Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and its veiled threats to use nuclear arms, have made policymakers think the impossible: How should the West react to a Russian nuclear bomb-detonating weapon on a battlefield?
Some architects of the post-Cold War nuke order believe that the default U.S. policy response is to show discipline and restraint. Rose Gottemoeller (deputy secretary-general of NATO between 2016 and 2019) said that this could mean increasing sanctions and isolation for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
However, calm minds cannot prevail in such a situation and real life rarely goes according to plan. The world leaders would be angry and affronted. There could be confusion and miscommunication. Hackers could contribute to the chaos. For tough retaliation, it would be necessary to use nuclear-loaded missiles capable moving at twice the speed of sound.
Experts and military officials have war-gaming Russian-U.S. nuclear tensions. In the past, these tabletop exercises often end in nuclear missiles striking capitals across North America and Europe, killing millions of people within hours. This is Olga Oliker from the International Crisis Group, who is program director for Europe/Central Asia.
Oliker stated, “And, you know… soon enough, there’s a global thermonuclear conflict.”
Officials hope it’s not a scenario that happens, even if Russia strikes Ukraine with a nuke.
Gottemoeller was a U.S. chief nuclear negotiator for Russia under the Obama administration. He stated that the outline that President Joe Biden provided so far in his nuclear policy is consistent with previous administrations that used atomic weapons in “extreme circumstances.”
Gottemoeller, a Stanford University lecturer, stated that a single Russian nuclear-use demonstration strike or — as horrendous as it would be — nuclear use in Ukraine would not raise the level of demand for a U.S. response.
Former Sen. Sam Nunn (a Georgia Democrat) is a strong advocate for Western nuclear use. He served nearly a quarter of a century in Congress.
Nunn, who is now strategic advisor to the Nuclear Threat Initiative security organisation, said, “That’s why the doctrine of mutual assured destruction was about for a long and long time.” He co-founded it.
Nunn stated, “If President Putin used nuclear weapons or any other country uses nukes first, it would not be in response to a bomb attack on their country…. That leader should assume they are putting world at high risk of nuclear war and nuclear exchange.”
Discussions about how to respond to a limited nuke attack are no longer hypothetical for U.S. officials or world leaders. Putin referred to Russia’s nuclear arsenal in the initial hours and days after Russia invaded. He advised the West to avoid the conflict and said he was on high alert for his nuclear forces.
Putin stated that any country who interferes with Russia’s invasion will face “such as you haven’t seen in your entire life,”
Biden and other Western leaders discussed how to react to Russia’s use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons during their meeting in Europe in March. The United States, Britain, and France are NATO members. They all have nuclear weapons.
Russia may break the almost eight-decade-old global ban on using nuclear weapons against other countries by allowing some nuclear weapons to be used as tactical weapons in battle. Even small, tactical nuclear weapons can approach the power of the atomic bomb that the United States dropped in World War II on Hiroshima.
Nunn and Gottemoeller praise Biden for his resoluteness in the face Putin’s implicit nukes warnings at the beginning of the war. Biden did not make any known moves to increase the U.S. nuclear alert level. To avoid tensions escalating, the U.S. delayed a Minuteman III routine test launch last month.
According to experts and negotiators in arms control, Putin’s bungled invasion of Ukraine and the threat of nuclear war pose a greater risk for a conflict than it does long-term.
Putin may feel even more motivated to use nuclear weapons as his weapon of choice against the stronger and far-stronger United States or NATO because of the weaknesses Russia’s invasion exposed in their conventional military forces.
Gottemoeller claimed that Ukraine’s surrender of its Soviet nuclear weapons in 1994 opened up the doors to three decades of international integration. However, she suggested that some governments might learn a different lesson from Russia’s invasion and occupation of non-nuclear Ukraine. They may need nuclear bombs for survival.
Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on arms control and professor at Middlebury Institute, stated that the nuclear threat is increasing.
“And we know which paths would increase that risk.” Lewis stated that direct conflict with Russia is possible from NATO-based forces.
Gottemoeller found comfort in Putin’s public grumblings late last month about “cancel-culture.” This suggested that he was susceptible to international condemnation for his invasion of Ukraine. And worse, she said, if he breaks the post-World War II nuclear attack taboo.
Nunn stated that it wouldn’t make sense to detonate a nuclear bomb in a country Putin wanted to control, one right next to his own. He said that Putin’s announcement about a heightened nuclear alert was not rational.
Nunn was a young congressional aide during Cuba’s missile crisis. He witnessed U.S. pilots and officers in Europe waiting for orders to attack the Soviet Union. He said that today’s danger isn’t as severe as it was in 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Soviet deployment of nuclear weapons on Cuba raised the risk of nuclear war with America.
Nunn stated that the danger of an intentional nuclear escalation in Ukraine is now high enough to make a ceasefire in Ukraine essential. Cyberattacks are a modern threat that could lead to a misguided launch. He said that it was not clear how susceptible the U.S. and Russian systems are to hacking attempts.
Nunn stated that Putin was “very reckless in his saber-rattling with nukes.” “And that, I believe has made everything more hazardous, even a blunder.”