Russia’s threshold for nuclear weapon use

Christopher Chivvis has an article in The Guardian about the danger of escalation to the use of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine crisis:

There are possible other paths toward further escalation, but they all eventually lead toward the nuclear threshold. Scores of war games carried out by the United States and its allies in the wake of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine make it clear that Putin would probably use a nuclear weapon if he concludes that his regime is threatened. It is hard to know exactly what turn of events would scare him enough to cross the nuclear threshold. Certainly a large Nato army entering Russian territory would be enough. But what if events in Ukraine loosened his grip on power at home? Indeed, achieving regime change in Russia indirectly by making Putin lose in Ukraine seems to be the logic behind some of those who are pushing for escalation today.

Moving across the nuclear threshold wouldn’t necessarily mean an immediate, full-force nuclear exchange – in other words, global thermonuclear war. But it would be an extremely dangerous, watershed event in world history.

The nuclear option that has been most frequently discussed in the past few days involves Russia using a small nuclear weapon (a “non-strategic nuclear weapon”) against a specific military target in Ukraine. Such a strike might have a military purpose, such as destroying an airfield or other military target, but it would mainly be aimed at demonstrating the will to use nuclear weapons, or “escalating to de-escalate”, and scaring the west into backing down.

Some analysts have questioned Russia’s ability to actually carry out such an operation, given its lack of practice. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only or even the most likely option available to the Kremlin. Based on war games I ran in the wake of Putin’s 2014 invasion, a more likely option would be a sudden nuclear test or a high-altitude nuclear detonation that damages the electrical grid over a major Ukrainian or even Nato city. Think of an explosion that makes the lights go out over Oslo.

Those war games indicated that the best US response to this kind of attack would be first to demonstrate US resolve with a response in kind, aimed at a target of similar value, followed by restraint and diplomatic efforts to de-escalate. In most games, Russia still responds with a second nuclear attack, but in the games that go “well”, the United States and Russia manage to de-escalate after that, although only in circumstances where both sides have clear political off-ramps and lines of communication between Moscow and Washington have remained open. In all the other games, the world is basically destroyed.

The more elevated the crisis, the greater the risks of misunderstandings and panicked decisions.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

18 thoughts on “Russia’s threshold for nuclear weapon use”

  1. The military strategist Elbridge Colby was among those warning in 2018 that American complacency on the question of tactical nukes was leading us to disaster. Liberals and doves were certain that with nuclear war now “unthinkable,” there was no point in investing in weapons that would skirt the threshold of total annihilation. It was part a failure of imagination, and part of a broader belief in rationalist “progress”—with the madness of the Cold War behind us, no one would again risk taking the world to the brink. A new day had dawned on the world with the fall of the Soviet Union. There was no going back to darkness.

    Sadly, planners in Moscow were not as idealistic, or complacent. Willick cites a Congressional Research Service report, saying that “the United States has only 230 [tactical nuclear weapons], ‘with around 100 deployed with aircraft in Europe.’ Russia has up to 2,000.” Talmadge nails down the predicament we find ourselves in: “The problem is that precisely because all-out nuclear war would be so costly for both the U.S. and Russia, Mr. Putin likely believes it won’t happen. As a result, he may feel relatively safe engaging in conventional aggression or even limited nuclear use below that threshold—demonstration strikes, for example, or attacks on military targets—without much risk of a Western response.”

  2. This is the situation that calls for no-fly zones are pushing the United States to enter into. Should a no-fly zone turn into a limited land war—as I have argued above is at least somewhat likely—an outmatched Russian army would have recourse to beating back NATO forces with tactical nuclear weapons. If such a war could be kept under the strategic nuclear threshold—a big if—it’s not clear that the West could prevail in Ukraine given the tactical nuke disparity. In the meantime, Ukraine would be transformed into a radioactive wasteland.

  3. According to diplomats and experts I spoke with, the way forward involves a number of elements. First, the West must ensure that however much support it gives to Kyiv, the conflict remains one between Ukraine and Russia. That way, peace negotiations remain between the two countries, and not Russia and the West more widely. Washington, Paris, London, and Berlin cannot allow talks to become what Putin wants them to be: a negotiation about spheres of influence in which Ukraine and other states can be bargained away. This, in effect, would be a victory for Putin and his tactics of nuclear brinkmanship, leading to a more dangerous world in which other dictators take the lesson that bullying and intimidation work.

  4. Mr Meier sees “uncontrolled escalation as a result of mishaps, false flags or misunderstood signalling” as the most likely routes to disaster. Mishaps are, after all, a fact of life, and people at or on the edge of a war get nervous. On March 9th, as if to provide a worked example, a mistake during routine maintenance saw a nuclear-capable (but in this case unarmed) Indian missile fired into Pakistan, its nuclear-armed neighbour. India’s sheepish apology on the 11th would have been too little too late if tensions had been high.

