If Vladimir Putin fires nuclear weapons to escape defeat in his war on Ukraine, how should the United States respond?
Thanks to that question, the prospect of nuclear war is now being weighed as seriously as any time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. But the thinking among government officials has veered in a surprising direction, which would have been viewed as heretical and dangerous just a few years ago.
The new twist in this crisis is that U.S. officials are thinking that they might respond to a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine not with a nuclear attack of their own, but rather with a more intense and direct version of the non-nuclear offensive that they’re helping the Ukrainians wage now.
This is a very big deal. Over the decades, debates have raged over whether or not the U.S. should respond to a conventionally armed invasion of Europe by firing nuclear weapons. However, it has always been assumed, with no dissension, that if Russia or some other enemy used nuclear weapons against an allied country, we would respond with nuclear weapons, too.
That assumption, once unquestioned dogma, is no longer considered a given in official circles—and it’s very much worth discussing how, when, and why this changed.
In the summer of 2016, toward the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, intelligence reports indicated that Russia had adopted a new military doctrine known as “escalate to de-escalate.” If Russia was losing in a war against NATO, it would fire a small number of low-yield nuclear weapons, either to stave off the Western armies or simply to send a shock. The theory was that NATO’s leaders, fearing further catastrophic escalation, would stop the war and negotiate a peace.
Avril Haines, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, wanted to test the theory. She called a Deputies’ Meeting of the National Security Council to play a war game to see whether Russia’s new strategy might thwart America’s ability to project power in the region. (The participants included deputy and undersecretaries, as well as second-tiered officers on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.)
The game’s scenario: Russia invades one of the Baltic countries; NATO fights back effectively; Russia fires a low-yield nuclear weapon at the NATO troops or at a base in Germany where drones, combat planes, and smart bombs are deployed. The question: What do U.S. decision makers do now? (I describe this game, in greater detail, in my 2020 book, The Bomb.)
At first, the generals in the room discussed how many nuclear weapons the U.S. should fire back, and at what targets. But then Colin Kahl, Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, raised his hand. You’re missing the big picture, he told the generals. Once Russia drops a nuclear bomb, we face a “world-defining moment”—an opportunity to rally the entire world against Russia, to isolate and weaken Moscow politically, economically, and militarily. However, if we fire back with nukes of our own, we would forfeit that leverage and, besides, normalize the use of nuclear weapons. So, Kahl suggested, we should continue and step up the conventional war, which we’re winning.
A few hours of discussion ensued about Kahl’s political calculus, the conventional strength of NATO, the uncertainty of where to fire a nuclear weapon anyway, and the additional uncertainty of whether a nuclear response would end the war any sooner or more successfully. A consensus emerged: The U.S. should respond just with stepped-up conventional military operations.
One month later, the NSC’s Principals Committee—the group of cabinet secretaries and military chiefs headed by National Security Adviser Susan Rice—played the same game. At one point, an official from the Treasury Dept. raised the same point that Kahl had at the Deputies’ Meeting, but he was shouted down, mainly by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who insisted that it was crucial to meet a nuclear attack with a nuclear response; the allies expect us to do this; if we didn’t, that would be disastrous for NATO, the end of all our alliances, the end of America’s credibility worldwide.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and the Secretary of Energy agreed with Carter. Antony Blinken, the deputy secretary of state, who was sitting in for a traveling John Kerry, was undecided, saying he saw the logic on both sides.
So the question turned to operational matters. Where should we aim the nuclear response? Someone suggested Kaliningrad, but it was noted that Kaliningrad was part of Russia; if the U.S. hit it with nukes, Russia might fire back at the United States. How about hitting the Russian invaders in the Baltics? Well, the bombs would also kill a lot of Baltic civilians. Finally, the generals settled on firing a few nuclear weapons at the former Soviet republic of Belarus, even though, in the game thus far, Belarus had played no role in the war. And then the game was stopped. What might happen next—whether Russia would back down or escalate further, and what we should do after that—was left murky.
