How serious is Russia about nuclear war?

·Senior White House Correspondent
·9 min read

WASHINGTON — The war in Ukraine has led some military experts to rethink the conventional wisdom on nuclear weapons, a reconsideration rooted in an acknowledgment that as frightening as the prospect of nuclear war is, a policy predicated on these fears has given the Kremlin too much license in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Mikhail Tereshchenko/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, Vadim Savitskiy/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

“I think we have exaggerated the threat of the Kremlin using nuclear weapons and have made some policy decisions based on that exaggerated fear,” retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, chair of strategic studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Yahoo News.

Mainstream thinking about nuclear war has been guided by two related realities: that atomic weapons are immensely destructive and that if used once, they will be used repeatedly in a series of back-and-forth strikes that will only compound the devastation until there is nothing much left to devastate.

Those were the lessons of Proud Prophet, an intensive 1983 simulation conducted by the U.S. government at the National Defense University in which dozens of security agencies and military commands took part.

Proud Prophet began with what was expected to be a limited nuclear strike by the Soviet Union, only to quickly slip from the grasp of the combatants. “The result was a catastrophe that made all the wars of the past five hundred years pale in comparison,” Yale historian Paul Bracken wrote. “A half-billion human beings were killed in the initial exchanges and at least that many more would have died from radiation and starvation.”

Given the diligence with which the simulation was conducted, Proud Prophet offered chilling evidence that however a nuclear war began, it could end only in annihilation.

An intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from a truck-mounted launcher
An intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from a truck-mounted launcher somewhere in Russia. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Fears of such an outcome receded after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, especially as nonstate actors like al-Qaida preoccupied the U.S. national security establishment. Still, it was only a matter of time before new geopolitical tensions gave rise to fresh nuclear anxieties.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February did just that.

“The risk is higher now than it has been in decades,” Geoff Wilson, a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told Yahoo News. Russia has openly courted the possibility, with Russian television last Sunday showing what a nuclear strike might do to the United Kingdom, one of many NATO allies now helping Ukraine. The following Wednesday, Russia conducted tests with nuclear-capable Iskander missile systems in Kaliningrad, a Russian territory within striking distance of European capitals and military installations.

There followed assurances from the Russian foreign ministry that Russia was not contemplating nuclear war. After weeks of bluster, the assurance was difficult to parse.

“We’re dealing with a nuclear-armed state,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told the Washington Post late last month. “You cannot ignore that as you make decisions about how to respond.”

However, some military analysts believe that harping on Russia’s nuclear capability is a mistake, one that emphasizes history over present-day reality. They argue that even if Russian President Vladimir Putin were to order a nuclear strike, it would be with smaller, tactical nuclear weapons, not the much bigger strategic devices that could obliterate cities like London or New York.

Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles
Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles are paraded through Red Square during the nation's Victory Day celebration in 2009. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images)

And they argue that even if Putin did use nuclear weapons, the West could answer with conventional airstrikes as devastating as a nuclear attack but without the prospect of that counterstrike escalating into the kind of tit for tat envisioned by Proud Prophet.

“We have been so worried about nuclear weapons and World War III that we have allowed ourselves to be fully deterred,” retired Gen. Philip Breedlove, the former NATO supreme allied commander, said to Radio Free Europe in early April.

The tragic irony of the current moment is that Russia has leveled Ukrainian cities and killed thousands of Ukrainian citizens without having to resort to nuclear weapons. Although the West has been consistently supplying Ukraine with matériel, fears of provoking Russia into a nuclear attack have kept the United States and European allies from direct involvement in the conflict.

Damaged buildings in Mariupol, Ukraine
Damaged buildings in Mariupol, Ukraine. (Azov/Handout via Reuters)

In response to the same dynamic that frustrated Breedlove, retired U.S. Army Col. Sam Gardiner, who was a war games expert at the Naval War College and is a leading authority on military simulation, compiled a PowerPoint presentation last month in which he argued that if Russia did go nuclear, it would be with a smaller, 1-kiloton tactical device as opposed to the 15-kiloton device the United States dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 (a kiloton is equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT).

Russia has recalibrated its own thinking on nuclear deterrence since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as it has watched NATO creep ever closer to its borders. After NATO intervened to stop the war in Kosovo in 1999, the Kremlin held an exercise called Zapad (“West”) that simulated another NATO attack, this one on Russia.

