US national policy regarding the nuclear threat in the Russo-Ukrainian war

The Russian invasion of Ukraine raises two areas of interest for the US – the fight between democracy and authoritarianism and the nuclear threat to humanity. Democracy faces deep challenges that could threaten the longest peace between great powers ever recorded in history. Nuclear weapons are a leading existential threat to humanity. Both are intertwined in this war.

There seem to be two general views in the West regarding the Russian invasion.

The first, represented by John Mearsheimer (Mearsheimer, 2022), sees the war as the logical and reasonable outcome of a “bad play” by the West against Russia in a realist world run by a zero-sum game for power. According to this view, liberal values and international law are a luxury that the West could impose on other civilizations as long as the US was the sole hegemon in the world, a time which has now passed.

The second, represented by Yuval Noah Harari (Harari, 2022), sees the war as an epic moment in a struggle to preserve the peace mechanisms and global order that humans managed to construct since the end of World War II, and which have begun to crack in the last few years. According to this view, liberal values and international law are not just another cultural theme of a sinking hegemon, but an amazing “human progress” to achieve the longest peace periods ever known in history.

Though different from each other, both perspectives represent the current reality. On the one hand, although imposed by the West, these values do reflect a tremendous “human progress” in maintaining low violence levels (although the view that they are a central factor in peace can be debated). On the other hand, although being such an important “human progress,” they have in fact been imposed by the West to a great degree.

Now consider that the West’s power is declining and that some authoritarian regimes possess nuclear weapons and might be willing to use them in contexts irrelevant to the MAD effect. What we get out of this is that the world is heading toward an era in which the use of nuclear weapons might become an unfortunate reality.

Putin’s ideological view of Ukraine’s role in the Russian Slavic empire (Putin, 2021), combined with core security concerns (Kofman, 2022), circumstantial reasons, and the “Westernization” course of Ukraine (Kofman M. , 2022), led him to the current invasion. Putin aims to weaken Ukraine militarily, economically and politically, to take the pro-Russian territories from Ukraine, to bring Ukraine back under Russian control and influence, and to have the West’s attention and willingness to give in to his interests (Reynolds, 2022). 

However, Putin met an unexpectedly strong Ukrainian resistance, supported by a Western unity demonstrated by significant military aid and extreme economic sanctions. Putin’s army failed to capture Kyiv, lost a lot of manpower, and was forced to focus on the Donbas region in the south-east (Kofman D. A., 2022). Yet, Ukraine has renounced its wish to join NATO, China, and to a lesser extent India, remained on Russia’s side diplomatically and economically, and Putin managed to rally most of the Russian public around the war (Kirby, 2022).

To reach a peaceful ending, three top issues in serious disagreement need to be resolved, and the West is an essential player in all of them: security arrangements, the lifting of the sanctions, and the status of the conquered territories (Beddoes, 2022b).

The possibility that Russia will use nuclear weapons against Ukraine is a big threat for the US. A dissatisfying response could potentially drive extremely negative trends and outcomes for US national security strategy and deterrence: legitimacy for nuclear use by other nuclear states, nuclear proliferation, and aggressive actions towards the US by its enemies who are less deterred.

This paper will analyze scenarios for Russian uses of nuclear weapons and suggest American response policies. The responses are based on the strategies of deterrence and enforcement from Lawrence Freedman’s “strategic coercion” theory (Freedman, 1998), suited for the US’s defensive aim to maintain the “nuclear taboo”. Both strategies aim to guide the enemy to choose an alternative behavior that should be presented to him, and demonstrated to be more favorable to his interests. However, these strategies can fail due to internal pressures, cognitive dissonance, wrong calculations, and cultural differences.

American nuclear policy towards Russia and arms limitation agreements

The US began to develop a nuclear strategy after it had reached a nuclear capability in 1945, and as the Soviet Union (SU) had also managed to achieve it in 1949. Until the 1960’s, the US tried two strategies: A. “Containment”: not using nuclear weapons militarily or diplomatically, containing the communist advance to neutral states and maintaining the status quo. B. “Massive Retaliation”: fearing from exhaustion in long and esoteric wars, the US aimed to prevent them by threatening to use nuclear weapons in any war (Freedman L., 1981).

