As the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolds, Vladimir Putin has raised the specter of using nuclear weapons to achieve his goals several times. On February 24—the day Russia launched its assault on Ukraine—Putin threatened any interfering parties with consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history,” a statement widely interpreted as a nuclear threat. On February 27, Putin “a special combat duty regime in the Russian army’s deterrence forces.” On March 1, Russia’s Northern Fleet said that several of its nuclear submarines were involved in exercises designed to “train maneuvering in stormy conditions,” while the Russian defense ministry said that mobile nuclear missile launchers had dispersed in Siberia to practice secret deployments.
Much of the commentary regarding Putin’s possible use of nuclear weapons suggests that such use would occur in the case of a real or misperceived NATO or US intervention to support the Ukrainian side. Others have suggested that Russian nuclear use could occur out of Putin’s frustration that the invasion has not proceeded more smoothly.
But there is at least one additional scenario that has not been discussed widely—a use that would harm no one and destroy nothing, but nevertheless demonstrate Russian seriousness and resolve. Russia has several thousand nuclear weapons—more than enough to “waste” a low-yield nuclear weapon in an explosion over the Black Sea or the North Atlantic that kills only fish and releases minimal radioactivity into the environment. The intent of such a demonstration would not be to reverse an impending defeat of Russian forces or to prevent foreign military intervention, but to influence Western nations to pressure Ukraine to give up its resistance to Russian forces.
The reasoning behind a demonstration explosion would be something like this: Ukraine would be unable to resist Russian forces without significant assistance and support from the NATO allies, and cutting off those lines of assistance would make Russian victory much easier and quicker. Putin has gone out of his way to signal to the allies the importance of Ukraine to Russia, but he may feel that they have not paid adequate attention to those signals. To get their attention and to communicate clearly and unambiguously, it might make sense to Putin to point to Moscow’s most powerful capabilities—its nuclear weapons.
If Putin did undertake a demonstration of the sort described, what should the United States and the NATO allies do? Moving to a higher level of nuclear alert for US forces would be appropriate, indicating to Putin that the United States is not indifferent to his nuclear brandishing. The United States and other nations could condemn the detonation as a violation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 rather than treating it as part of a military operation. But beyond such actions, continuing to support Ukraine without an actual kinetic response, either nuclear or conventional, would be the West’s best chance to avert even more serious escalation without surrendering to Putin’s demands.
Many would characterize such a response as doing nothing, and the political pressures to “do something” would be quite intense, to say the least. The actual explosion of a nuclear device, even if non-lethal, would be reported around the world and could be expected (not unreasonably) to generate huge amounts of public concern and anxiety. Under these circumstances, it is entirely conceivable that large parts of Western citizenry would begin to question whether solidarity and support for Ukraine were worth further risks of nuclear war. Others would insist on a muscular response, perhaps with US nuclear weapons, and setting into motion pressures for further escalation. In either case, such pressures could well derail what has been a steady and consistent allied response.
We live in crazy and dangerous times. The cognizant nuclear authorities in the United States and other Western nuclear powers should be thinking about a full range of possibilities as the Ukraine crisis unfolds—not just how to respond in various contingencies, but also how to resist temptations and political pressures to do unwise things. In addition, the operational transparency of US and allied forces should be maximized, and existing lines of communication (e.g., military-to-military active-duty and retired, informal non-government “Track II” communicators) reinforced as soon as possible. Last, the prospect of deep international isolation and condemnation could serve as a deterrent to first nuclear use for a Russian leader that craves respect above all else. Thus, it would make sense to start to assemble a global consensus on this point.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy estimated the odds of war between the United States and the Soviet Union at somewhere between one-in-three and one-in-two. From a risk perspective, I believe we could be at about five or 10 percent of the Cuban Missile Crisis risk level. Still, that I am measuring the current situation against the event that was the closest that the world has ever come to global nuclear war is a stark reminder of the stakes involved. We should all hug our loved ones a little longer whenever we get the chance today, even as we hope that wise heads prevail in not going down the nuclear path in the first place.
Editor’s note: This piece is part of a collection of commentary and analysis by Bulletin Science and Security Board members on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The full collection can be found here.
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