Last week’s emergency NATO summit addressed the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the question left publicly unanswered is this: What would NATO do if the Russians dropped a nuke on Ukraine? Would that be the opening round of World War III?
Russian President Vladimir Putin is stoking fears of his potential use of nuclear weapons, which begs the question: What conditions might lead him to launch a nuke? How might the West then respond?
After Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Putin started using nuclear messaging, signaling his intent to escalate matters to protect his interests. We saw this play out in late February before the Ukraine assault when Putin personally oversaw nuclear exercises and then again just after the assault when he put the nation’s nuclear forces on “highest alert.”
Russia has kept its nuclear messaging deliberately ambiguous. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week, “Putin intends to make the world listen to and understand our concerns.” He said in response to whether Putin might use nuclear weapons that such an action would be “justified if Russia faces an existential threat.”
Putin was less ambiguous when he told Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, who often acts as his de facto interpreter, what he would do if anyone tried to stop him in Ukraine. Niinistö asked him if he would use nuclear weapons. Putin answered, “Terrible things will happen.”
Then, just prior to the NATO summit, media reports indicated that the Biden administration had created a “Tiger Team” to recommend actions should Russia conduct a nuclear strike. Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, said Biden would discuss at the summit “how to deal with the rhetoric and the commentary coming out of Russia on this whole question of the potential use of nuclear weapons.”
Two things are clear. Russia has a giant, modern nuclear arsenal, and its policy on its use and recent messaging are sufficiently ambiguous to allow for almost any outcome.
Russia has the world’s largest nuclear weapons arsenal with an estimated 6,257 warheads. Most pertinent to the Ukraine war are Moscow’s nearly 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads, some of which are deployed atop SS-26 Iskander ballistic missiles now arrayed along Russia’s western frontier facing NATO.
The Kremlin is purposely ambiguous about when Russia might use these warheads. For example, Putin’s 2020 presidential directive on nuclear deterrence claims they would only be used when the homeland is attacked or threatened by a nuclear launch or when a conventional threat jeopardizes Russia’s existence.
So Russia possesses a multitude of nuclear weapons and an ambiguous use strategy. That leaves us to wonder what conditions might prompt Putin to use them in the Ukraine war.
First, the West’s economic sanctions over the invasion threaten Russia’s economy and arguably Putin’s presidency. Financial and domestic pressures could persuade him to believe the regime faces an existential threat and thus justify using nuclear force.
Samuel Charap, a Russia expert at the RAND Corp., indicates economic pain could trigger a violent response. “It is plausible for them to interpret our sanctions as an attempt to fundamentally damage the Russia state and overthrow its government,” Charap said.
There is also the view that Putin believes the sanctions are an effort to destroy his presidency. Olga Oliker with the International Crisis Group warns, “Here we have to ask to what extent Putin feels that ‘d’état, c’est moi,’” which translated means “I myself am the nation.”
Second, Putin might use nuclear weapons if he believes his conventional fight to take Ukraine, which he perceives as Russian territory, might fail. Besides, Russian doctrine extends its sovereign interests to “allies,” including the annexed Crimea and the breakaway provinces in eastern Ukraine.
Third, any perceived direct involvement by NATO forces — like the massing of troops on Russia’s frontier or the resupplying of Ukrainian combatants — might be grounds for Putin to go nuclear. Of course, that’s precisely what NATO is doing.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, “I expect leaders will agree to strengthen NATO’s posture in all domains, with major increases to our forces in the eastern part of the alliance on land, in the air, and at sea.” Already, NATO has announced at least four new battle groups arrayed across Eastern Europe. These forces will likely become permanent, irking Moscow.
No doubt Biden’s “Tiger Team” considered these conditions. So how might we respond if Putin uses a nuclear weapon?
Putin thinks the West is likely to do nothing in response to the launch of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. But, of course, doing nothing would encourage him to move into the Baltics, Poland and Romania.
Alternatively, Biden may respond with nuclear weapons. After all, he said he would defend NATO to the point of World War III. Further, Biden said in Brussels that the U.S. would “respond in kind” to any use of nuclear or chemical weapons. So Putin has two options: Stop further aggression because of potential escalation or launch a full nuclear war.
Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former U.S. Army Europe commander, reflected on Putin’s messaging, saying that the threat to use nuclear weapons “cost him nothing” but that “if they should make the terrible calculation to employ a nuclear weapon, no matter how large or small, it will cost [Putin] and Russia everything.”
Hodges added, “I hope/believe that many of his inner circle will work to prevent this. … I am looking for signs of dissension within the Kremlin as protests in Moscow grow stronger.”
Would Putin use nuclear weapons in Ukraine and thus drag the world into a global war? It’s possible, and given Putin’s messaging, a ready nuclear arsenal and the right conditions, we can’t rule it out.
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