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If worst comes to worst Experts say Putin going nuclear can’t be ruled out — and that the U.S. shouldn’t respond in kind if he does
Russia’s military doctrine relies heavily on nuclear weapons — but less on their use itself than on the ability they give Moscow to put pressure on opponents. It’s difficult to judge whether that’s what Putin is doing when he hints at his willingness to launch a nuclear strike in Ukraine, and it's even harder to guess exactly what he would target if he did. But there are a few things most experts agree on: first, that the risk of Russia using nuclear weapons is currently low but not zero, and second, that Moscow hasn’t begun preparations to launch a nuclear strike yet, because if it had, Western intelligence agencies would almost certainly know. Meduza takes a look at what nuclear weapons experts have said about the odds of Russia pushing the red button — and what the West should do if it does.
What do experts know about Russia’s nuclear strategy?
In short: Even people who have spent years studying Russia’s nuclear weapons strategy acknowledge that there’s little they can say for certain about it. The problem is that nuclear powers intentionally try to mislead each other about their true plans for various scenarios, while the world’s experience with the use of nuclear weapons is limited to the U.S. strikes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Details: Most documentation regarding Russia’s weapons and strategic plans, including its policies for nuclear weapons use, is classified. The unclassified information we have is limited to:
- Certain official documents, including the Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence; Russia’s National Security Strategy for 2009–2020; and Russia’s Military Doctrine;
- The fairly extensive literature published by Russian academics, which analyzes theoretical possibilities for using nuclear weapons;
- Classified documents from Western intelligence agencies, which occasionally leak to the media;
- Studies based on war games that model the behavior of military opponents in various escalatory scenarios.
The Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence is the most important publicly available document on Russia’s nuclear weapons policy. Only six pages long, the text lays out the conditions under which Russia would potentially use nuclear weapons. If Russia uses a nuclear weapon, according to the document, it will be in one of two cases:
- A retaliatory nuclear strike
- A nuclear response to a non-nuclear war, defined as “aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of regular weapons, when the existence of the state itself is threatened.” The document doesn’t provide details about how to determine whether a threat qualifies, leaving wide room for interpretation.
In any case, the decision to use nuclear weapons must be made by the Russian president.
Outside of official sources, academic papers published by Russian military theorists may reflect, to some degree, the nuclear strategy that forms the basis for other, confidential documents on Russia’s nuclear policies.
In 2020, American military analysts Michael Kofman, Anya Loukianova Fink, and Jeffrey Edmonds conducted a systematic analysis of more than 700 publications dedicated to deterrence strategies and produced an extensive report about how Russian military leaders imagine a theoretical case of nuclear weapons use. At the same time, the authors acknowledge that drawing conclusions from the documents officially published by the Russian government requires extreme care as these texts are often written primarily with potential opponents in mind and are intended to hide more than they reveal.
In what case would Russia be most likely to use nuclear weapons?
In short: We don’t know.
Details: In their analysis, Kofman and his coauthors tell the origin story of modern Russia’s nuclear doctrine. In the 1980s, Soviet leaders and military strategists were met with a challenge in the form of the “precision revolution,” or the invention of satellite navigation and the development of digital technology in the West.
The Russian authorities started to worry about the possibility of a massive aerospace attack in which the U.S. would use long-range high-precision weapons, electronic warfare systems, and tactical and long-range aviation — all launched from U.S. territory. By the mid-2000s, the Russian authorities’ main fear was the risk of a prolonged air campaign capable of paralyzing the Russian Armed Forces and doing unacceptable damage to critical infrastructure in the country. In response to this threat, Russia developed a modern deterrence strategy in which nuclear weapons play a key role, the analysts write.
Because the U.S. was now capable of doing unacceptable damage with conventional weapons and achieving victory with high-precision weapons at the start of a war, Moscow’s response would have to involve a “deterrence ladder” with multiple rungs as well as flexibility in its conventional and nuclear options for managing escalation. Thus, unlike American strategists, Russia strategists now expect that any war between the world’s largest nuclear powers would include use of nuclear weapons. Soviet strategists also thought this, although modern Russian strategists, unlike their Soviet predecessors, don’t believe the limited use of nuclear weapons will necessarily lead to uncontrolled escalation. In fact, they think the calibrated and balanced use of conventional and nuclear weapons is not only realistic but can also be a key deterrent. According to Kofman, this approach isn’t one Russia's military would be excited to implement, but they do view it as a possible necessary measure.
