Unless you’ve been living under a rock since January, you know Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have gone crazy. He invades Ukraine with about two-thirds of the army he needs to do the job during the mud season. Armored columns pushing toward Kyiv stuck on the roads getting shot to Hell and Gone, Russian mortars and rockets destroying apartment buildings, Russian soldiers defecting and discarded equipment, pulled away by Ukrainian farmers in their John Deeres and used against the invaders. Where does it end?

Not with nukes! At least, probably not. Russia has them. Putin has publicly huffed about their use. Four days after invading Ukraine, Russian nuclear forces were put on alert. Who decides, four days into an invasion with no sign of nuclear threat, to stand up the largest nuclear arsenal in the world? A crazy man?

Maybe.

Let’s look into the nuclear arsenal Putin has decided to put into play.

As of September 2021, Russia has 1,458 strategic nuclear warheads deployed throughout their nuclear rocket forces. These warheads are mounted on InterContinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), strategic bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). The operative word in the previous statement is “deployed” warheads. These are the ones ready to fire at the push of a button. According to television, anyway.

That “deployed” number is significant because it does not show the true horror: Russia has near 6,000 STRATEGIC warheads in reserve, ready to upload to ICBMs, AGMs, submarine launch cruise missiles, or even nuclear-armed torpedoes. Now, the US maintains a similar posture, with nearly 1,400 “deployed” nukes and another 5,500 in reserve, but we’re the good guys, right?

So the difference between deployed and reserve ought to be obvious.  Deployed, means ready to go and reserve means it would take a week or so to fit the warheads to the rockets, fuel them and then test them. Believe it or not, nuclear arsenals are pretty expensive in terms of upkeep and manning. Each missile silo we operate in the U.S. requires at least three crews to operate, maintain and protect them 24hours a day, 7 days a week.

August 9, 1945, was the second and last time nuclear weapons have been used in anger. Seventy-seven years have passed since the United States used nuclear weapons against an enemy state. Seventy-seven years have passed since a decision was made to kill an estimated 80,000 people in one fell swoop. We were the “good guys” then, true, but tens of thousands still died.

Take a moment to think about that. “Fat Man,” the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki, yielded approximately 21 kilotons of power, enough to flatten the area and instantly kill tens of thousands of people. The B83, America’s largest deployable device, has a variable yield that tops out around 1.2 MEGAtons, more than 5,000 times as powerful as “Fat Man.”

Mushroom cloud after Fat Man exploded over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. (Charles Levy – US National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons/Wikipedia)

Nuclear weaponry is shrouded in a lot of secrecy. Much information can be found online regarding payloads, delivery vehicles, and estimated yields, but no one posts a list of all available nuclear weapons searchable by owner. We know Russia claims to have around 6,000 strategic warheads, and they claim around 1,500 are deployed. We also know Russia was the USSR when many of these warheads were developed, so who, cosmically, knows?

On February 27, President Putin told his citizens and the world at large that “Russia’s deterrence forces (have been moved) to a special regime of combat duty.” Basically, Russia’s nuclear forces were put on notice and it was done to rattle everyone else’s cages(NATO and the U.S.)

The speed with which Putin increased his readiness posture is an indicator of the gravity of his moves. By trotting nuclear deterrence out early in the process, Putin believes he can intimidate the rest of the world long enough to roll over Ukraine and be done before any sabers come out of scabbards. No one else has said “nukes.” No country has threatened to nuke Russia if they don’t back off. No nations noisily increased their readiness posture to intimidate or otherwise.

But he did manage to spook the Biden administration which believes we are on the brink of WWIII if we make Putin any angrier.

Russia, with Putin at its head, has the ability to destroy the world numerous times over. They have the capability to turn Ukraine into a glass parking lot, were they so inclined. The problem with that, which is the same problem facing every country since the advent of nuclear technology, is the aftermath.

Deadly fallout. Destroyed infrastructure. Overwhelming casualties. Those are the initial consequences of nuclear destruction. Social breakdown, loss of critical services, food and water contamination immediately follow, resulting in exponentially more deaths. Health conditions worsen, cancers grow, and radiation sicknesses continue to kill for years to come. Nukes truly are the gift that keeps on giving. We know Putin wants Ukraine back in the Soviet Union,…Err..I mean Russia, but does it do him any good if its a radioactive wasteland for the next 150 years?

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Given the dismal performance of the Russian army so far and its problems even getting water, fuel, and rations to its own soldiers who are within several hours driving time from Russia, should we expect all their nuclear rockets are in bright and shiny,  tip-top shape?  If I was Putin, I’d be wondering.  You sure don’t want one blowing up in the silo or having its rocket motor malfunction halfway up and come back down on you. Now we are told that nuclear missiles have delayed arming mechanisms to prevent them from blowing up in the silo or while still over your own territory, but would anyone in their right mind trust a Russian-made “Fail-Safe” system on a nuclear missile?

Things have not escalated in this war very much.  We probably came the closest to an actual nuclear war when Russia tried to park medium-range missiles in Cuba back in the early 1960s.  President Kennedy wasn’t having any of that. If Russia did not pull them out, we were prepared to bomb them and invade Cuba and he put in the forces in place to do that in full view of the Russians. In the end, Russia did pull them out in exchange for a long-secret agreement not to invade Cuba and to remove our own nuclear missiles in Turkey that were 90 miles from his border.

During Vietnam, the U.S., the USSR, and Communist China were all pouring weapons into the region and it never escalated to nuclear war, not even close.  The Soviets were so confident in that non-escalation that it provided dozens of Mig jet fighters to North Vietnam.  We could remind Russia of that and help Poland deliver those Mig-29s to Ukraine like they are asking for.  When Putin says, that amounts to us entering the conflict, we should firmly respond, “No it doesn’t and you better hope we don’t, given what we’ve seen your army do so far Vlad.”

