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This essay seeks to explore how a nuclear war begun in Ukraine could proceed. Its intention is to inform the public debate over the possible consequences of Russian nuclear use and NATO’s response. It is not meant to suggest that Russian nuclear use is an absolute certainty. There is still hope that it might not be likely. Nonetheless, prudent planning requires consideration of the worst-possible outcomes, difficult as that might be. The paper examines six specific questions related to Russian nuclear use, followed by a brief conclusion.
Question 1: Would Russia Really Use Nuclear Weapons?
This is the obvious, but necessary, starting point for any discussion. Is it all just a bluff? There is good reason to believe it is not entirely brinksmanship on Russia’s part. Simply put, nuclear weapons might be one of the only effective tools left in the Russian military arsenal. Few people expected Russian conventional forces to perform so poorly or to be employed so incompetently.
While there are limitations to what nuclear weapons can achieve on the battlefield, they have the benefit of reliability and certainty in terms of effects. Nuclear weapons don’t desert, nor do they surrender. In a war in which little has worked as intended for Moscow, there might be a dark comfort in this.
(This, of course, assumes that Russian nuclear weapons perform as advertised. There always is the possibility that the rot and corruption that has rendered Russian conventional forces so ineffective also has spread to its nuclear capabilities. But that is a large bet to place.)
To be sure, there may be real operational limitations on the utility of tactical nuclear weapons for Russia. There are risks of fall-out that could blow back on actual Russian territory or land Moscow has claimed via illegal annexation. There may not be optimal targets at hand in terms of large concentrations of Ukrainian forces. Still, if the hammer is the only functional tool, it may not matter whether the problem is a nail or not; Russia may simply use what works.
Added to all this is the increasing existential danger likely felt by the Russian leadership. Russia can, of course, retreat back to its own (legitimate) territory at any point. But doing so could be politically impossible for President Vladimir Putin – to not only have failed spectacularly in his bid to cow Ukraine into submission but to cede land held before February 24 (excepting, perhaps, Crimea.) Given that Putin’s own safety likely corresponds with his ability to retain power, the concerns that would otherwise inhibit nuclear employment might not apply to the Russian president now. Putin might have nothing to lose personally given the extant stakes of ongoing Russian military failure in Ukraine.
This, again, does not mean that Russian nuclear use is inevitable. But it does suggest that the risk is far more significant than it ever has been, with the possible exception of a handful of crises from the Cold War.
Question 2: What Is the Reaction to the Initial Nuclear Detonation?
This is perhaps the most difficult factor to judge of all. How does that initial nuclear explosion reverberate in a world with a very different communications and media environment than 1945?
To begin with, does nuclear use compel the Ukrainians to sue for a negotiated peace, lest they suffer additional strikes? Or does Russian nuclear use further shut the door on a negotiated peace, redoubling Kyiv’s desire to completely evict Russian forces no matter the cost? While a tactical strike could devastate a local area, it is unlikely to cripple Ukraine’s overall ability to continue military operations.
But in terms of threats to their physical safety, neither Americans nor Europeans have had cause for immediate worry. Russian nuclear use could change that rapidly.
The potential reaction in the West will be equally difficult to gauge. Ideally, Russian nuclear use should lead to a decisive response, one that would demonstrate to not only Russia but any other nuclear power the costs of employment. But would that approach hold after nuclear weapons are actually in play?
To date, most in the West have had the luxury of viewing the Ukraine War almost as a spectator sport on social media. In America, there has been no concrete consequences for support for Kyiv, aside from a vague notion that the war could be contributing to rising inflation. In Europe, economic pressures have been felt more dearly, especially in the energy sector. There also has been the impact of large refugee movements into Ukraine’s neighbors.
But in terms of threats to their physical safety, neither Americans nor Europeans (outside Ukraine itself) have had cause for immediate worry. Russian nuclear use could change that rapidly, focusing American and European minds on the stakes of the Ukraine War and the costs they are truly willing to bear to see Russia defeated.
Finally, there is the reaction in Russia itself. It is a state run by an authoritarian regime that relies on fear and brute force to keep its population subjugated. How does nuclear use affect that calculation? Could Russians fear a general nuclear war more than government reprisals for open revolt? Or does nuclear use have the opposite effect – of reassuring Russia writ large that it still has the means to wield power and defend its positions in Ukraine? Could nuclear use actually steady popular support for the regime and the war?
