In October 2016, when Russian President Vladimir Putin declared, “Brandishing nuclear weapons is the last thing to do,” few took him seriously. After all, he had frequently brandished his country’s nuclear weapons for more than the previous two years, starting with his 2014 rhetorical victory dance after his successful takeover of Crimea.
Then there was the 2015 news story seen one-time-only on a Russian national TV network detailing plans for underwater drones carrying nuclear warheads to not just “strike important enemy economic facilities in coastal areas,” but create “zones of extensive radioactive contamination unfit for military, economic or other activity for a long period of time.” Those quotes are from the script of the report.
The Kremlin called putting the story on the air a “mistake,” because it revealed “secrets,” which pretty much endorsed the content. And, a story of this nature would have been examined and scrubbed half a dozen times before getting to air. This description of nuclear devastation was no mistake, it was a brandish.
Putin’s moratorium on nuclear bluster lasted less than two years. By 2018, he was back to brandishing Russia’s “invincible” nuclear arsenal as part of the music of a Military Day Parade.
So it’s time to reconsider Putin’s statement, “Brandishing nuclear weapons,” he said, “is the last thing to do.” But, at the last, it’s something you could do.
So, Putin’s brashest brandish yet, his February 27 order putting “Russia’s deterrence forces to a special regime of combat duty” came from a guy who knows a defeat in Ukraine will be his last. A cornered rat with nuclear weapons.
Joseph Cirincione is a distinguished fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, D.C. He previously served for over 12 years as the president of the Ploughshares Fund, a public grant-making foundation focused on nuclear nonproliferation and conflict resolution.
Cirincione was appointed president of Ploughshares Fund on March 5, 2008. He retired from the position on July 1, 2020. He joined the Quincy Institute as a non-resident fellow in September 2020, and is adjunct faculty at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.
He is the author or editor of seven books, including Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late (Columbia University Press, 2013), Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons (Columbia University Press, 2007) and Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats (Carnegie Endowment, second edition 2006) and the co-author of Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security  (Carnegie Endowment, 2005). Cirincione is also the author of over eight hundred articles and reports on defense and national security.