As the Cold War sputtered to an end and the Soviet Union imploded, American policymakers were concerned with one thing above all others: securing the giant arsenal of nuclear weapons that Moscow controlled. The Bush administration’s biggest fear was that control over the stockpile would become a casualty of a disintegrating empire defined by national and ethnic feuds. It was terrified of “Yugoslavia with nuclear weapons,” as one official put it.
When Russian leader Vladimir Putin put his country’s nuclear forces on high alert at the end of February, he showed why the world must still be frightened of the Kremlin’s weapons. The prospect of Moscow using weapons of mass destruction (that much-abused term) in Ukraine is horrifying. To date, Russia’s aggression has already led to one million refugees fleeing Ukraine, and the United Nations predicts that 10 million Ukrainians will be displaced. Thousands may have been killed. A nuclear device explosion in Eastern Europe would exponentially increase the toll of suffering, devastating the Eurasian landscape like nothing since Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of World War II.
But would Putin actually commit such a horrifying deed? How would that even look? And how would the United States and NATO respond if it did? “Putin must also understand that the Atlantic alliance is a nuclear alliance,” France’s Foreign Minister gravely intoned last month. The potential for a nuclear war seems so surreally devastating that it’s tempting to ignore the possibility. But the longer the war drags on, the higher the chances that Russia would use the world’s cruelest weapons. It’s time to imagine the worst.
Scholars debate why no country has used nuclear weapons since 1945. After all, nine countries possess them, including North Korea, China, India, and Pakistan. The political scientist Nina Tannenwald has fashioned one of the most intriguing theories: She suggested a global taboo is in place against the use of nuclear weapons. That seems reassuring in a sense because it means countries have been civilized enough to exercise self-restraint for more than 75 years. But the flip side is that the only thing keeping humans from using nuclear weapons is the moral choices of human beings. Like Vladimir Putin.
The good news is that most experts believe Putin will not use nukes. “There is not a significant risk at this point,” says Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. He says this not because he has faith in the decency of Russia’s leader but because “there are not significant changes on the ground for really doing that.”
Lynn Rusten, a former White House staffer now at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit, points out that Russia is already pursuing an ambitious assault on Ukraine using more traditional methods. “It seems unimaginable that Russia would use nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” she says. “There would be no reason for it.” Russia’s conventional forces are far stronger than Ukraine’s.
If Putin chose to use such weapons, they would not materialize out of thin air. Russia is estimated to have somewhere between 1,600 and 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, which have a shorter range and smaller impact and are designed to be used on battlefields. Now some experts say that the idea that any nuclear weapons can have a predictable, containable influence is wrong-headed. In 2018, for instance, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he didn’t think any such thing as a tactical nuke existed. “Any nuclear weapon used any time is a strategic game-changer,” he said. Pavel Podvig, senior researcher at the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research, agrees, saying that using any type of nuclear weapon would cross a high threshold and radically change the global security environment. “They would be irresponsible, dangerous, criminal, no matter what the military justification,” he says.
But if Putin decided to use nuclear weapons, they would almost surely be tactical weapons, wielded as part of an at least theoretically limited nuclear deployment. If he were pursuing that course of action, Kristensen says, there would be evidence in the form of movement from the nuclear storage sites to units closer to Ukraine, and the activation of custodial sites. Perhaps Russia might detonate a nuclear weapon over the Black Sea, a kind of intermediary step that doesn’t kill lots of people but would shock the world.
It’s difficult to know exact details of Russia’s stockpile, given its lack of transparency. Larry Korb, with the Center for American Progress, says that any tactical weapon “is still pretty powerful.” One that was detonated over New York City, for example, would destroy the city, while a full strategic nuclear weapon would destroy the entire state.
Putin’s mere mention of nuclear weapons, putting his forces on high alert, is hazardous. “There is always the danger of inadvertent escalation,” says Podvig. Missteps are possible, and signals can be misinterpreted. A tactical nuclear weapon that is incoming looks pretty indistinguishable from any other kind of nuclear weapon. “You don’t know it’s a ‘tac’ until it hits,” says Korb, an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. That’s another reason to fear Putin’s deployment of a tactical nuke would lead to the West retaliating.
For this reason, how the West in general and the U.S. in particular respond to Putin’s provocations is key. The Biden administration has remained notably blunt in shutting down any talk about using nukes. When a reporter asked the president if Americans should be worried about nuclear weapons, he responded with one word: “No.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki had more to say afterward: “Neither the United States nor NATO has any desire or intention for conflict with Russia. We think provocative rhetoric like this regarding nuclear weapons is dangerous, adds to the risk of miscalculation, should be avoided, and we will not indulge in it.”
The U.S. has made it clear that it is unwilling to get involved militarily in Russia’s war. On Friday, NATO rejected Ukraine’s requests to establish a no-fly zone, since that would significantly increase the chances of a wider war with a country that possesses the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. Rusten praises the Biden administration’s forthrightness in criticizing any talk of nuclear weapons by Russia or anyone else. “They’ve been very smart in calling out the Russians,” she says. She points out that the Pentagon canceled a routine test of intercontinental ballistic missiles earlier this week just to avoid any chance that it could somehow be misperceived in Moscow as directed at them. Podvig observes that at the United Nations, numerous states and U.N. officials criticized Russia’s deployment of an implied nuclear threat.
Even if the unfathomable occurred and Russia used nuclear weapons in or around Ukraine, it’s unlikely the U.S. would respond in kind. “I doubt that we would reply in nuclear terms; the risks of escalation would be too great,” says Harvard University’s Joseph Nye, former assistant secretary of defense. Nye suggests that the U.S. might respond in the cyberworld, “but that has its own problems with retaliation.” Instead, the most likely response would be to try and further isolate Russia for violating the nuclear taboo, and perhaps move some troops to Europe. The U.S. could take the opportunity to reinforce the unacceptability of Russia’s extraordinary use of these weapons.
Since the West has made it clear it will not involve itself in Ukraine significantly, some experts believe that Putin is conducting his entire assault on Ukraine for domestic reasons. Putting his nuclear forces on alert could be an attempt to shore up his support at home or, at most, be a signal to the U.S. and its allies not to interfere in its war. Says Kristensen: “It’s important that NATO hasn’t taken the bait.”