The DEFCON Warning System™

Ongoing GeoIntel and Analysis in the theater of nuclear war.  DEFCON Level assessment issued for public notification.  Established 1984.

Addressing Putin’s Nuclear Threat: Thinking Like the Cold War KGB Officer That He Was

The powerful explosion that crippled Vladimir Putin’s showcase bridge over the Kerch Strait linking Russia and Crimea increased pressure on the cornered Kremlin potentate to do something shocking, as he loses control on the battlefield and inside his royal court. But will he stop at the intensified missile bombardments that are hitting apartments and playgrounds in Kyiv and other civilian infrastructure across Ukraine?

Assessing whether Putin will resort to nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons – a question that took on new resonance as his regime has faltered even before the Kerch bridge attack — is no easy task. Policymakers would do well to remember three fundamentals that guide Putin’s decision-making: 1) he is the product of the 1970’s and 1980’s KGB and stood witness in then-East Germany in 1991, when the world as he knew it ceased to exist; 2) ego, survival, greed, and ambition direct his moral compass; and 3) he has come to believe his own propaganda.

As a Russian-speaking CIA operations officer who spent much of my career pursuing and countering Russian intelligence officers of Putin’s era, and those who would follow, I don’t expect his next steps will be guided by Clausewitz’s strategic military teachings, Sun Tzu’s enlightened pragmatism, or Machiavelli’s guidance for princes. Putin will pay little heed to the limited, practical, battlefield utility of nuclear or chemical weapons, or overly concern himself that prevailing winds might bring the fallout’s enduring harm to his own people. Putin’s logic is simple: It’s all about him, his court’s blind, obsequious obedience, and reasserting control. There are no rules, only consequences, that shape his calculus. In Putin’s mind, the rules of the post-World War II order were designed by an elitist West to restrain and humiliate his country (never mind that his country helped shape and long participated in that order and those rules), negating any obligation he has to respect them, or the words and treaties of his predecessors.

Putin will not look to his own military for counsel. There is no love lost between the Russian leader and his armed forces. A Cold War-era KGB officer, he was indoctrinated with profound mistrust in them. His micromanagement of Russia’s military campaign, disinterest in its catastrophic losses, and reliance instead on the Federal Security Service, or FSB, for his war in Chechnya and initial strategy in Ukraine, reflect this attitude.

Read more at Just Security

Ongoing Geointel and Analysis in the theater of nuclear war.


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The DEFCON Warning System is a private intelligence organization which has monitored and assessed nuclear threats by national entities since 1984. It is not affiliated with any government agency and does not represent the alert status of any military branch. The public should make their own evaluations and not rely on the DEFCON Warning System for any strategic planning. At all times, citizens are urged to learn what steps to take in the event of a nuclear attack.