Jhe past week has seen a rapid escalation in nuclear rhetoric, beginning with Vladimir Putin threatening to use “all forces and means” to defend newly seized territory in Ukraine and ending with Joe Biden warning of “Armageddon” if Russia crossed the nuclear Rubicon.
However, the realities underlying the threatening vocabulary are a much grayer area than the bluster suggests. It is far from certain that Putin would be prepared to be the first leader to use nuclear weapons in wartime since 1945, beyond his territorial ambitions in Ukraine. If his main goal is to stay in power, this could be exactly the wrong way to go.
Even though he issued the launch order, he has no guarantee that it would be carried out. Nor can he be absolutely sure that the weapons and their delivery systems would work.
On the American side, despite the apocalyptic language of the American president during a private fundraiser on Thursday evening, it is not at all inevitable that Washington will respond to Putin’s nuclear use with nuclear retaliation. Past war games suggest there would be vigorous debate within the administration, to say the least.
Like US presidents, Putin is normally accompanied by an aide carrying a briefcase with codes used to authorize a nuclear launch. In the United States it’s called football, in Russia it’s head. In the Russian system, the minister of defense and the chief of staff have their own heads but it is believed that Putin can order a launch without them.
However, the head concerns strategic nuclear forces, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched from land or sea, or long-range bombers. Because they must be launched within minutes in the event of an enemy attack, the warheads must be deployed, mounted on the delivery systems.
Any nuclear use in Ukraine would likely involve non-strategic, or tactical, weapons with shorter range delivery systems, which are generally (but not necessarily) less powerful than strategic weapons, although on average they are several times more powerful than the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs.
The United States has only one type of tactical weapon, the B61 gravity bomb, of which there are about 100 in Europe and a similar number in the United States, according to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).
The FAS estimates that Russia has 2,000 tactical weapons, of widely varying shapes and sizes, for use on land, at sea and in the air. The weapons are not deployed on missiles or planes, but kept in bunkers at storage sites scattered throughout Russia. There are 12 national storage sites, known in Russian military parlance as “Object S”, one of which is in Belgorod, just across the Ukrainian border.
There are also 34 “core” sites, closer to delivery systems. In times of crisis, warheads would be moved from national sites to base sites – and so far Western intelligence agencies say no such movement has been observed.
Any such movement would be carried out by the 12th General Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces, which has the task of storing and maintaining the warheads, then delivering them in specialized trains or trucks to base sites, or directly to the unit designated to launch them.
Pavel Baev, a military researcher who worked for the Soviet Defense Ministry, said Putin could not rely on the weapons working properly.
“Most of those warheads stored there are very old,” said Baev, now a professor at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. “Without testing, it’s really hard to say how suitable they are, as many of them are past their expiration date.”
Baev added that it was also far from clear that the Russians could successfully pair older warheads with the much newer delivery systems expected to be used, possibly hypersonic 9K720 Iskander or Kinzhal missiles.
Not all analysts have such a gloomy view of the state of the tactical arsenal. Pavel Podvig, who leads a research project called Russian Nuclear Forces and is a senior fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, said: “There is a maintenance protocol. There are ways to check if a weapon is in good condition.
What might be more likely to collapse, however, is the chain of command if Putin issued such an alarming and extreme order.
“It’s one thing to follow the order to launch a ‘special military operation’ that you understand will be over in three days,” Podvig said. “It’s another thing to accept the order to drop a nuclear bomb. One has the feeling that this kind of order would be universally considered criminal. I think the math would change.
The Russian leader is said to already be facing dissent from those around him. Making the leap to nuclear use could stretch its authority to breaking point.
“I think it would be extremely risky for any commander-in-chief to give that order because if you give the order and it’s not carried out, it backfires on him,” Baev said.
If Putin decided to play it all and if his military officers accompanied him and succeeded in detonating a weapon in or around Ukraine, then Biden and his team would be faced with choices that all modern American presidents hoped they would never have to make.
American warnings to Russia in recent days have been vague about what the response would be, saying only that it would be “catastrophic”. The White House must keep its leeway, depending on what Russia does, whether it’s a “demonstration” explosion over the Black Sea or the Arctic, or the bombing of a Ukrainian military target or – in the worst case – a city.
In 2016, the Obama administration conducted wargame exercises to test its communication channels and decision-making process in the event of Russia’s use of a tactical nuclear weapon. There were deep disagreements that sometimes led to heated discussions.
“The debate has collapsed around two pretty important lines,” said Jon Wolfsthal, who was Obama’s special assistant and senior director at the National Security Council for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.
The first question was whether “the United States or NATO should respond militarily”.
“In the game, the answer was no. The United States was winning the conventional war,” said Wolfsthal, who writes a Substack column titled BoomBoomBoom.
The counter-argument was that the United States could not afford not to respond with nuclear weapons.
“There were those who said that if you didn’t use nuclear weapons, two terrible things would happen. The first is that all of our allies will doubt our commitment,” he said. “The second is: if you don’t use a nuclear weapon in response, how do you dissuade Putin from going nuclear again? Nuclear weapons were needed to restore deterrence.
“We never responded to that. We never settled that debate,” Wolfsthal said.
The 2016 war game – first reported in The Bomb, a book by Fred Kaplan – was played twice, at the level of cabinet secretary, “principals” and their deputies. Majors voted to respond with a nuclear strike, but not on Russia, in hopes of avoiding a planet-ending all-out nuclear exchange. Instead, they hit Belarus, arguing it was a “non-combatant belligerent”.
MPs voted not to respond with nuclear weapons, arguing that the United States could win with conventional weapons and that using nuclear power would make it much harder to isolate Putin internationally. Two of the officials who pushed this option now hold senior positions in the Biden administration: Colin Kahl is the Pentagon’s policy chief and Avril Haines is the director of national intelligence. After the war games were over, Haines suggested having T-shirts printed with the slogan “MPs should run the world.”
The 2016 war game took place in a Baltic nation, so inside NATO and under its protective nuclear umbrella. Ukraine stands outside this umbrella.
Ernest Moniz, Obama’s energy secretary, reportedly voted for a nuclear response in 2016. He didn’t comment or even confirm that the war game had taken place, but he said Ukraine was a very different case.
“I would say if the line is crossed into nuclear use, there has to be a very, very strong response,” he told the Guardian. “But that response doesn’t have to be nuclear.”
The key question is more likely whether the United States and its allies should respond with devastating conventional firepower, as suggested by Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau and former CIA director David Petraeus. But that would turn the war into a war between Russia and NATO, in which the escalation towards a nuclear exchange could become difficult to stop.
According to Eric Schlosser, the author of a book on the nuclear establishment, Command and Control, the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) played another war game in 2019 with the use of Russian nuclear power in Ukraine. The results are top secret, but as Schlosser wrote in the Atlantic, one of the participants told him, “There were no happy results.”