Scenario 1: Russia could test nuclear weapons as a warning to Ukraine and its supporters, demonstrating both its resolve and capability. A nuclear demonstration would not tilt the balance in favor of either side. The efficacy of even Russia’s most advanced nuclear weapons is likely already known to relevant Western governments, and a test likely would not incentivize Ukraine to capitulate because Kyiv already feels that the conflict is existential.  The humanitarian and environmental effects are likely to be minimal, as the test site would be chosen with those impacts in mind.  One unwanted side effect could concern Russia’s relations with China . China has tried to tow a careful line in maintaining the strong personal relationship between President Xi Jinping and Putin without kindling outright hostility from the West. China has thus far been sympathetic to Russia’s broader strategic goals in Ukraine, but a Russian nuclear test could put Beijing in a tough position. Xi recently stated China’s opposition to any country using or threatening to use nuclear weapons.

Scenario 2: Russia could use nuclear weapons against Ukrainian military or energy infrastructure targets in an attempt to weaken the country’s will and damage its military capacity. Tactical nuclear weapons have a smaller payload and more precise targeting, which males them conducive to battlefield use. Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons against military targets on the battlefield would be unlikely to halt the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Even if a battlefield nuclear weapon made a land advance more challenging, Ukraine would likely continue its focus on aerial attacks and air defense in ways that have been successful in recent weeks. Moreover, using nuclear weapons on the battlefield would be less effective in shutting down electricity and energy infrastructure than conventional bombing because their higher yield and lower accuracy makes them ill-suited for those targets. The environmental effects of tactical nuclear weapons are difficult to calculate and would depend on warhead yield, detonation height, weather, and local geography. Russia would be cautious not to detonate weapons close to its own soldiers or occupied territory. China would almost certainly be forced to publicly denounce such weapons use by Russia, and the resulting distancing would have repercussions for future China-Russia cooperation more broadly. The West likely would not respond to tactical nuclear use by sending troops into Ukraine, but the United States and its allies would likely ramp up the number of conventional weapons they send to Ukraine. Western states would also be more willing to provide non-military humanitarian assistance in response to the fallout and radiation, which could also affect neighboring countries.

Scenario 3: Russia’s most escalatory option is also the least likely- using a strategic nuclear weapon against Ukrainian civilian targets or Ukraine’s neighboring international partners. Using a nuclear weapon against civilians or non-Ukrainian targets would certainly generate a retaliatory response from Western States. The United States would be unlikely to default to nuclear weapons given its confidence in the demonstration of resolve that would result from a swift, sophisticated conventional response, which would also be tactically effective. Eastern European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), who could fear becoming Russia’s next target, would be particularly interested in ensuring that the alliance mobilizes a response that sends a strong signal to Russia that nuclear use will never help it achieve expansionist objectives. President Joe Biden has staked out the U.S. position on the issue, noting, “Any use of nuclear weapons in this conflict on any scale would be completely unacceptable to us as well as the rest of the world and would entail serious consequences. “ This vagueness is intentional and consistent with a long-standing U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” aimed at giving U.S. policymakers flexibility in deciding how to respond to nuclear events. More direct Western involvement would dramatically change the intensity of the conflict. Absent U.S. casualties from a Russian nuclear attack outside of Russia or Ukraine, U.S. involvement will likely remain indirect through increased arms sales and nonmilitary weapons. The United States could be more likely to use conventional weapons directly against Russia, although it would take care to signal that it aims to defend Ukraine and the West rather than conquer Moscow. Any Western troops deployment would not cross the border into Russia and even the use of advanced cruise missiles, drones and ground operations would be limited to Russian targets in Ukraine. Non-kinetic operations such a cyberattacks would likely continue although little would be known about those until well after the war is over.

The view of former CIA director and retired four-star army general David Petraeus

  1. The US and its allies would destroy Russia’s troops and equipment in Ukraine – as well as sink its Black Sea fleet
  2. The US would respond by leading a NATO – a collective – effort that would take out every Russian conventional force that it can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea.
  3. It would not be a situation triggering the alliance’s Article 5, which calls for a collective defense. That is because Ukraine is not part of NATO – nonetheless, a “US and NATO response” would be in order.
  4. The likelihood that radiation would extend to NATO countries under the Article 5 umbrella could perhaps be construed as an attack on a Nato member.

Should Putin become desperate enough (and pressured enough by his own far right, who demand far stronger pressure on Ukraine and defiance of the west) to use a radioactive weapon—either a dirty bomb or a tactical nuclear weapon—the west should respond forcefully and immediately along these lines:

  • Publicize and condemn the Russian use of nuclear weapons, the first use since the Second World War
  • Provide incontrovertible evidence that the radiation is the result of Russian activity
  • Demand Russian expulsion from the U.N. Security Council, going through the General Assembly to overcome a presumed Russian veto in the U.N. Security Council.
  • Push China, India, and other major “swing voter” nations to condemn Putin and cut off trade with Russia
  • Confiscate all Russian financial assets in western hands, around $300 billion, for the express use of reconstructing Ukraine
  • Give the Ukrainians U.S. F-16 fighter aircraft
  • Increase the supply of advanced surface to air defensive missile systems, probably older Hawk systems but also the modern Patriot (wide area, relatively easy to train to operate) and Iron Dome (developed jointly with Israel, excellent point defense systems to be used around big population centers and critical infrastructure)
  • Strongly consider putting up a NATO “ no fly “ zone in support of the Ukrainian air forces, using NATO jets operating out of Polish and German bases
  • Strongly consider a response in the world of cyber, particularly going after Russian military capabilities aggressively.
  • Directly and overtly target the Russian Black Sea fleet and provide Ukraine with the intelligence and long-range cruise missiles to sink a significant number of high value warships

All of these measures should be communicated now to Putin, so he understands the reaction to his use of radioactive weapons would swift and formidable. Putin must understand it will go even more badly—exponentially so—if he reaches for the lever to use a radioactive nuclear device of any kind.


Add new comment