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Early Warnings

A Cornered Putin Is Capable of Anything

As the desperate strongman’s outlook turns apocalyptic, Biden faces the challenge of keeping the U.S. out of Russia’s sewer of violence.

Contributor/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts a ceremony with Ukrainian separatist leaders.

When we think of nuclear bombs, we think, naturally, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki first and secondarily the kind of hypothetical nuclear Armageddon—goodbye, New York, adios, Moscow—that Hollywood has regularly served up over the last 60 years. (By the way, the most underrated nuclear Armageddon movie of all time? Miracle Mile from 1988—it has 91 percent from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but it got a very pissy Times review, and in those days, that was that.)

But nukes, like people, come in many shapes and sizes. The bombs we dropped on Japan were about 15 kilotons, with a severe damage zone of about three-quarters of a mile radiating out in all directions from the impact point. A three-kiloton weapon, for example, would have a severe impact zone of about one-fifth that, or one-seventh of a mile. That’s about 250 yards—radiating out in all directions, that is, so the severe damage area would extend 500 yards from point to point. If you’re a golfer, think of a typical par five. If you’re not, try this: A typical Manhattan block, from one numbered street to the next, is 264 feet, so 500 yards would cover six blocks—41st Street to 47th Street, say. And roughly one and a half avenue-to-avenue blocks, which are about 1,000 feet.

What’s my point here? That to a madman like Vladimir Putin, a “small” nuclear device is probably entirely thinkable. If one fell on Rockefeller Center, it wouldn’t do a thing to Times Square. What’s the big deal, world? And can’t you already hear Tucker Carlson saying all this?

This is the scenario that terrifies me. Putin uses a tactical nuclear device that doesn’t kill all that many people (about 70,000 died immediately in Hiroshima, so a small bomb would mean considerably fewer deaths) but nevertheless breaks the nuclear taboo. The Biden administration feels it has to respond in some dramatic way. This seems the morally right thing to do. But … war with Russia? Over a country that isn’t even a NATO ally and that, let’s face it, most Americans don’t give enough of a crap about to get into a prolonged conflict on its behalf?

I worry that public opinion would not support a response. Especially if Putin uses a smallish weapon whose destruction is “limited.” What Americans increasingly want, and not unreasonably, is for the United States to take the lead in trying to negotiate a settlement. A Data for Progress poll conducted recently for the Quincy Institute found that 57 percent of respondents think the U.S. should pursue a diplomatic solution, even if it means that Ukraine needs to cede some territory. And by 47 to 41 percent, more people think further U.S. aid should be contingent on involvement in diplomacy.

I (kind of) agree. But Putin doesn’t. A guy who held a rally like the one he presided over in Red Square last week and gave the kind of unhinged speech he gave is not interested in diplomacy. He feinted toward negotiation last Friday, but on terms he knew were completely unacceptable to Ukraine. Hey, I’ve stolen $10,000 from you. How about we negotiate what fraction I give back?

Robert Farley, who writes at, posted a column over the weekend describing how difficult any negotiations, if they ever happen, are going to be. He notes that there are four different types of territories to negotiate over: occupied by Russia but not annexed; occupied and annexed (as happened last Friday); annexed by Russia but occupied by Ukraine; annexed or occupied by Russia back in 2014. Farley concludes: “Further Ukrainian success in category 1 could make negotiations easier, while further success in categories 2 and 4 will make negotiations more difficult.”

Can the Biden administration get the parties to the table? It’s unlikely that the Kremlin would respond favorably. Tell me if you think a guy who talks like this seems eager to negotiate: “We hear them say that the West upholds the rules-based order, but where do these rules come from? Those are ravings and plain cheating, double or triple standards intended for fools. Russia is a great country with a 1,000-year history, an entire civilization, and it won’t live according to those forged, fake rules.”

So I guess the fighting will continue. There’s now good cause to think Ukraine can win this war. There are some surprising reasons why, as well: Along with Russia’s evidently piss-poor training of its frontline soldiers, it turns out that having a military that is more representative of the nation it is defending is likelier to win wars. Dartmouth professor Jason Lyall published a book in 2020, Divided Armies, that sifted through historical evidence and found that nations that draw frontline soldiers from populations treated as second-class citizens (because they’re in an ethnic minority, say) tend to lose wars, and armies that have less such prewar inequality tend to win them.

Also, a RAND Corporation study of diversity in military branches in the U.S. and the United Kingdom found that diversity brings decided battlefield advantages. Ukraine’s army is 22 percent female. By contrast, only 4 percent of the Russian army are women (the U.S. number is 16 percent). And while the Russian army is ethnically diverse, there are reports that most Russian casualties are poor ethnic minorities from the outer oblasts. Putin may be a tough guy, but these facts appear to matter more on the battlefield than how many people a leader can have thrown out of windows.

So maybe Ukraine can … just win, baby. Maybe there are forces in the Kremlin who are very unhappy with where Putin is taking Russia and are plotting to bring him down and sue for peace. Russia’s gross domestic product is contracting by about 3 percent this year, and the Biden administration unveiled a raft of new sanctions last Friday. A prominent Moscow newspaper has editorialized against a nuclear attack. Putin is making China uneasy. Maybe the world will yet be saved from his brinksmanship.

On the other hand, a cornered animal does desperate things. If Putin takes the ultimate step, the U.S. and the world have to find a way to take a stand without letting Putin drag the world down into his sewer of violence. But as we’ve learned domestically in dealing with Donald Trump, madmen who’ll do anything aren’t easy to counter.