There Is No Nuclear Sanctions Option
No sanctions threat is likely to deter the use of nuclear weapons
Over at BoomBoomBoom, Jon Wolfsthal has some thoughts about whether economic sanctions could be used to deter Russian use of a nuclear weapon as its fortunes fade in Ukraine. Wolfsthal’s motivations are solid:
What seems to be missing in this debate is a clearer articulation of the non-military ways the United States, Europe and indeed the world would need to respond to any decision to violate the 70 year + nuclear taboo is support of an illegal invasion. To be effective, in combination with other steps the non-military response would need to be global and have such a deep impact on Russia that no one ever seriously considers crossing the threshold in the first place.
Surely, it would be great if, in this one instance, the threat of economic sanctions functioned as Woodrow Wilson originally intended: the “economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy’ that would supplant the use of force in international politics.”
The thing is, the more I think about it the more convinced I am that no articulated sanctions threat will successfully deter Putin from using nuclear weapons.
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First, remember what I wrote on this point last month:
The first way that sanctions failed was as an attempt at deterrence. Putin was informed that if he moved on Ukraine the resulting sanctions would be crippling to the Russian economy. This obviously did not work. One of the reasons it did not work was that the United States had to be deliberately vague about what sanctions would be imposed. The more detail provided in advance, the easier for Moscow to pre-emptively shield assets. It would have been counterproductive, for example, to have told Russia about freezing its central bank assets in advance. Without a full appreciation of the costs of invasion, the deterrent threat was weak.
Now to be fair, I think even Putin would acknowledge that he underestimated what sanctions would be imposed after he invaded Ukraine. He also underestimated the private-sector response. But for any sanctions to be more punishing at this point, they would have to involve China and India being full-throated participants.
As Wolfsthal acknowledges, however:
The challenge is not… in finding things that can be sanctioned, but in trying to determine in advance what steps the United States, Europe and importantly India and China might be willing to adopt should Putin go nuclear…. we have to accept that we will not get a straight answer out of either New Delhi or Beijing due to their decision to remain publicly agnostic and privately committed to Russia even in the wake of its bald aggression and violation of both international law and the UN Charter.
I kinda sorta understand why, even in this area of global significance, Beijing in particular would not want to coordinate policy with the United States or European Union. Even though Beijing does not want to see the use of nuclear weapons, they also would not want NATO governments to know that they delivered this message to Moscow. Because if it was known, then the Americans and Europeans would be even more confident that arms transfers would make a difference in Ukraine’s prosecution of the conflict. The West would have escalation dominance.
Humiliating their one great power ally is not a logical step for Xi Jinping to take. For China, Putin’s nuclear threat might be the one constraint holding back even more Western aid to Ukraine.
Absent Chinese cooperation, would sanctions deter Putin? Again, I doubt it. In any scenario where Putin would use tactical nuclear weapons, he would have to be in a desperate military and political situation. His forces would have to be in full retreat in Ukraine and his domestic political position would be in danger. As I noted in my latest for Vox, prospect theory makes some unfortunate predictions in that scenario: “A central tenet of prospect theory is that individuals will be risk-averse when they are winning, and risk-tolerant when they are losing. In other words, when someone faces a setback relative to the prior status quo, they are more willing to take risks in an effort to ‘gamble for resurrection.’”
If Putin thinks he’s really, really losing, he could escalate from killing civilians with missiles and kamikaze drones to killing them with nuclear weapons. Same high-risk gamble, same bid for resurrection.
I wish I was more optimistic about this option. I’m aware of the work of Michael McFaul’s sanctions working group, it’s just that none of their proposed options seem likely to succeed at deterring rather than punishing Russia.
Economic sanctions are playing an important supporting role in impairing the Russian military from fighting effectively in Ukraine. Expecting anything else from sanctions at this point is futile.