Since the 1960’s, the US understood that a nuclear war should only be deterred from and could not be “won” under the MAD effect (Mutually Assured Destruction), created by the “second strike” (nuclear retaliation after an enemy attack) ability of both sides (Art, 1985). This led to the “Flexible Response” strategy: attempting to first stop conventionally a SU conquer of Europe, then with tactical nuclear weapons (TNW), and then, if failed, with strategic ones. Later, the stability of MAD was challenged by developments like the first satellite launch into space, the ability to carry a few nuclear warheads on missiles, a growing accuracy, the space laser interception project, and anti-ballistic missiles that could prevent a “second strike” ability by defending from the few missiles the enemy has left after a “first strike”. (Freedman L., 1981).

These challenges pushed both sides to a nuclear arms race that led eventually to a series of arms limitation deals, starting with “SALT” at 1972. This process was also strengthened after the Cuban missile crisis (1962), the closest event to an unwanted nuclear war. In 1968, the international NPT treaty was signed, forbidding all signatory states from developing nuclear weapons, besides the nuclear super-powers. The latest agreement, NEW START (2012), is in power until 2026 and limits both sides to 1,550 warheads, 700 delivery systems, and 800 launching platforms (Daryl Kimball, 2020). However, in 2002, the US withdrew from the ABM treaty (1972) which limited the number of anti-ballistic missiles to 100 (Daryl Kimball, 2020a). Under Trump, the US withdrew from the INF treaty (1987), which abolished all intermediate-range missiles, arguing for China’s inclusion and claiming that Russia cheated (Daryl Kimball, 2020b).

Today, the US arms control agenda is to limit new kinds of delivery systems for intercontinental weapons, to address tactical warheads, to preserve NEW START’s limits, and to include China in agreements. Russia’s seeks to limit American missile defense systems, prevent a space arms race, include France and Britain in agreements, and a US removal of nuclear weapons from Europe (Ibid). 

Scenarios for Russian use of nuclear weapons and US strategic responses

The American strategy

With the collapse of the SU, the US became a sole hegemonic world power, while Russia experienced a painful decline in political and military status, loss of territory, and the beginning of an economic rehabilitation process. However, the West’s and American image today is of a civilization suffering deep systematic political crises. Furthermore, Western global order and its international law are challenged by Russia’s and China’s authoritarian model that promotes “rationality” and detachment from “confused” public opinion by means of a meritocratic system, is gaining support (Michael Kofman A. S., 2021). Russia and China also point to the failure of the Western model in places where it attempted military intervention to build a Western state, as proof that Western democracy is neither a universal value nor a successful one (Jana Puglierin, 2021).

In recent years the US has become in fact less and less willing to involve itself in military conflicts to project its influence to distant places, as seen in the decisions of the last three presidents to leave Iraq and Afghanistan and to avoid broad intervention in Syria. That stems both from the lack of public support for such interventions, which demand many resources and fail to bring desired results, as well as the shift in US priorities to focus on China (Jana Puglierin, 2021). The US views China, in Biden’s words, as “the only competitor with the potential to combine economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to create a constant challenge to an open and stable international system” (Biden, 2021, p. 8). Despite the eruption of the Russian challenge in Europe, China is still the top priority, while the declared American strategy toward Russia is to strengthen deterrence against her by cooperation with NATO and other partners (Biden, 2022b).

First scenario – “demonstration” towards a preferable ending to the war

The Russian action in this scenario is explosion of one TNW in an uninhabited area in Ukraine or in its territorial waters in order to avoid casualties (Hoffmann, 2022). To blur the red line of the “nuclear taboo”, (Joshi, 2022) Russia declares that it was only a “legitimate test launch in light of NATO’s aggression fighting Russia indirectly and leading to World War III.”  Russia would call on all sides to show “real willingness” for peace and stability in the region as a condition for peace talks.

