May 16, 2022

Potential US responses to the Russian use of non-strategic nuclear weapons in Ukraine

By Jeffrey Edmonds

When the rhetoric from the Russian political and military leadership turns to the possibility of a war pitting the United States and its NATO allies against Russia, the mention of nuclear weapons is usually close behind. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently raised the nuclear specter over the Ukraine war, insisting that NATO is engaging in a proxy war with Russia. While insisting that Russia seeks to avoid nuclear war at all costs, he warned that the “danger is serious, real, and we must not underestimate it.”

This is double talk typical of Lavrov; through it, he attempts to paint Russia as a responsible actor, even though Russia is the only actor in this war that would consider using nuclear weapons. The Russian leadership has also used nuclear threats to signal its displeasure with the expansion of NATO, suggesting it will deploy nuclear-capable missiles near Finland and Sweden if they join the alliance.

Russian use of a nuclear weapon or weapons in Ukraine would greatly increase the likelihood of direct NATO-Russia conflict.

Many of these nuclear threats are signals, meant to politically coerce. But what if Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine to change the apparent negative direction of the Russian invasion there? Four response options seem at least plausible: the West could use a nuclear weapon or weapons against Russian forces, in or outside Ukraine; it could conduct a conventional military attack on Russian forces, in or outside Ukraine; it could continue its current policy of supplying Ukraine with weapons while avoiding direct conflict with the Russian military; or it could press Ukraine to settle the conflict, on terms that give Russia a face-saving out.

Responding in-kind to a Russian nuclear attack and caving to nuclear coercion are clearly unwise, but the other options have risks and uncertainties that make one thing obvious: Russian use of a nuclear weapon or weapons in Ukraine would greatly increase the likelihood of direct NATO-Russia conflict.

Read the full article from The Bulletin of Atomic Sciences.

  • Podcast
    • December 2, 2022
    Transatlantic tension? Views from Paris, Berlin, and Brussels

    Earlier this week, French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Washington for the first state visit of the Biden administration. This visit comes on the heels of many months o...

    By Andrea Kendall-Taylor & Jim Townsend

  • Reports
    • December 1, 2022
    Supporting Russian Civil Society

    Since Russia re-invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, repression inside Russia has worsened. The trend toward greater repression predates Moscow’s unprovoked invasion. The Kre...

    By Andrea Kendall-Taylor & Maria Snegovaya

  • Commentary
    • Inkstick
    • November 27, 2022
    Relations between the US and France Are Worse Than They Appear

    Macron’s visit shouldn't serve as a mask for differences in security, trade, and diplomacy between the two allies....

    By Nicholas Lokker

  • Commentary
    • Foreign Affairs
    • November 22, 2022
    Is Putin a Rational Actor?

    Western leaders must try to make Putin realize, as he considers turning to his nuclear arsenal, that there can be no winners in such a conflict....

    By Dr. Andrew Krepinevich, Jr.

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia