WASHINGTON — Russia’s assault on Ukraine and its veiled threats to use nuclear weapons have policymakers past and present thinking the unthinkable: how should the West respond to the explosion? of a nuclear bomb on the Russian battlefield?
According to some architects of the post-Cold War nuclear order, the default US policy response is discipline and restraint. This could lead to increased sanctions and the isolation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Rose Gottemoeller, NATO’s assistant secretary general from 2016 to 2019.
But no one can rely on calm minds to prevail in such a moment, and real life rarely goes as planned. World leaders would be angry, offended, scared. Miscommunication and confusion could be commonplace. Hackers could add to the chaos. The demands would be great for harsh retaliation – the kind that can be done with missiles loaded with nuclear bombs capable of traveling faster than the speed of sound.
When military and civilian officials and experts have played on Russian-American nuclear tensions in the past, tabletop exercises sometimes end with arcs of nuclear missiles crossing continents and oceans, hitting capitals in Europe and other countries. America, killing millions in hours, said Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group.
“And, you know, pretty soon, you just had a global thermonuclear war,” Oliker said.
It’s a scenario officials hope to avoid, even if Russia targets Ukraine with a nuclear bomb.
Gottemoeller, one of the chief U.S. nuclear negotiators with Russia for the Obama administration, said the broad outlines President Joe Biden has provided so far of his nuclear policy match those of previous administrations. by using atomic weapons only in “extreme circumstances”.
“And a single Russian strike demonstrating nuclear use, or – horrible as that is – nuclear use in Ukraine, I don’t think it reaches that level” of demanding a US nuclear response, Gottemoeller said, speaker today. at Stanford University.
For former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who for nearly a quarter century in Congress helped shape global nuclear policy, the option of using Western nuclear power must remain on the table.
“That’s what the doctrine of mutual assured destruction has been about for a long, long time,” said Nunn, now a strategic adviser to the security organization Nuclear Threat Initiative, which he co-founded.
“If President Putin were to use nuclear weapons, or if any other country uses nuclear weapons first, not in response to a nuclear attack, not in response to an existential threat to his own country…that leader would have to assume that it puts the world at high risk of nuclear war and nuclear exchange,” Nunn said.
For US officials and world leaders, discussions of how to respond to a limited nuclear attack are no longer moot. In the early hours and days of the Russian invasion, Putin made reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal. He warned Western countries to stay out of the conflict, saying he was putting his nuclear forces on heightened alert.
Any country that interfered with Russia’s invasion would face consequences “such as you have never seen, in all your history”, Putin said.
How to respond to any Russian use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons was among the questions addressed by Biden and other Western leaders when they met in Europe in late March. Three NATO members – the United States, Britain and France – possess nuclear weapons.
An overriding concern is that by turning some nuclear weapons into tactical weapons for use in combat, Russia could break the nearly eight-decade-old global taboo against using a nuclear weapon against another country. Even relatively small tactical nuclear weapons approach the strength of the atomic bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima, Japan during World War II.
Gottemoeller and Nunn praise Biden’s restraint in the face of Putin’s implied nuclear warnings at the start of the war. Biden has made no known move to raise the United States’ nuclear alert status. The United States also postponed the launch of a routine Minuteman III test last month to avoid escalating tensions.
But in the short and long term, the world appears to be at greater risk of nuclear conflict due to Putin’s failed invasion and nuclear threats, arms control experts and negotiators say.
The weaknesses Russia’s invasion exposed in its conventional military might make Putin feel even more compelled in the future to threaten the use of nuclear power as his greatest weapon against the United States and NATO. much more powerful.
While Gottemoeller argued that Ukraine’s surrender of its Soviet nuclear arsenal in 1994 opened the door to three decades of international integration and growth, she said some governments may learn a different lesson from the invasion. Russian nuclear from non-nuclear Ukraine – that they need nuclear bombs as a matter of survival.
Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute, said the nuclear danger was increasing.
“And we can tell which pathways would further increase that risk. And a direct conflict with Russia from forces based in NATO countries is certainly a path to nuclear war,” Lewis said.
Gottemoeller took heart from Putin when he publicly grumbled late last month about “cancellation culture.” It suggested he was vulnerable to global condemnation for his invasion of Ukraine, and worse to come if he broke the post-World War II taboo on nuclear attack, she said.
Detonating a nuclear bomb in a country Putin sought dominance over, one next to his own, would not be rational, Nunn said. But he added that neither was Putin’s announcement of a heightened nuclear alert.
As a young congressional aide during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Nunn saw American officers and pilots in Europe awaiting orders to launch nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union. The danger today is not yet as great as during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles on Cuba raised the threat of nuclear war with the United States, he said. -he declares.
But the risk of an intentional nuclear escalation is now high enough to make a ceasefire in Ukraine crucial, Nunn said. The modern threat of cyberattacks adds to the risk of an erroneous launch. And it’s not clear how vulnerable US and, in particular, Russian systems are to such hacking attempts, he said.
Putin “was very reckless in his saber shaking nuclear weapons,” Nunn said. “And that, I think, made everything more dangerous, including a goof.”