This scenario is likely to occur in case of a wider NATO intervention in Ukraine, for example in sending volunteer soldiers, improving the size or quality of military aid, or enforcing a no-fly zone.

The Russian rationale behind it would be deterring the West from intervening too far in the war and limiting the Russian room for maneuver, by demonstrating the threat of nuclear destruction in Ukraine and thereby leading the West to bigger concessions to end the war (Beddoes, 2022a).

This mechanism of action is based on the Russian military and nuclear doctrine. The Russian doctrine has been updated in recent years and is focused on the enemy’s psychology as a target to influence in different areas in accordance with Russian interests (Adamsky, 2015). Russia inflates its perceived will and resolve to use nuclear weapons by threats, alertness, and exercises.

Beyond verbal threats in the psychological domain, it is common to divide the operational use of nuclear weapons in the Russian doctrine into two distinct strategies: “global deterrence” and “regional deterrence” (Michael Kofman, 2020).

Global deterrence is a continuation of the Soviet strategy in the Cold War to prevent a nuclear attack from the West. Regional deterrence is aimed at deterring a large conventional war, most likely with tactical nuclear weapons (TNW).

Regional deterrence includes a hierarchy of growing escalatory use of TNW which starts after readiness is exhibited in order to show resolve. The hierarchy begins with “demonstration” – a bomb in an uninhabited place or on non-strategic enemy facilities to avoid enemy casualties or significant damage. This is followed by a step up to “intimidation” – several bombings of enemy forces in order to impede their progress and for defense. Finally, “retaliation” represents the most escalatory step and includes massive bombings of enemy forces and strategic targets aiming to severely damage him and change the course of the war (Ibid).

TNWs are central in the Russian nuclear doctrine as stated. While the US holds today a few hundred bombs (some of them in Europe), Russia holds an estimated 2,000 bombs (Corera, 2022). Despite the humble image implied by the word “tactical,” TNW has the same destructive nuclear effect on its surroundings as SNW, just in a smaller range. For example, a TNW blast will also create a fireball, shock waves, and lethal radiation that will inflict long term health damage on survivors, while the nuclear fallout will contaminate the air, water, soil and food for a long time (Tannenwald, 2022). 

Evidently, Russia’s recent behavior exemplified this doctrine. Three days after the start of the invasion, Putin declared that he ordered “the Russian army deterrence forces to be put on high combat alert.” He also warned other countries from interference that could lead to “consequences greater than any you have faced in history” (Andrew Roth, 2022).

On March 4, Russia attacked and took over the biggest nuclear plant in Ukraine and in Europe, Zaporizhzhia. On March 6, Russia claimed that the Ukrainians tried to make a “dirty bomb” that emits radiation but without a nuclear explosion. Toward the end of March, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared that Russia was in nuclear readiness (Boffey, 2022). On April 26, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov threatened again and said that the risk for a nuclear war in Ukraine is “serious and real,”, arguing that unlike the Cuban missile crisis, there are “few rules left” between Russia and the US (ALJAZEERA, 2022).

The proposed American strategic response is immediate and extended deterrence against the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Deterrence aims to prevent an enemy’s action before it is taken. Its success is conditioned on the deterrent’s reputation for enforcing its threats, communication of the red lines, capability to realize its threats, and credibility in its will to do so. There are two kinds of threats (Freedman L. , 1998):

  1. “Punishment”: to inflict such great pain on the enemy that any achievement he gets from his action will be a total loss.
  2. “Prevention”: of the achievement the enemy hopes to gain from his action, which cancels his rational.

The rationale behind this strategy is that due to the failure of US general deterrence, an immediate deterrence should be created toward any use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. This can be achieved by “punishment” threats, augmented by an increased ability and showing a clear will to do so, and by “prevention” steps as well.

The ultimate goal of this strategy is prevention of further use of nuclear weapons until the end of the war. In any case, the US will strive to prevent further escalation to a direct conflict between NATO and Russia and will present Putin with an alternative to the war.  