If Russian leaders decide to use nuclear weapons, what will they target?
In short: We don’t know this, either. Some experts are inclined to believe they would launch a demonstrative strike in an unpopulated area, while others think they’d be more likely to strike a major military target in the theater of operations. Finding a suitable target, however, will be difficult.
Details: What experts do agree on is that the main goal of a hypothetical first nuclear strike would be to demonstrate Russia’s determination to use nuclear weapons, which fully complies with Russia’s nuclear doctrine.
Theoretically, Russia could demonstrate its resolve without causing any casualties by launching a strike in an uninhabited area. Kofman and a number of other experts have written about this possibility. Former U.S. Undersecretary of State and NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller considers this the most likely possibility: in her view, “a single strike over the Black Sea, or perhaps a strike at a Ukrainian military facility” would “strike terror not only into the hearts of the Ukrainians," but also Ukraine’s allies.
On the other hand, British historian and foreign policy expert Lawrence Freedman argued in a recent article that a strike on uninhabited territory is less likely because it would send an ambiguous signal:
The problem with a demonstration is that the message may be unclear. It will show that Russia is ready to ignore the strong normative prohibition on any nuclear use yet is still cautious on making the most of the explosive power.
And indeed, if Russia’s leadership decides a demonstrative strike on a deserted area isn’t enough, they have plenty of other options to choose from, as Anya Fink and Michael Kofman have outlined:
Political, economic, and military-related targets often include nonnuclear power plants, administrative centers (political), civilian airports, roads and rail bridges, ports, key economic objects related to livelihood, important components of the defense-industrial complex, and sources of mass media and information. Military targets tend to include command and control centers; space-based assets; key communication nodes; systems for reconnaissance, targeting, navigation, and information processing; and targets where means of delivery for ballistic or cruise missiles are based.
But experts are split about how effective a tactical nuclear strike on a military target could be.
Russia has a wide range of options for conducting nonstrategic nuclear attacks by using one or more of the thousands of low-yield, battlefield nuclear weapons it already possesses. Russia could employ such nuclear weapons in a limited way against Ukrainian forces, bases, logistics hubs, and even cities. Such a strike could [...] deal a crippling blow to the Ukrainian military.
Caitlin Talmadge, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University, holds a similar view: in a recent analysis for the Washington Post, she noted that Russia’s nonstrategic nuclear weapons arsenal “looks tailor-made to break up large concentrations of Ukrainian forces — the type, for instance, that could threaten to take back Russian-held territory near Kherson in the south just as they have recently done around Kharkiv in the east.”
Freedman disagrees. Unlike the wars of the last century, he argues, the current war in Ukraine has not been characterized by large-scale accumulations of troops, and thus it wouldn’t do Russia much good to use a nuclear weapon:
Consider an account (from a Russian source) about the offensive in Kherson. It notes that the Ukrainians have made their impact by messing with the Russian supply lines while advancing not by armoured thrusts (unlike Kharkiv) but instead by using small groups of infantry ‘creeping’ forward over watery ground, for this is an area cut through by irrigation canals. Finding a useful target for nuclear use in such circumstances would be difficult, and, given how little it might achieve, a strange way to start a nuclear war. Moscow has shown no great care for the populations of Luhansk and Donetsk, but as their liberation is supposedly at the heart of Russian war aims it would also be strange to mark this by nuclear detonations.
How would the U.S. and other countries react to a Russian nuclear strike?
In short: Once again, we don’t know for sure. The response would most likely be asymmetrical, meaning NATO would not use nuclear force.
Details: Since the start of the full-scale war, U.S. representatives have repeatedly spoken publicly about the consequences that might ensue if Russia uses nuclear weapons. In an interview on September 17, U.S. President Joe Biden addressed Putin with a clear piece of advice: “Don’t, don’t, don’t. You’ll change the face of war.”
Every warning the U.S. and its allies have given so far has been vague about what exactly would follow a Russian nuclear strike. Judging from analyses by nuclear security experts, this is an intentional strategy that gives the West room to maneuver without requiring it to commit a certain response.
