Russia's latest ICBM test prompts new questions about Vladimir Putin's willingness to use nuclear weapons

Russia's latest ICBM test prompts new questions about Vladimir Putin's willingness to use nuclear weapons
Russian President Vladimir Putin in May 2021, Wikimedia

Russia tested a new "heavy" Intercontinental Ballistic Missile on Wednesday in what was intended to be a provocative warning to the West about its support of Ukraine.

The Sarmat ICBM is the latest addition to Moscow's arsenal – which is already the world's largest – and can carry a payload of at least ten atomic warheads at once, according to reporting by Reuters.

"Sarmat is the most powerful missile with the longest range of destruction of targets in the world, which will significantly increase the combat power of our country's strategic nuclear forces," the Russian Ministry of Defense said in a statement. It confirmed that the projectile was launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Northwest Russia and struck a target in the Kamchatka Peninsula 3,500 miles to the East, per The New York Times.

The paper noted that Sarmat would only be included in Russia's array “after the completion of the testing program."

Russian President Vladimir Putin also boasted about the test.

"The new complex has the highest tactical and technical characteristics and is capable of overcoming all modern means of anti-missile defense. It has no analogs in the world and won't have for a long time to come," he said in a televised address. "This truly unique weapon will strengthen the combat potential of our armed forces, reliably ensure Russia's security from external threats and provide food for thought for those who, in the heat of frenzied aggressive rhetoric, try to threaten our country."

Putin has flexed his nuclear stockpile on several occasions since he invaded Ukraine on February 24th. Three days later, he issued an order placing his forces on a "special regime of combat duty." So far, though, there have been no signs that the Kremlin is preparing to cross the nuclear threshold as Russia's battered forces continue their assaults on Ukraine.

In the weeks that have followed, experts and insiders have debated the likelihood of Putin using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. While most believe that such a scenario is remote – given the risk it would pose to Russia and human civilization – others disagree.

On Wednesday, David Lingelbach, a professor of entrepreneurship at The University of Baltimore, wrote in The Hill that the chances of Putin pushing the button may not be as remote as people think.

Lingelbach argued that Putin shares traits with French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte that are "useless and self-betraying," and posited, "what is the point of Putin’s career, if the result is Russia’s diminishment?"

Putin and Bonaparte "are alike in another way," Lingelbach continued. "Putin has won so far because his opponents have allowed him to. Because Putin’s Russia has terrified the world. And the apotheosis of that terror is the prospect that Putin may use nuclear weapons, against Ukraine" or targets inside the borders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

A strike against NATO – especially a nuclear one, however unlikely – would certainly trigger a devastating response. But Putin's "actions cannot be predicted. He is a master of uncertainty. He cannot be read, and nuclear strategy does not take account of such actors as Putin," Lingelbach explained.

Putin "may not be irrational, but he leans into the uncertainty that nuclear deterrence has sought to calculate away. He is not a creature of the deterrence world," added Lingelbach. "He is a revolutionary actor."

So how worried should the world be? Lingelbach lists two crucial factors to consider.

First, Putin "doesn’t accept the rational calculus of nuclear deterrence," Lingelbach pointed out, "because uncertainty — the 'sine qua non' of all war — is his friend. Because the West — and NATO in particular — remains caught in a mode of thought that tries to take the uncertainty out of war. So, the adversaries — Putin and the West — have fundamentally different ways of seeing the conflict and how it would unfold."

Second, "the world is tragic," Lingelbach cautioned. "Societies go to war with one another over irreconcilable worldviews, like those between Putin and the West. Tragedies have their own rhythm and don’t necessarily march to a deterrence beat."

Lingelbach concluded that the most viable way to prevent atomic Armageddon may be for both sides to exercise humility.

Ensuring "a tragic outcome, but a survivable one" is a far better option than the alternative, Lingelbach noted, "before Putin decides to take the next step into uncertainty and use nukes. And ends the world that we know forever. Before we go from tragedy to the apocalypse."

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