Regarding the American action, first, President Biden will open the hot-line and will speak to Putin (Nye, 2000). The message will be that the US has no intention to go to war but any use of nuclear weapons is a red line that, if crossed, will lead to changing the policy of non-intervention and will not achieve deterrence as the Russian doctrine falsely assumes. It will also be made clear that any radiation entering a NATO state will be considered an attack on NATO and will lead to a military response (Kheel, 2022). Putin will be presented with an alternative: a complete lifting of sanctions in return for a full retreat from Ukraine, which will remain neutral outside of NATO.

Militarily, The US will announce a nuclear alert and mobilize more forces to Europe that could attack Russian targets in larger force and scale if needed. Diplomatically, the US will threaten that any further use of nuclear weapons will lead to action in the UN to ban all Russian representatives from international institutions and cancel its veto power. In the press, the US will conduct public polls to show support for carrying out the threats against Russia if necessary and thus strengthen their credibility.  

Second scenario – “breakthrough” to change the war’s course

The Russian action in this scenario is explosion of a small number of TNWs against military targets in order to paralyze strategic facilities and weapons, while striving to minimize civilian casualties (Corera, 2022). Russia will blame Ukraine and the US for preparing radioactive “dirty bombs” to bomb Russian forces (perhaps even exploding one of these as a “false flag”) which will supposedly justify the nuclear response within the official policy against nuclear attacks (Kirby, 2022). Russia will also call on the US to stop fighting in Ukraine indirectly, threatening that it will lead to World War III and declaring weapons sent to Ukraine to be a legitimate target. 

This scenario is likely to occur in case of a Ukrainian shift to counter-attack and signs of success in retaking the lost territories in Donbas, or threatening on the Crimean Peninsula (David E. Sanger, 2022). The Russian rationale behind it would be reversing the course of the war to allow expansion of conquests along the Ukrainian southern shoreline, so as to cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea. 

This mechanism of action is based too on the Russian military and nuclear doctrine and war actions so far – both described above. However, this scenario is different from the first one, because here Russia is breaking the “nuclear taboo” clearly and explicitly. A Russian success to achieve its purposes through the use of nuclear weapons, could severely damage the American nuclear strategy on a few levels.

First, for a country signed on the NPT treaty to break the “nuclear taboo” would give legitimacy to other states to challenge the “red line.” Second, a successful use of nuclear weapons that the US fails to deter could induce countries now dealing with security threats to choose to develop nuclear weapons of their own for deterrence purposes and thus lead to renewed nuclear proliferation that could also include terrorist groups. Third, the damage to American deterrence could lead to actions against American interests from other enemies like China, Iran, and North Korea.

The proposed American strategic response isenforcement on the use of nuclear weapons, including a 48-hour ultimatum to stop any use of nuclear weapons. Enforcement aims to restore the status quo after an enemy’s challenging action has already happened and has broken deterrence. It is based on two efforts (Freedman L. , 1998):

  1. Taking a significant toll from the enemy to realize the deterrent threat and prove resolve to strengthen deterrence again.
  2. Posing demands for the enemy to change his behavior, by threatening for greater costs.

The rationale behind it is thatto reestablish the “nuclear taboo”, the US must use enforcement by actualizing its previous threats and making Russia pay a price for its action, and by posing an ultimatum with a significant threat for violating it. The ultimate goal of this strategy isa complete stop to any use of nuclear weapons within 48 hours. However, the US will strive to prevent a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia and will present Putin an alternative to the war.

In 2018, the Trump administration wrote the most recent Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) to be published in full, which portrayed a problematic situation for American nuclear deterrence (Jim Mattis, 2018). The NPR highlighted a problem in one of four key factors in deterrence according to Freedman’s “Strategic Coercion” (Freedman L. , 1998) – communication, clarifying your red lines to the other side. It suggested that the Russians might assume that they can use TNWs to escalate and deter the West, and lead to a convenient end for a war.