A poorly trained Russian military failed to stop a NATO attack, leading to a nuclear strike against Europe. This strike would be with smaller, tactical weapons in order to avoid the kind of annihilation Proud Prophet envisioned. Subsequent war games helped the Kremlin hone a strategy known as “escalate to de-escalate,” in which nuclear weapons frighten the enemy into submission without leading to mutually assured destruction.

A joint strategic exercise of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus in 2021
A joint strategic exercise of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus in 2021. (Vadim Savitskiy/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Effectively, "escalate to de-escalate" lowered the threshold for when nuclear weapons would be used but also called for less powerful nuclear weapons. The new approach informed Russia’s increasingly aggressive approach to former Soviet republics under Putin, including during his first incursion into Ukraine eight years ago.

“Russia’s policy probably limited the West’s options for responding to the 2008 war in Georgia,” deterrence expert Nikolai Sokov wrote for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2014. “And it is probably in the back of Western leaders’ minds today, dictating restraint as they formulate their responses to events in Ukraine.”

For some in the U.S. military, the current invasion of Ukraine demands a fresh outlook, one that does not shy away from recognizing that Putin could use nuclear weapons. Some also wonder if other adversaries see Western deference to Russia's nuclear might as a good reason to start making nuclear threats of their own.

At a congressional hearing on Thursday, Adm. Charles Richard, who heads U.S. Strategic Command, warned that China is “watching the war in Ukraine closely and will likely use nuclear coercion to their advantage in the future. Their intent is to achieve the military capability to reunify Taiwan by 2027, if not sooner.”

The National Defense Control Center in Moscow
The National Defense Control Center in Moscow oversees the test of the Russian hypersonic missile system called Avangard in 2018. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters)

Gardiner believes the Kremlin’s "escalate to de-escalate" policy commits Russia to using only tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, where the battle has taken on shades of the Zapad exercise. Gardiner does not believe Russia would use strategic nuclear weapons, even if the military situation continued to deteriorate. “You can only go so big, otherwise you will have crossed the line.”

Putin is likely aware that using a nuclear weapon of any size in an offensive war would further alienate Russia from the West. “One nuclear weapon is still a nuclear weapon,” said Wilson, the nonproliferation expert. “That’s a taboo.”

It may also be pointless. Ukrainian forces are too dispersed for such a strike to swing the war decisively in Russia’s favor. “Russian tactical nuclear weapons would have little or no impact on the operational battle,” Gardiner argues in his presentation, which he has shared with top military officials in Europe and the United States (including Breedlove, the former NATO commander).

And even though Russia’s offensive has proved ineffective so far, its indiscriminate shelling and bombing have leveled Ukrainian cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv. “Damages from the Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons are no more horrific than the current damages being experienced in Ukraine from conventional weapons,” Gardiner wrote.

Destroyed buildings in Kharkiv, Ukraine
Destroyed buildings in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on April 22. (Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Nor does Gardiner believe that a nuclear attack by Russia would require a nuclear response by the West. “Even if the Russians were to do something stupid, there is no need for us to follow that. We could destroy the majority of Russian forces in Ukraine with a five-day air campaign," he told Yahoo News.

Another presentation he produced and shared with current Air Force officials shows that such a retaliatory assault would cripple the Russian military in the European sector while leading to the loss of only 10 U.S. aircraft.

“Most war games have shown that once you start any nuclear exchange, things escalate very quickly,” said military historian Phillips O’Brien of St. Andrews University in the United Kingdom, who favorably shared Gardiner’s presentation on Twitter. He said he was intrigued by the presentation because “it opened up the possibility of responding to a Russian tactical nuclear usage through a very strong/devastating conventional response as opposed to possibly nuclear escalation.”

The Russian Ministry of Defense claims that it has successfully test-launched their Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile
The Russian Defense Ministry claims it has successfully test-launched the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, the latest addition to weapons that can deploy its nuclear arsenal. (Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation/Cover Images/Zuma Press)

For some experts in nuclear proliferation, entertaining nuclear exchanges is fundamentally dangerous. “If Putin uses [a tactical nuclear weapon],” Northeastern University political scientist Mai’a Cross told Yahoo News in an email, “he is demonstrating to the West that he will not back down until he achieves his goals. His willingness to break the taboo would likely alarm Western powers and put them on heightened alert as well, which only increases the chances of accidentally setting off a larger war.”

Such a scenario would be an echo of Proud Prophet, in which a series of aggressions and counter-aggressions, maneuvers and misunderstandings, deepened the crisis.

“These are world-ending arsenals we are talking about,” Wilson said. “Everyone should be afraid of them.”

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