Let’s take reality off the table for a moment and pretend Putin is truly insane and would nuke the whole world to “win” in Ukraine, how would that work?

Putin doesn’t just open a desk drawer and push a red button sending 1,500 warheads on their way.  Orders have to be written and transmitted to Rocket Forces commands. Russians don’t put total trust in anyone or anything, I’m sure other officials in the government will have to agree with Putin on suicidally ending their own country along with the rest of the planet. Maybe they aren’t all insane maniacs as well and one of them decides to shoot him in the head right on the spot?

You see?

In order for the “Insane Putin” scenario to work, everyone in that whole chain of command right down to the individual missile launch officers all have to be mindless drones who follow orders or are all insane as well.  I suspect that among all the jobs in the Russian military they probably give their most extensive screening for mental stability to the guys that actually launch their nukes.  They don’t want mindless order followers in those seats.  In our own tests of our own missile crews, a significant number could not bring themselves to actually launch their missiles when ordered to. I suspect in Russia that number may be higher.

There have also been numerous incidents when both the U.S. and the USSR had sensor glitches that made it appear that one side was attacking the other without warning with hundreds of missiles.  Instead of instantly sending a retaliation strike, those in charge first suspected a computer error and didn’t push the button and end the entire world. They used their heads and didn’t just mindlessly follow orders.

Once again, let’s suspend all disbelief and pretend Putin’s advisors are all down for suicidally ending the world, and not because NATO armies are marching on Moscow and will conquer them, but just because Russian armies are stalled in Ukraine.  And we’ll pretend everyone manning the Russian missiles unquestioningly follows orders to launch their missiles at the U.S, France, Germany, Israel, the UK, North Korea, and China all at once. You may be wondering why China and North Korea get nuked too, right?  Well, Russia will be pretty clobbered by the retaliation strike and they sure aren’t going to let a relatively unscathed China or North Korea to just march in and take over what’s left, are they?  They will have to hit them as well in the hope that enough of Russia remains that they still might have a chance to come out on top in Europe.

They will hit Israel for similar reasons.  It is an ally of the U.S. and Russia would reasonably conclude that Israel might launch their own missile to make sure what’s left of Russia doesn’t come after them next.  Russia gives a lot of help to Israel’s enemies, Tel Aviv knows who side Russia is really on.

The U.S., France, and the UK will all launch their missiles at Russia in retaliation and it will cease to exist as a country, probably half to two-thirds of their population dead and just about everything of value in the country destroyed or so radioactive, it will sizzle and glow for decades.

It almost seems crazier to imagine Putin nuking the world in spite, doesn’t it?  Because it certainly wouldn’t be for any gain.

What if Putin just nuked Ukraine? Just a couple of cities to really make his point?  Just four or five million dead civilians and everyone would back off and let him capture the rest of it without interference, wouldn’t they?

No, they wouldn’t. Russia breaking its long-standing pledge never to use such weapons first, only to use them on a non-nuclear power that it had invaded would also be the end of Russia the same way.  The whole world would serve notice on Russia that if Putin’s head on a platter was not presented on TV in one hour, the world’s nuclear powers would launch on Russia.   To launch a nuclear attack on Ukraine would truly mean Putin and his government were insane and the entire world could never be safe while he lived and held power. Either Russians could do him in within the hour, or we would do in Russia, all of it.

Putin isn’t really “crazy” unless your definition of “crazy” includes everyone whose actions and motive you don’t fully understand. Putin is a cold calculating authoritarian who believes his legacy in Russia, his destiny if you will, it to restore it to its former glory.  He’s actually quite a nationalist when it comes to his country and wants to see it take what he believes is its proper place in the world.  I really don’t think he see’s that place being a smoking, radioactive crater.

If you still want to believe Putin is raving mad anyway, just consider this, a crazy man would have just nuked Ukraine and the whole world on the first day of the conflict.  Putin can’t be crazy enough to start a nuclear war because we gave 29 Migs to Ukraine, but not crazy enough to just nuke the World of just Ukraine on the first day.

Besides, his demands on Ukraine have softened lately and he looks like he’s trying to figure out a way to get out of this mess with his and his country’s dignity and prestige intact before the Russian people, not the West or the rest of the world.  He doesn’t need friends in the cocktail party circuit in DC to stay in power. He doesn’t care if the Russian Ambassador to the UN doesn’t get to sit with the cool kids in the cafeteria. To stay in power, he needs the Russian people behind him.  He knows that.

President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin
President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin during the address “On the conduct of a special military operation” on February 24, 2022 (Kremlin.ruCC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Many dominoes have to be stood up and knocked over before atomic weapons fly. The hyper-alert posture felt during the height of the Cold War has eased considerably(thank God), and nuclear-laden bombers no longer crisscross the skies, waiting for dreaded orders. Minuteman officers aren’t poised with their fingers over the button 24/7/365 anymore.

Mutually Assured Destruction is alive and well in today’s world political climate. The nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia alone are enough to destroy this planet, the Moon, and probably Mercury and Mars if we tried really hard. Add in the arsenals of the rest of the world, and we could probably clear the solar system out to Jupiter. While that’s a bit of exaggeration, it does highlight the lunacy of nuclear warfare.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki stand as reminders of nuclear power in warfare. Had atomic weapons been widespread in 1945, none of us may be here now. The US had the only operational atomic weapons at that point, and we used them to terrible effect but end a war, not to start one. Our use of nuclear weapons may have had a silver lining though in that they showed the world just how truly awful they could be and how limited wars that minimized out-of-control escalations would prevent another world war as we saw begin in 1939.  The numbers killed at Nagasaki and Hiroshima shrink to near insignificance among the more than 60 million people who died in WWII.

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