During the past 12 months, Putin has laid the groundwork for using a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine. He has removed domestic and operational barriers to doing so and has created justifications, fabricated and real, so that his people support him. In speeches and interviews, he has made the case that Russia is under existential attack — a situation, under Russian policy, that warrants the use of nuclear weapons. He has reshuffled his military leadership accordingly, assigning the three generals responsible for employment of tactical nuclear weapons to command his “special military operation” in Ukraine. He already has tactical reasons to explode a nuclear weapon: saving Russian soldiers’ lives, shortening the war, destroying Ukrainian forces. He also has strategic reasons: rejuvenating the deterrent value of his nuclear arsenal and proving that he is not a bluffer.

Putin’s threats have included both strategic nuclear weapons, which can reach the United States, and tactical nuclear weapons, which are generally smaller in explosive power and could be launched from shorter distances to strike Ukraine. His threats include preemptive strikes against those who threaten the survival of Russia. Unlike Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO have their own nuclear weapons to deter a Russian strike. But they have made it clear they will not use their nuclear weapons to defend Ukraine. This leaves Ukraine especially vulnerable to nuclear attack.  

Many Western experts say they take the threat of a Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine seriously but make the mistake of asserting that the odds are low. The result is that many officials view the problem of tactical nuclear weapons as serious but not urgent. In fact, the evidence is strong that the problem is urgent and Putin will use a tactical nuclear weapon in his war in Ukraine. Western leaders need not wonder about Putin's nuclear-use red lines and how to avoid crossing them while supporting Ukraine. Putin is not waiting for a misstep by the West. He has been building the conditions for nuclear use in Ukraine since early in the war and is ready to use a nuclear weapon whenever he decides, most likely in response to his faltering military's inability to escalate as much as he wishes by conventional means. For much of the past 80 years, Russia’s security has rested on two pillars whose relative strength has waxed and waned — its conventional ground forces and its nuclear weapons. The conventional forces have been used to influence, bully and force Russia’s neighbors and adversaries to bend to its will. The nuclear forces were intended to deter the United States and the West from interfering militarily in Russia and its perceived zone of influence. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia’s conventional forces have at times struggled with their share of the task. To compensate, Russian leaders have had to rely on their nuclear forces to do both: strategic nuclear weapons to deter the West and tactical nuclear weapons to threaten neighbors.

In today's situation, a single nuclear strike in Ukraine could thwart a Ukrainian counterattack with little loss of Russian lives. For Moscow, this consideration is as much practical as it is moral or image-related: Last year's large-scale mobilization and increase in military units showed that Putin's army was too small for its task. Nevertheless, Russia has managed to create only a few new battalions because most new personnel and equipment went to replace losses in existing units. Putin and his military leaders are running out of the people and materiel needed to achieve his goals.

In the first three months of 2023, Putin took several public steps to demonstrate that he is not bluffing about the use of nuclear weapons.

In February, he signed a law “suspending” Russia’s participation in the strategic nuclear arms treaty New START. This step officially ended joint inspections of American and Russian nuclear weapons sites and released Russia from limiting its number of strategic nuclear weapons, Russian promises to remain limited notwithstanding.

In March, Putin announced that he would station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus this year, building a storage facility to house them, to be completed as early as July. Since Russia has already deployed nuclear-capable Iskander ground-launched missile systems and thousands of troops to Belarus, this would put nuclear delivery systems and warheads in close proximity to one another, greatly reducing the warning time of their use. Putin noted that Russian trainers would also train Belarussian forces to use the weapons.

For Putin, whose regime is at risk, continuing to threaten a tactical nuclear attack in Ukraine without doing it carries perhaps as much risk as doing it. To remind the West of the destructive power of a nuclear weapon, Putin and his generals may decide it is necessary to explode such a weapon. This would enable Russia to escalate the war to its tactical advantage and let Putin prove he is no bluffer.

Besides warning the West many times that he might use a nuclear weapon, Putin and his leadership have, step by step, prepared the Russian people with reasons why he should use nuclear weapons.