None of these questions can be answered definitively until a nuclear weapon has actually been detonated in anger. Perhaps the point worth emphasizing, though, is the range of possible responses and the danger of assuming with confidence beforehand that people in any state will automatically react in a given way.
Question 3: What Is NATO’s Response?
If Russia uses one or more nuclear weapons, NATO will need to offer some manner of response. Publicly, neither the alliance nor the United States has stated definitively how it would react, with President Joe Biden being deliberately vague on the subject in a September interview with 60 Minutes.
In truth, there will be no good options. On the one hand, there could be a muted, non-nuclear reply, one that leans heavily on diplomatic activity and additional sanctions to further isolate Russia and cast it as an international pariah. Essential to this – and by no means guaranteed – would be pulling in India and members of the so-called “Global South” that so far have declined to take a firm stance against Russian actions. Ideally, Chinese condemnation would also be forthcoming.
The allure of this type of response is that it could possibly inhibit further escalation and punish Russia without the risks inherent in NATO directly entering the war in Ukraine. The potential downside is that the steps outlined above might not be sufficient to deter additional Russian nuclear use. They also might not be considered equal to the level of violation Russia would be committing by using nuclear weapons – especially against a non-nuclear country.
Unfortunately, more robust responses come with their own significant dangers. Few commentators seem willing to advocate that NATO should respond with its own nuclear strikes and this seems prudent.
An alternative could be a devastating conventional response by the alliance. This option was recently set forth by General David Petraeus in an interview with ABC News, in which he proposed sinking the Black Sea Fleet and directly attacking Russian forces inside Ukraine. Petraeus is not in government and was speaking as a private citizen. Nonetheless, the measures he outlined – overwhelming conventional force – represent another option along the spectrum of actions NATO could take.
The downside to such steps, though, is that it is uncertain they would inhibit further Russian nuclear use. Rather, they potentially could lead Russia to expand its target set beyond Ukraine, onto alliance territory. Simply because the alliance confines itself to conventional means doesn’t preclude NATO inflicting punishment on Russia that could be construed as having strategic effects – essentially similar to the impact of nuclear weapons in Moscow’s eyes.
Furthermore, there is still the question of Russia’s military impotence. If the alliance begins waging a conventional war against Russian military units – one Moscow will be hard-pressed to defend against with its forces in the field – why wouldn’t Russia lean even further on the nuclear option? What other means does it have at its disposal?
Question 4: What Is the Russian Counterresponse?
A massive conventional response by the alliance would not be launched from a cold start. It would take time to ramp up operations and prepare for direct intervention in Ukraine. During this period, alliance forces could be vulnerable. A dark irony is that while nuclear weapons might not be optimal for the tactical fight in Ukraine, they could have good effects at the operational level if employed against major NATO bases.
Consider the prospect of Russian nuclear strikes – perhaps with yields larger than tactical weapons – against a handful of alliance airbases. Targeting Aviano in Italy, Ramstein in Germany, and Lakenheath in the United Kingdom would destroy or disable a large number of US stealth aircraft in Europe and be a serious blow to NATO tactical airpower in general. (A similar scenario was posited in a 2019 Rand wargame that examined deterrence in the Baltic region.) It is not difficult to think of other examples – such as critical ports and key logistical nodes – whose destruction would significantly impede NATO’s war effort. Nuclear detonations over these targets would also obviously kill or wound tens of thousands of citizens in allied countries, as well as US military personnel and their dependents.
This discussion has admittedly now entered the realm of extremes, but not necessarily implausible ones. One reason for being so circumspect about avoiding a single instance of nuclear use is that it quickly opens the door to even more dire scenarios and outcomes to follow. But if Russian nuclear employment cannot be deterred or avoided, such scenarios must by necessity be examined.
Question 5: How Would NATO Fight a Nuclear War?
Unlike strikes against Ukraine, Russian nuclear use against NATO territory might force the alliance to respond with its own nuclear weapons. “NATO’s nuclear weapons” consist of a mere 100 tactical nuclear bombs. These are, in fact, US national assets on loan to the alliance. The weapon in question – the B61 – is a free-fall bomb, not a standoff weapon. It requires an aircraft to fly over the target and release the weapon, much like an old-fashioned WWII bomber.
Four European members of NATO currently maintain aircraft capable of delivering the B61 – Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. At least officially, the planes in question are fourth-generation, non-stealthy fighter-bombers, either the F-16 or the Tornado, depending on the country. All four states are in the process of acquiring the F-35 stealth aircraft and some already have F-35s in their national inventories. But it is not clear that the F-35 has yet been certified for nuclear delivery – or that European crews have been trained on the aircraft to perform the nuclear mission. Thus, an F-16 with a free-fall bomb might be the best NATO itself can muster to wage nuclear war at the moment.
In the event more wide-ranging nuclear strikes are needed, the task would fall to the national arsenals of the alliance’s three nuclear-armed members. The United Kingdom and the United States engage in integrated nuclear planning with NATO; France does not, so its precise role in a nuclear conflict with Russia is ultimately uncertain.
The United States has a submarine-launched sub-strategic warhead, the W76-2, as well as its own national stockpile of B61s tactical bombs which can be delivered by reliable means like the B-2 stealth bomber. The United Kingdom is also thought to have a weapon like the W76-2 in its inventory. France is not believed to currently field tactical nuclear weapons. All three states also possess strategic warheads with yields in the hundreds of kilotons; indeed, the majority of their arsenals are made up of these weapons.
The United States is thus likely to be the central country in any extended nuclear exchange between NATO and Russia. Not only is its permission required for release of the B61s, but it would likely handle the bulk of any additional nuclear strikes, given the ambiguity over France’s role and the much smaller British arsenal.
Once any one of NATO’s three nuclear states conducts strikes on the alliance’s behalf, its national territory could obviously be subject to Russian reprisals. The US National Missile Defense (NMD) system might be of little use given the number of weapons Russia possesses and its ability to strike at the continental United States from areas (e.g., the Atlantic Ocean) against which NMD was not intended to defend. At the same time, if Russia expanded its target set to US territory, prospects for keeping the nascent nuclear war limited would dim considerably.
Question 6: What Is the Endgame?
How far a nuclear conflict would progress is anyone’s guess. It is possible that even a single nuclear detonation could have a sobering effect on all parties, precluding additional use. On the other hand, there are a range of scenarios where nuclear use begets additional volleys, as discussed above.
NATO’s combat capabilities could be susceptible to the effects of a few well-placed nuclear strikes, but Russia will also not be invulnerable to effects of nuclear counterstrikes. Each side’s pain threshold won’t be known until it is actually tested.
Culpability for a nuclear conflict would ultimately lie with Moscow as it already does for the conventional war in Ukraine. But issues of blame might be cold comfort once an extended nuclear exchange begins.
This does, however, raise another difficult question: If the current Russian regime unleashes nuclear weapons, can NATO accept anything less than its removal? Or would the prospect of further nuclear use prohibit that option? Put differently, if the cost of regime change in Moscow is a protracted nuclear conflict, how far is the alliance willing to pursue that objective?
Another variable would be the precise nature of Russian nuclear use. This essay has assumed that there will be some tactical or operational objective to Russian nuclear strikes on Ukrainian or allied territory. If Russia resorted to explicitly targeting population centers with nuclear weapons for the sake of terror attacks, both NATO’s response and its conditions for war termination could be affected accordingly. This step would likely accelerate the path to general nuclear war.
It should be emphasized again that Russian nuclear use is not a certainty. Yet the risk of such action is elevated – to what degree can only be guessed at. This is not an easy matter to contemplate; it’s far from an enjoyable topic on which to write. But in the current climate, it is necessary.
Russia’s brazenness and cruelty in attacking Ukraine understandably engender a desire for a just and definitive outcome to the war in Kyiv’s favor. Honest examination of nuclear use by Russia complicates that goal and can thus be frustrating. Nonetheless, the implications of a NATO-Russian nuclear exchange warrant careful consideration if the worst-possible cases are to be avoided. Not only must NATO’s initial reaction be examined, but also the second- and third-order consequences of that action.
Mike Sweeney is a PhD student at the Schar School of Policy and Government.