Defanging Russian Nuclear Threats

Russian Nuclear Weapons

It will have been easy to miss with all the excitement of a mutiny by the Wagner Group marching unhindered hundreds of miles toward Moscow, but Russian analysts are talking seriously about nuclear weapons use. Not in the context of Russia’s unsuccessful war in Ukraine, but against NATO and the United States.  

Nuclear threats by Russian officials and pundits aren’t new, of course. Russian President Vladimir Putin has implicitly threatened nuclear use throughout the conflict, deployed nuclear weapons in Belarus, and used his strategic nuclear forces to deter NATO from directly intervening in the war. Putin claimed he’s put Russian nuclear forces on alert. The nuclear chatter has revived concerns that Russia, if faced with defeat in Ukraine, could choose to use nuclear weapons. 



I believe it is prudent to plan for nuclear escalation and that there are four scenarios for Russian nuclear employment that policymakers should consider. They range from a nuclear strike on Ukrainian armor to a strike on NATO territory. These scenarios may be unthinkable, but it is important to talk through them so that U.S. officials and European allies can grapple with the challenges that any such escalation would entail, and plan a response accordingly.

Debating Doctrine

Russia has used nuclear weapons since its invasion began — and has since sought to use nuclear escalation as a means to coerce the United States and Europe. Putin has used them to deter NATO involvement in the conflict and through signaling with the United States and Europe. During the course of its conventional operations, the Russian military annexed four Ukrainian provinces. Putin has claimed that any attacks on these territories would be treated as attacks on Russia, and therefore defensible by all means necessary. Former Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev threatened “Every day when they provide Ukraine with foreign weapons brings the nuclear apocalypse closer.” Russia suspended its compliance with the New START treaty, and Putin announced “I signed a decree on putting new ground-based strategic systems on combat duty.” And Russia has loudly deployed nuclear weapons to Belarus, closer to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, and is training Belarussian pilots to deliver them.

Russia’s conventional challenges have led Russian analysts to think about nuclear employment. As Hanna Notte wrote in these virtual pages, many of these analysts have influence in the Kremlin, which has raised questions about whether this chatter has been officially sanctioned by Putin or is simply reflective of an analyst class working through the prospect of Russian defeat.  Sergei Karaganov from the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, for example, sees the only path to success in Ukraine (which he defined as “liberating and reincorporating the East and the South of Ukraine, and forcing the rest to surrender, followed by complete demilitarization and creation of a friendly buffer state”) as “breaking the West’s will to continue.” He argues “if we correctly build a strategy of intimidation and deterrence and even use of nuclear weapons, the risk of a ‘retaliatory’ nuclear or any other strike on our territory can be reduced to an absolute minimum.” He acknowledges but dismisses Chinese and other countries’ disapproval. Dmitri Trenin, another old guard analyst, takes the same approach. 

Authoritative Russian analysts and media outlets repudiated the idea. Ivan Timofeev, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, replied, “The official position clearly differs from the solutions proposed in the article.” But he also caveated the judgment: “However, the scenario of a special military operation seemed just as offbeat to the overwhelming majority of observers until February 2022.” His evaluation is much more pessimistic about the consequences of Russian nuclear escalation, corresponding closely with Western views: “It underestimates the Western elites’ determination to climb the escalation ladder with Russia, and, if necessary, ahead of it. It also overestimates the possibility of having a Russian nuclear strike accepted, albeit painfully, by China and other countries of the Global Majority. It overestimates the desire of the Global Majority to throw off the ‘Western yoke.’” Timofeev concludes: “Nuclear escalation is a way to jump out of the boiler, abruptly bringing the temperature to the boiling point. The problem is that after jumping out of the boiler, you can get directly into the fire.”

Yet the Biden administration and many allied governments worry that success of the Ukrainian offensive could imperil Russia’s hold on Crimea, which Secretary of State Antony Blinken termed a Russian red line that could precipitate nuclear escalation. James Acton, writing in these virtual pages, made the case for caution over retaking Crimea, citing the risk of Russian nuclear escalation. Nuclear deterrence has been operative throughout the Russian invasion — in the rushed Department of Defense pulling of personnel from Ukraine, proscription of direct involvement by U.S. and other Western troops, and the measured pace of providing weapons of increased range and significance to Ukraine. It’s also likely operated on the Russian side of the equation. Russia has not targeted Western weapons deliveries or transshipment locations, even though, as Aaron Stein and Jeffrey Lewis wrote, “they are a perfectly legitimate military target, whether those weapons are in Poland or Ukraine.” This may be because National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has warned the Russian government of “catastrophic consequences” if they should use a nuclear weapon, and CIA Director Bill Burns (the administration’s diplomatic envoy of choice for dealing with the Russians) has likely been more specific privately.