Putin has also made clear to the Russian people that Moscow's red lines for the use of nuclear weapons, spelled out in its official documents, have all been crossed in the conflict in Ukraine. These include “aggression with conventional weapons against the Russian Federation, when the very existence of the state is threatened.” Putin has repeatedly claimed that the very survival of Russia is at stake in the current struggle. At th Victory Day parade, he claimed that the West’s “goal is to achieve the collapse and destruction of Russia ” He asserts that Crimea and other Ukrainian lands are Russian territory, meaning that, from Putin’s perspective, battles that were occurring on Ukrainian land one day are suddenly happening on Russian land. Another of Russia's officially designated red lines for nuclear use is “attacks … against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces' response actions.” Russia has claimed that Ukrainian drones have struck Russian strategic nuclear bombers inside Russia, and that Ukraine and the U.S. are responsible for drones launched to assassinate Putin. All these claims, real and fabricated, are used to establish the pretext for Putin to use nuclear weapons when he decides.

Some Western observers of the Russian military claim that because we have not yet seen any movement of nuclear weapons, we have no tangible signs of intent to use them. But last fall, Kyiv officials reported that Russia was firing “Kh-55 nuclear cruise missiles” with dummy warheads. Observers suggested these missiles — which are designed to carry only a nuclear weapon — were launched to erode Ukrainian air defenses by "decoying" them into destroying the Kh-55s rather than missiles with conventional explosives. This claim makes little sense: Missiles, even unarmed, would be too valuable to shorthanded Russia to use as decoys. But launching the Cold War-era missiles with dummy warheads to test their reliability and readiness for use in a real nuclear strike would be a good reason for what we saw. Another sign of Russia’s increasing readiness to use nuclear weapons is the most recent change in the leadership of the war, which both underscores Putin's message that Russia is fighting for its survival and puts at the helm the very men who are in charge of Russia's tactical nuclear weapons.

What will trigger Putin’s decision to launch a tactical nuclear strike in Ukraine? Most likely it will be the inability of the Russian military to escalate the war by conventional means when Putin demands. For example, if a Ukrainian offensive threatens the loss of Crimea or the provinces that form the land bridge to it, Putin would demand an escalation of the fighting to prevent that loss. If the conventional forces could not successfully respond, however, a nuclear strike against the Ukrainian forces would be the only way to escalate. On the night Putin illegally added four Ukrainian provinces to Russia, he declared, “If the territorial unity of our country is threatened, in order to protect Russia and our nation, we will unquestionably use all the weapons we have. This is no bluff.”

Putin is also under pressure to escalate the war from Russian nationalists. These groups have supported Putin in his rise to power, but now are vocal in their dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war. Some, like former FSB officer Igor Girkin, openly criticize the senior military leadership and even Putin. That criticism may be morphing into opposition, forcing Putin to consider escalating his war before his conventional forces are ready.

Claims that Putin would be dissuaded from using nuclear weapons by important partners like China or India are belied by experience thus far in the war. Although Putin values the support of others, he has not shied from putting that support at risk to get what he wants.

None of this is to say that we in the West should pressure Ukraine to forgo its goal to liberate all seized territory. But it does mean that we should anticipate a nuclear weapon will be used and develop our possible responses accordingly.

As soon as Russia uses a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, the “fallout” will begin and spread. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians will be dead, suffering or dealing with the effects of the nuclear explosion. Hundreds of millions of Europeans will be bracing for war. But 7 billion others around the globe will go about their business, alarmed to be sure, but physically unaffected by a nuclear explosion in Ukraine. This last outcome of a Russian tactical nuclear strike may ultimately be the most dangerous to the international order. The image that many people have of nuclear arms as civilization-ending weapons will be erased. In its place, people will see these weapons as normal and, although tragic, acceptable in war. Just a “bigger bullet.” It is in this dramatically changed context that the United States will have to decide how to respond.

Add new comment