The foreign policy establishment has been abuzz in recent days with the reiteration of Putin’s threat to use weapons of mass destruction. This is not because the threats were new or substantial, it was because it came during a time under which Putin’s war aims are distant, and he may feel politically threatened.
We can take a page out of realism’s book while also highlighting its critical flaw, the focus on state survival treating regimes as monoliths with their own set of “state interests” in mind, which in the era of flourishing one-man dictatorships, is unrealistic. Putin has shown that securing his own “legacy,” or perhaps more realistically circling the wagons to protect his own political future and purge dissident ideologies and their supporters, is the aim of the Russian state now even as the war has fundamentally undermined the security and future of the Russian Federation itself.
Instead of state survival, which as a nuclear power faces far more threats from destabilization and breakaway republics than any external actor, we can assume that the goal of Putin instead is regime survival first, even at the expense of the state or the world, since the alternative is likely his prosecution and ultimately death.
As such, for a cornered animal, the possibility of nuclear retaliation should not be discounted, though is unlikely for a number of reasons. It is true that with a sparsely populated shelled out wasteland such as Donetsk and Luhansk, a nuclear weapon would not do damage on a scale significantly different than would conventional weapons. Further, while the war has threatened civilian areas and caused devastation to cities, Putin has so far not indicated a willingness to accept the consequences of blatantly inflicting the significant loss of civilian life that would be consequent to their use in populated areas. This would also come with the likelihood of significant escalation from NATO and European states who would fear the fallout. It may also ultimately mean that other “neutral” states who have looked the other way as Putin violated the UN charter may finally find their red lines crossed with the first use of nuclear weapons in war since WWII.
This is an issue of efficacy, but also of attribution, since there would be almost no way of denying the use of nuclear weapons.
This, however, does not preclude the potential use of other weapons of mass destruction, primarily bioweapons. As the primary successor state to the Soviet Union, Russia maintains stockpiles of all of the worst pathogens of the last century, including being one of the only holders of surviving active smallpox virus.
A bioweapons release in combat areas targeting the Ukrainian ranks would be devastating, and difficult to detect or control amidst an active war. The secondary effects would also be much more likely to spread within Ukraine than in Russia, and especially amongst those closest to soldiers. The transmission chain would likely then travel to Europe through those NATO suppliers that are in contact with those soldiers, meaning that the entire opposing regime may be affected. For a disease that is already endemic to disaster areas, such a particularly virulent strain of genetically modified COVID-19, or even an older disease such as Typhoid, Meningitis, or Polio, provable attribution would be virtually impossible, giving Russia significant military and social advantages in their invasion effort without ever having to face the international consequences of such actions.
No single autocrat should ever be in possession of such capabilities. The lesson that should be taken is the absolute importance of non-proliferation of such weapons, as a dictator on his last legs may launch retaliatory action that could devastate millions, rather than face defeat. This becomes even more clear as the Ayatollah of Iran has begun using his own military to commit mass murder against its own people, rather than face calls for reform. Yet, the world is in talks with the very same regime, offering them sanctions relief in exchange for reducing their own Uranium stockpiles, even as they delay the negotiating process as experts claim they are weeks away from breakout.
Not only is irresponsible control of such weapons dangerous to neighboring states, it threatens the entire international order when dictators in states like Russia have essential impunity because of their nuclear status.
After the destabilization caused by North Korea, if the world does nothing once again and allows another rogue state controlled by a megalomaniacal dictator to nuclearize, non-proliferation is likely dead, and the consequences for this may come to haunt us in a very similar fashion in the future when history inevitably repeats itself.