Foreseeing Escalation Risks

The next few months of the war in Ukraine are going to be increasingly dangerous, as desperation increases in both Ukraine and Russia. Russia is struggling to hold what it has taken from Ukraine. The mobilization of 300,000 soldiers cost Russia the emigration of more than a million Russians, their military appears no longer capable of offensive operations, and their casualties range in the hundreds of thousands. Ukraine, too, has taken substantial casualties, suffers enervation of constant drone and missile strikes on their cities, and is justifiably concerned that if their offensive isn’t spectacularly successful it will suffer both diminution of Western support and fissures in Ukrainian solidarity.  

While it’s fashionable to say that military force can’t solve this problem, military force will solve the problem of Russia’s attempted conquest of Ukraine — neither side will concede what they have gained, and neither will be able to claim anything it hasn’t gained by force of arms.

All of which raises the specter of Russian nuclear use, given the shockingly poor performance of the Russian military. President Joe Biden appears to agree, telling an audience at a Democratic fundraiser in December that “nuclear Armageddon” was looming and seeming to make it the responsibility of Ukraine’s supporters figure out: “Where does he [Putin] find himself in a position that he does not — not only lose face, but lose significant power within Russia?” Sullivan has reiterated the president’s concern about “world war three.”

Although the United States has cautioned NATO allies to remain alert to the possibility, American intelligence agencies have seen no signs that Russia has raised their nuclear alert or taken preparations for nuclear use. The consensus is that nuclear use is “very unlikely.” Ukrainian government officials dismiss the prospect, arguing there is no battlefield utility to Russian use. The majority of Western national security experts share that view. Nevertheless, escalation management is central to how some Russian planners think about the leap from conventional to nuclear warfare. And there remain at least three plausible uses of nuclear weapons by Russia at this stage of the war.

The first is tactical use on massed Ukrainian armor preparing to strike the main Russian lines as the Ukrainian offensive progresses. This is the battlefield use envisioned by the American military in the 1950s, when the battle-hardened planners of World War II were still determining U.S. strategy to defend against the Warsaw Pact.

The second is a long-range strike on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. If Ukraine succeeds at pushing the Russian army out of its territory, the Russian leadership may attempt to claim that by decimating Ukraine’s capital it achieved the regime change that was Russia’s war aim and therefore the army could depart. Stationing nuclear forces in Belarus gives Russia a multiplicity of options, even possibly giving Russia some deniability by Belarussian forces carrying out the strike.

The third could come with spectacular success of Ukraine’s current offensive, as a last gasp destruction for either simply punitive reasons or to preserve the Putin regime from internal challenge. Even if American and NATO retaliation is anticipated by Russia, this could come if the Russian regime does not believe it will survive loss of the war: The Russian leadership may prefer to lose a war to NATO than to lose a war to Ukraine. 


Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny is likely to increase those concerns. Putin has been weakened, incapable of managing the actors he empowered, reliant on Belarussian leader Alexandr Lukashenko to finesse an agreement ending the mutiny, failing to follow through on his threats.  The Russian military, as the joke now goes, isn’t even the best military in Russia after Prigozhin’s mercenaries showed them up with fast progress and the downing of several aircraft.

The Biden administration is right to be concerned about the prospect of nuclear weapons use by Russia, either in Ukraine or to draw the United States into the war. But their policy response to it encourages continued nuclear blackmail by Russia and also nuclear proliferation by other states, since it is clearly constraining U.S. actions. It also curiously treats the United States as the object of Russian threats rather than the strongest power in this equation, capable of affecting Russian decisions.

A better response to potential Russian nuclear use would be to make very clear that the consequences of that choice would be disastrous for Putin and his supporters. Former CIA Director David Petraeus demonstrated how to reinforce deterrence, saying among the range of U.S. responses to Russian nuclear use would be the destruction of Russian forces fighting in Ukraine and its Black Sea fleet. Indeed, reporting by the Financial Times suggest that the United States, along with France and the United Kingdom, has already warned Russia that any nuclear use would invite a conventional response.

U.S. intelligence about Russian actions has been excellent — America should publicize any Russian preparations. The United States should tell the Russians that if any preparations are perceived, America will give Ukraine both the targeting and weapons to pre-empt Russian use. If the United States fails to prevent nuclear use, it should send NATO response teams to Ukraine to help manage the effects and help defend Ukraine. And the United States should be clear that it will hunt down and either kill or drag to The Hague anyone who participated in the decision or carried out the order. While the United States and its allies are unlikely to reach into Russia to seize Putin and other complicit Russians, this would prevent them leaving the country and holding assets abroad, while risking being turned over by future Russian governments.

As the war enters its most dangerous phase, those of us least likely to suffer damage need to keep our nerve and adopt policies that deter Russia from making the catastrophic choice of using nuclear weapons.



Kori Schake leads the foreign and defense policy team at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image: Wikimedia Commons