When Avril Haines learned that the NSC Principals had ended the game by using nuclear weapons, even knowing that doing so might not win or halt the war, she suggested printing up T-shirts, reading, “Deputies should run the world.”
Now some of those deputies do run the world, to some extent. Kahl is undersecretary of defense for policy. Haines is director of national intelligence. Blinken is secretary of state. And all three had worked very closely under Biden, who of course is now president.
It isn’t clear what Biden would do in a real-life version of this game. When asked recently on 60 Minutes, he replied, “You think I would tell you if I knew exactly what it would be? Of course, I’m not gonna tell you. It will be consequential. [The Russians] will become more of a pariah in the world than they ever have been. And depending on the extent of what they do will determine what response would occur.”
This answer left open the possibility of responding to nukes with nukes. Any president would keep that option open, if just to deter Putin from striking first. And, in fact, Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” military doctrine spurred the U.S. to put low-yield nuclear warheads on some of its submarine-launched Trident missiles—so that, if Russia launched a few low-yield nukes, the U.S. could respond with some of its own. (American ‘low-yield’ nukes would explode with one-half to two-thirds the power of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima.)
But Biden’s emphasis on making Russia a “pariah” certainly leaned in the direction of Kahl’s argument that responding with nukes would be unnecessary. The course of the Russia-Ukraine war so far has tended to vindicate that position as well. The Russian army has turned out to be far less fearsome and competent than intelligence estimates had projected. Ukrainian forces, supplied with NATO weapons and U.S. intelligence, have staved off the Russian army and are now routing it in a two-pronged counteroffensive. And that’s without the direct involvement of NATO troops or pilots. Just imagine what would happen if NATO troops and pilots were involved.
Retired Gen. David Petraeus recently spelled out a possible scenario on ABC News. “Just to give you a hypothetical,” the former U.S. war commander said, “we would respond [to Russia’s use of nuclear weapons] by leading a NATO…effort that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea.”
The U.S. and NATO could carry out such an attack without using any nuclear weapons. Given what we’ve seen in the war so far, it seems that U.S. intelligence has a pretty close track on where every Russian unit in Ukraine is, where it’s going, what its officers are saying—in short, this all-out pummeling could probably be executed, mainly with air and artillery strikes, pretty swiftly.
The implication of this is significant: Not only could a massive U.S. and NATO conventional (i.e., non-nuclear) attack utterly disable the Russian war machine in Ukraine, but the prospect of such an attack could deter Putin from doing anything that might prompt such an attack. In other words, the threat of NATO’s massive non-nuclear escalation could deter Russia from using nuclear weapons. Or, to put it more succinctly, at least when it comes to this war, the U.S. and NATO don’t need nuclear weapons to deter Russia from using its nuclear weapons.
The Ukraine war is affirming another lesson from the Obama NSC war game—that nuclear weapons have little, if any, utility on the battlefield. In both the game and real life, U.S. nukes would have no suitable targets, might not end the war (in fact, might escalate it further), and aren’t necessary—the job could be done with conventional military power.
Nukes can deter a foe from launching nuclear weapons or from intervening in a war at all. Putin’s arsenal, after all, is the only reason NATO has not sent its own troops into Ukraine. But once the nuclear threshold is crossed, all bets are off. What happens after the first “nuclear exchange”—which side has more leverage, who wins, who loses, or what those words mean—nobody knows. For all the sophisticated tomes and essays written over the decades on nuclear warfighting and escalation-management, it’s all an impenetrable fog. That lack of clarity makes planning a rational military strategy around nuclear weapons difficult, and maybe outright impossible.
Of course, it’s one thing for me to say this or for senior U.S. officials to believe this (if, in fact, they do believe it). It’s another thing for Putin to believe it—and it’s not clear what Putin believes these days. Nobody has been crazy enough to drop a nuclear bomb since 1945. The question is just how crazy is Putin?