    Whatever chain of events might bring it about, the irradiation of even a sliver of Ukraine would be a shocking moment for Europe and the world. Western governments would face enormous pressure to respond. Yet to attack Russia in kind (rung 27: “Exemplary Attack on Military”) would be to invite further nuclear use against American and European cities (rung 29: “Exemplary Attacks on Population”). Khan had 15 further rungs in which the adversaries traded forces and cities with ever more abandon. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction suggests that, once cities are being lost, things will quickly get up close to rung 44: “Spasm or Insensate War”.

  5. On the day he invaded Ukraine Mr Putin threatened outsiders thinking of intervening with consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history”. State media in Russia fantasise about nuclear strikes on the West. For now, though, America says there is no sign that Russia has put its nuclear forces on higher alert. America and Russia still swap information about their long-range nukes. Mr Biden has called on Russia to resume arms-control talks. Russia said sanctions prevent the resumption of on-site inspections.

    Russia’s published doctrine envisages four scenarios for the use of nuclear weapons: detection of a ballistic-missile attack against Russia or its allies; an attack on them with nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction; actions that threaten its nuclear command-and-control systems; and “aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy”.

    The West’s arming of Ukraine falls well short of those red lines. Yet the concept of an existential threat is elastic, notes Bruno Tertrais of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a think-tank in France. Mr Putin has called Ukraine “a matter of life and death”. He has also suggested that a major attack on Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, would be similarly grave (explosions rocked an airbase in Crimea on August 9th; see picture here). Others ask, what if Mr Putin regards himself as the state, so that any danger to his regime is deemed an existential threat to Russia?

  6. Sadly, it isn’t that hard to see a path to nuclear use from here. There are many variants, but the basic story goes something like this:

    Western support to Ukraine increases this autumn, with new weapons systems and larger quantities of the weapons already deployed. Western intelligence gives the Ukrainians an even sharper edge against a Russian force that is large but poorly trained, under-equipped and demoralized. The Russian military takes heavy losses. It’s routed from one of the Ukrainian regions it has annexed.

    In this scenario, Putin’s grand project is now collapsing once and for all. Protests in Russia intensify. He fears losing his grip on power and being dragged, Gaddafi-like, through the streets. So he strikes Ukrainian forces with a tactical nuclear weapon in a gamble to underscore the risks, stop the war, and avert disaster for himself. His aim is not to gain a military advantage, but to raise the stakes so high that western capitals are forced to rethink their strategy.

    After that, de-escalation would be hard. The United States and Nato nuclear powers would come under pressure for a nuclear strike of their own – probably on Russia itself, due to a lack of other options. With its conventional forces in disarray, Russia’s likely response to this strike would be to broaden the nuclear conflict to Nato.

    The US might try to avoid such an escalating nuclear scenario by deploying a large conventional US force to Ukraine, but this would be almost as escalatory from Russia’s perspective as a Nato nuclear attack. Even if such a strategy did work to de-escalate, the nuclear taboo is broken, and with it, the possibility that other despots use nuclear weapons in the future is much higher.

  7. Putin’s position and perhaps his life is at risk if there is another big Ukrainian victory. He may not realise this yet, but he will eventually understand that his survival depends on a negotiated peace that does not utterly humiliate him and Russia – for example, a ceasefire that returns both sides to the pre-2014 ceasefire lines.

    His problem will be that the Ukrainians are full of confidence at the moment, and not inclined to give him that. They want all their stolen territory back, and the only lever that might change their minds (and those of their Western supporters) is a nuclear strike on Ukraine.

    Just one very small (sub-kiloton-range) ‘tactical’ nuclear weapon, mind, delivered on sparsely populated land or off the Ukrainian coast. It couldn’t be more than that, because the generals in the Russian chain of command would not accept orders for a bigger strike that might start a full nuclear war. They may be corrupt, but most of them love their families.

    They might go for just one nuke, though, especially if Putin could persuade them that it was a reasonably safe diplomatic ploy aimed at forcing the Ukrainians or even NATO to the negotiating table. So what should the latter parties do if this happens?

    The key fact to keep in mind is that the same Russian generals would probably not escalate further if NATO made no nuclear response to that single Russian nuke. They’d just wait for the terror and revulsion sweeping through Russia and every other country to take Putin down.

  8. Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons when “the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” Russian President Vladimir Putin considers Crimea to be part of Russia. He is wrong, legally and morally. But given that he, and not international law, holds the authority to launch Russia’s nuclear weapons, his views can’t be ignored. Indeed, some close observers believe Crimea to be a real redline for him. Should Ukraine threaten Russia’s hold on Crimea, Putin could plausibly respond by ordering a limited nuclear attack against, say, Ukrainian forces on the battlefield. His primary goal would likely not be to stabilize the military situation. It would be to terrify Ukraine, its European supporters, and the United States with the threat of further escalation. Putin would probably hope that this threat would compel the United States to pressure Ukraine into abandoning Crimea or at least negotiating seriously.

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