Along with public warnings and calls for Russia not to use nuclear weapons, the U.S. and its allies have the ability to deliver more specific messages through closed channels — something that’s happened multiple times since the start of the war, White House sources told the Financial Times. Because they’re not public, however, these signals carry less weight.
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In an open letter to Joe Biden, nuclear weapons expert Matthew Kroenig listed possible ways the U.S. could respond if Putin launches a nuclear strike. According to Kroenig, the U.S. could either:
- Intensify its current policy (sanctions, providing weapons to Ukraine, etc.) or
- Launch a retaliatory strike.
If the U.S. launches a retaliatory, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a nuclear one. In fact, Kroenig says, a retaliatory nuclear strike would carry too high a risk of uncontrollable escalation. Thus, he concludes, the optimal response would be “an intensification of ongoing efforts to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine and a limited conventional strike against the Russian forces or bases that launched the nuclear attack.”
Almost all experts agree that the U.S. and its allies should not respond to a Russian nuclear strike with another nuclear strike. Former Senator and Nuclear Threat Initiative co-founder Sam Nunn, for example, told The Atlantic that he believes an American nuclear strike should be used only as a last resort, and that horizontal escalation is a safer path. As the Atlantic’s Eric Schlosser described Nunn’s view:
For example, if Russia hits Ukraine with a nuclear cruise missile launched from a ship, Nunn would advocate immediately sinking that ship. The number of Ukrainian casualties should determine the severity of the American response—and any escalation should be conducted solely with conventional weapons.
The other experts Schlosser spoke with made similar arguments. Former Biden adviser Colin Kahl believes “it would be far more effective to respond with a conventional attack and turn world opinion against Russia for violating the nuclear taboo,” as Schlosser put it, and former U.S. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry agreed: “You want to go as little up the escalation ladder as you can get away with doing and still have a profound and relevant effect.”
Are there any signs that Russia has already made a decision on whether to use a nuclear weapon?
Judging by reports in reputable outlets citing Western intelligence findings (and the lack thereof), the answer is no.
- Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence
- Russia’s National Security Strategy for 2009–2020
- Russia’s Military Doctrine
- Kofman M., Fink A., Edmonds J. Russian Strategy for Escalation Management: Evolution of Key Concepts. — CNS, 2020.
- Kofman M., Fink A. L. Escalation management and nuclear employment in Russian military strategy //War on the Rocks. — 2020. — Т. 23.
- Мунтяну А. В., Печатнов Ю. А. Проблемные методологические вопросы разработки механизма силового стратегического сдерживания //Стратегическая стабильность. — 2010. — №. 3.
- Eric Schlosser, What If Russia Uses Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine?//The Atlantic
- Matthew Kroenig, Memo to the President//Atlantic Council
- Lawrence Freedman, Going Nuclear//Substack
- Andreas Kluth, A Decision Tree for Biden If Putin Goes Nuclear//The Washington Post
- Caitlin Talmadge, Why Russiaʼs mobilization may lower the risk of nuclear war//The Washington Post
- Paul Sonne, John Hudson,U.S. has sent private warnings to Russia against using a nuclear weapon//The Washington Post
- Jake Sullivan, Kyivʼs western allies boost nuclear deterrence after Putinʼs threats//Financial Times
- David E. Sanger, Jim Tankersley, U.S. Warns Russia of «Catastrophic Consequences» if It Uses Nuclear Weapons//The New Yourk Times
- Максим Сторчак, Путин правда может применить ядерное оружие? Его хоть что-то может остановить? И что будет, если случится самое страшное? // «Медуза»
- Michael Kofman, Ryan Evans, Russiaʼs Plan To Stay In The War //War on the Rocks Podcast
- NATO warns Russia of «severe consequences» in case of a nuclear strike // Reuters
- Podvig, Pavel. «Itʼs Understandable That a Few Recent Developments Again Made People Worry Again about Nuclear Use. I Donʼt Have a Crystal Ball, but There Are a Few Things to Consider. and They Seem to Suggest That We Are Still at Least a Few Steps Away from That Point. 1/11.» Twitter, Twitter, 27 Sept. 2022, .
- FREDERICK B. et al. Pathways to Russian Escalation Against NATO from the Ukraine War. — 2022.
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