Will the generals obey if Putin orders a nuclear strike?

Russians face the dilemmas of the Third Reich

As Western military strategists play out a possible nuclear escalation by Russian President Vladimir Putin, they are also considering the role insubordination might play. What if Putin gives the order for nuclear strikes, but others in the chain of command refuse to carry it out? Should the US and its allies try to influence these people?

The scenarios where disobedience – from conscientious objection to full-scale rebellion – comes into play are not far-fetched. If Putin must escalate, he will do so with so-called tactical warheads. They are currently in storage and must first be transported to launch sites and installed on rockets. Dozens of officials would have to sign and deliver the order, knowing that Western spy agencies would be watching them every step of the way.

Another potential for defiance looms in Belarus, where the Russians are massing troops again and threatening a new front against Ukraine. In one scenario, Alexander Lukashenko would send his Belarusian forces to fight the Russians against the Ukrainians.

“I’m sure he would have ordered the Belarusian army to take part in this invasion – if he was sure they would fight,” said Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, the exiled leader of the pro-democracy opposition movement in Belarus. But Lukashenko is not sure. Both he and Putin apparently consider mass disobedience within the Belarusian ranks possible.

After Lukashenko stole the last “election” in 2020, huge numbers of Belarusians took to the streets to try to oust him; they also sided with their Ukrainian neighbors in their proclivity for the European Union and freedom. Lukashenko imposed brutal repression. If he now orders his troops to fire on the Ukrainians, they may simply switch sides and fire on the hated dictator’s supporters instead. Or they might flee to fight for Kyiv.

History abounds with precedents for decisive acts of military disobedience – by individuals or entire regiments. During the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, the entire contingent of Saxons fighting for Napoleon suddenly turned on the battlefield and joined the coalition against him. In March 1917, the first of two revolutions in Russia that year began in earnest, when elite units of the Imperial Guard joined the demonstrators.

Especially in the nuclear context, even one person can be decisive. Stanislav Petrov was the officer on duty early one morning in 1983 when the Soviet Union’s computers detected incoming nuclear missiles from the United States. He has orders to strike back immediately. Acting on a hunch — he later says he estimated the odds at 50-50 — he instead decides the worry was a mistake. For several horrifying seconds, he stares at the remote where the fire button is flashing. He doesn’t push it. Nor did he report the concern to his superiors. By disobeying, he saves the world.

Individual soldiers must make such conscientious decisions all the time, even when the stakes are not nuclear. In 2011, two Libyan Arab Republic Air Force colonels were ordered to bomb civilians in Benghazi. Instead, they turned their Mirage F1 planes around and landed in Malta, where they claimed asylum. Two days later, the pilot and co-pilot of another plane received the same order. They ejected and let their plane crash.

The tension between blind obedience and disobedience is as old as organized warfare. Senior leaders understandably fear any break in the chain of command – it could lead to a breakdown in discipline, order, and the ability to conduct war. But slave performance is worse. The Germans who carried out the Holocaust later claimed that they were “simply following orders”. Neither the judges of the Nuremberg trial nor the world accepts this excuse. Drawing a direct lesson, postwar Germany today regards disobedience in certain circumstances as a soldier’s duty, not as disobedience to orders.

Russians in the era of Putin must ask themselves questions similar to the dilemmas faced by Germans during the Third Reich. What is their role in their country’s crimes? How much will they allow themselves to know? Will they stand up when it counts? Will they refuse to obey when they have to? Those who do may just save the world.

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