluffing — most analysts think he is — he is getting what he wants with threats. Biden, for instance, has been cautious and even timid in providing military assistance to a beleaguered Ukraine. Putin has obviously noticed, which is the reason he has been making more such threats.
"A nuclear war cannot be won," Biden stated in his September 21 U.N. General Assembly speech, but that applause line is not necessarily true.
With nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, the Russian leader could, in a moment, reverse his fortunes by incinerating Ukraine's cities and large concentrations of military assets, eventually allowing Russia to annex the entire country.
Could Putin get away with such a bold move? The main deterrent to a first strike with tactical nuclear weapons is a threatened second strike with nukes. At this time, the U.S. has tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, in the form of "gravity bombs" delivered by F-16 and F-35 jets.
These bombs, as destructive as they are, are not, as a practical matter, much of a deterrent to the first use of tactical nukes. They can be destroyed on the ground, and any that survive have to be flown long distances through contested airspace to reach targets. In short, Putin is unlikely to be afraid of America's bombs.
That leaves the president of the United States with only one other nuclear threat for deterrence purposes: the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles. ICBMs carrying nuclear warheads can completely destroy Russia, but Putin knows Biden will never make good on any threat to use these weapons in this situation. Putin knows that Biden knows that Putin can obliterate the United States in a second strike with his ICBMs.
When Sullivan says "catastrophic," Putin undoubtedly thinks "hollow." American threats to use its most destructive weapons are simply not credible in this situation.
Why, then, doesn't the United States have what it needs at this crucial moment: nuclear-tipped cruise missiles like Putin's? The arms-control community, arguing that such low-yield weapons would make nuclear war more likely, persuaded American presidents not to build them. President Trump authorized their development, but Biden cancelled the program.
Unfortunately, arms-control advocates got it backwards. As evident from today's developments, America lacking low-yield nuclear warheads on cruise missiles is making nuclear war more likely, not less.
So, what does the arms-control community now recommend?
"The United States will need to reduce its nuclear arsenal to encourage Russia to do the same," wrote Tom Collina and Angela Kellett on the 21st of this month on the Defense One site.
Entice Russia into disarmament? Been there. Tried that. Failed miserably.
"In 2010, we killed the Navy nuclear-armed cruise missile and Russia responded by confirming they were indeed building 32 new strategic nuclear systems of which 90% are now complete," the Hudson Institute's Peter Huessy tells Gatestone. "The comparable Chinese number is 28."
Nonetheless, Collina and Kellett urge the Biden administration to not let Putin's war prevent negotiations with Putin to limit nuclear weapons. "If we want to prevent Russia from using its nuclear weapons to enable more aggression against weaker states, we must find a way to work with Moscow to reduce its nuclear arsenal," write the pair in "War Is No Reason to Put Arms-Control Negotiations on Hold," their Defense One article.
Is it possible to work with Putin at this time?
Even if we can put aside the morality of talking to a genocidal mass murderer — we cannot — it is reckless to believe Putin might actually honor arms-control agreements when he has continually violated them with impunity.
Moreover, it is bad enough to argue for disarmament in peacetime, but it is the height of folly to do so during war — and when China and North Korea are making first-strike nuclear threats of their own.
America's arms-control advocates have always been naïve. Now, they are delusional.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, a Gatestone Institute distinguished senior fellow, and a member of its Advisory Board.