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
    • July 1, 2022
    The 2022 Madrid NATO Summit, with Ivo Daalder and Doug Lute

    What are the most important takeaways from this week’s NATO summit in Madrid? Ivo Daalder and Doug Lute join Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Jim Townsend to discuss how the alliance...

    By Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Jim Townsend, Ivo Daalder & Amb. Doug Lute

  • Video
    • June 30, 2022
    NATO sees Russia as a ‘direct threat,’ but not China, says think tank

    Jim Townsend of the CNAS Transatlantic Security Program, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO under the Obama administration, says Europe’s ...

    By Jim Townsend

  • Commentary
    • Foreign Affairs
    • June 29, 2022
    The Real Key to Victory in Ukraine

    This emerging war of attrition is more likely to come down to “sustainment”—the ability of each side to ensure a relentless influx of troops, ammunition, and heavy equipment t...

    By Margarita "Rita" Konaev

  • Podcast
    • June 24, 2022
    Brussels Sprouts Live: Setting the Stage for Madrid

    Over the past several months, the NATO alliance has faced a tremendous challenge in responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While allied cohesion has been consistently ...

    By Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Jim Townsend, Julianne Smith, Steven Erlanger & David E. Sanger

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia