Video Above: A Conversation with Peter Huessy, Senior Warrior Maven Nuclear Weapons Analyst
Would Putin actually use intercontinental or tactical nuclear weapons? It is tough to imagine a threat more ominous, as it would likely spark WWIII and place the entire world at risk of destruction.
For quite some time now, Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have deliberately raised the nuclear possibility in what appears to be an effort to scare NATO into inaction. The question of just how realistic this is is likely to be a massive focus of debate, leading many to speculate in various directions.
One thing is quite clear, however. The US is not engaging in this kind of conversation and is making what appears to be a responsible, measured step to avoid threats, escalatory language or any discussion of the possibility whatsoever.
“That kind of rhetoric is dangerous and unhelpful. Nobody wants to see a nuclear war happen as it is a war that all sides lose. It is dangerous and something we will not engage in,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at a special Ukraine-focused meeting in Germany with more than 40-countries willing to help Ukraine.
Recent Russian strikes on railway stations have led some to wonder if Russia is, in fact, deliberately targeting NATO supply lines into Ukraine, and Russian activity near Moldova is also raising suspicions of potential escalation. One thing seems clear, Russia leadership appears to be repeatedly floating the possibility of nuclear attack as a “threat” or potential “deterrent” against NATO involvement. Clearly this is something Austin and all of NATO take very seriously
“We certainly will do everything within our power to make sure it does not spin out of control. I think any bluster about the possible use of nuclear weapons is very unhelpful. Nobody wants to see a nuclear war and nobody wins it. Always a possibility that a number of things can happen, it is uncomfortable and dangerous to speculate about the use of nuclear weapons,” Austin said.
One significant emerging question seems to be quite simple. Is Putin suicidal? Most observers say he is a rational actor in many respects, yet many now suggest his behavior indicates a troubling shift in his strategies and approaches to warfare. The US nuclear triad tasked with deterrence is extremely functional and of course quite capable of inflicting massive destruction upon Russia rather quickly.
Nuclear armed ballistic missile submarines, for example, US Navy nuclear armed ballistic missile submarines are quietly and secretly patrolling vital undersea hotspots around the world at any given time.
This is, by design, intended to ensure a catastrophic second strike upon any nation or actor who uses nuclear weapons. Therefore, the US Nuclear Deterrence posture essentially guarantees complete destruction for any nation launching a nuclear attack, something which Putin and the Russian leadership are certain to be aware of.
This raises the simple question of whether, if backed into a corner and facing defeat, Putin would launch nuclear attacks and essentially destroy his own country? One does not want to speculate about his state of mind, yet it could be possible, if unlikely. Regardless of his temperament or inclination, it seems clear that Putin and Lavrov are using the prospect of global nuclear war to prevent the US and NATO from taking a more active role. Thus far, the possibility of nuclear war, and its consequences, are so substantial that the US leadership simply does not want to take risks.
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Video Above: Could a Strong Deterrence Posture Keep Putin From Launching a Nuclear Attack?
There is a highly significant nuance woven into the current discussion and concern regarding whether Putin would actually use nuclear weapons if backed into a corner and facing defeat over Ukraine. It is the question of tactical nuclear weapons.
The issue speaks to a complicated and often discussed debate about the existence of lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons, which is whether the construction of low-yield nuclear weapons actually “lower” the threshold to nuclear war of some kind and therefore make it more likely. This issue has generated significant thinking about the optimal US deterrence strategy.
Should the US take the position that “any” use of nuclear weapons of any kind will be met with a massive, catastrophic nuclear response to help ensure deterrence against the possibility of tactical nuclear weapons? Or should the US operate its own arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons to ensure a comparable or “measured” response to the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons? This naturally raises the question as to whether some kind of “limited” nuclear war might be possible.
Seems difficult to envision any scenario where there could be a winner in a limited nuclear war without escalation. Even with escalation, there is little chance of a winner of some kind, a point made recently in Germany by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin when asked about the Russian nuclear threat.
The US did build low-yield tactical nuclear weapons following the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. This 2018 NPR called for a new low-yield variant of the existing Trident II D5 nuclear missile, which has already been built.
The same NPR also called for the manufacture of a low-yield, submarine-launched nuclear-armed cruise missile as well as other low-yield options. The strategy with this initiative, as explained to Congress years ago by former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, was to bring Russia back to the “negotiating” table after violating the INF treaty and improve deterrence by giving commanders more options.
These questions are now again open and may be leading to different answers and strategies, depending upon the ultimate direction taken by the Biden administration, a direction which could very well change or be influenced by recent developments in Ukraine.
Would knowledge that the US could respond with tactical nuclear weapons function as a deterrent against him considering their use? Or would it further embolden him with the thinking that there is an actual possibility of a limited nuclear war of some kind? How much risk would Putin and the Russian leadership be willing to absorb?
The answer to this question would seem very difficult to identify, given the subjective nature of this kind of decision making and the as-of-yet undetermined outcome of the current war. This ambiguity, and the consequences it presents, certainly makes decision making for the US and the Pentagon extremely difficult and complex. There seem to be few clear, unambiguous answers.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.