Therefore, it is suggested in the NPR that the US clarify unequivocally to Russia that any first use in nuclear weapons against the US or its allies and partners will fail in achieving its purpose and lead to unacceptable costs for Russia. For the threat to be credible, it is argued that the US must have both nuclear and conventional tools that can endanger Russian targets (Jim Mattis, 2018).

Regarding the American action, first, President Biden will open the hot-line and will speak to Putin. The message will be that the US will make Russia pay for this use of nuclear weapons which is an unacceptable violation of its red line. Biden will threaten graver consequences in the event of a violation of the 48-hour ultimatum, including a humanitarian direct intervention in the war. Putin will be presented with an alternative, but a complete ceasefire will be a pre-condition to any peace talks. He will be offered a recognition in the Ukrainian constitution of its neutrality position outside of NATO, and a gradual removal of sanctions, in return for an immediate Russian retreat.

Militarily, the US will send maximum conventional military aid to Ukraine, to allow some protection from TNWs, and offensive tools to attack the Russians (Blair, 2022). Moreover, the US will deploy defense systems against nuclear weapons in NATO territory, declaring that nuclear attacks near the borders of NATO will be thwarted. In addition, the US will commit to secure humanitarian corridors with no-fly zones if Russia violates the ultimatum (Raine, 2022).

Diplomatically, NATO will announce that a Russian violation of the ultimatum will lead Finland and Sweden to join the alliance immediately. In the UN, a resolution to ban all Russian representatives from international institutions and cancel its veto power will be prepared for immediate passage if Russia violates the ultimatum.

Economically, NATO countries will announce a complete cutoff of all economic relations with Russia should the latter violate the ultimatum. Moreover, the US will conduct dialogue with China and India on joining the sanctions and pressuring Russia diplomatically to comply with the ultimatum. China might be persuaded by a combination of carrots and sticks.

The carrots would include allowing her to take the diplomatic credit for ending the crisis and pointing to the potential economic loss from the wrecking of Ukraine in which China is the biggest investor (Rennie, 2022) . The sticks would be a threat from the US to further limit economic relations in case China avoids any sanctions after a Russian violation of the ultimatum.

In the press, horrifying pictures from the bombing of Japan in 1945 will be shown with the message that the world must stand up to Putin and join economic sanctions.

Third Scenario – “a killer blow” to Ukrainian resistance

The Russian action in this scenario is explosion of a nuclear bomb in a size similar to those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (15 kiloton TNT). Russia will drop the bomb on two symbolic Ukrainian targets, far enough from NATO and Russa: Dnipro (a large industrial city) and Odessa (a city that has an important trade harbor and a Ukrainian naval base).

Russia will use Hypersonic missiles (with a speed faster than five times that of sound) to display its power to the world. The explosion will lead to tens of thousands of Ukrainians casualties, to mass destruction, and to radiation that will contaminate a wide area, similar to the effects of the bombs in Japan.

The Russians will declare that they have warned the Ukrainians and that this is a step to end the war and save lives on both sides. They will call on Ukrainians to get away from industrial and military centers and urge the Ukrainian leadership to surrender and avoid more bombings.

Russia will point out that the US did the same in World War II and warn NATO against continuing to aid Ukraine if they wish to avoid World War III, explaining that this war is “existential” for Russia and justifies the use of nuclear weapons.

This scenario is likely to occur in case of a war of attrition in Ukraine in which Western aid leads to a large number of Russian casualties and hurts the Russian army’s image, while Ukrainians are not ready for any concessions. In addition, Russia is economically collapsing and there is a real threat to Putin’s regime.

Given the immense economic, political and military damage to Russia due to the prolonging of the war and the domestic pressure to produce achievements, the Russian rationale would be that Russia must win the war at all costs. It will do so by breaking Ukrainian resistance with a killer blow, which will deter NATO from continuing to intervene in the war, posing a direct threat to escalate to World War III.  

The proposed American strategic response is a combination of enforcement after Russia’s use of nuclear weapons on civilians with a 48-hour ultimatum for a complete cease-fire and an immediate cessation of nuclear weapons use, with deterrence from attacks on the US or NATO members by threatening punishment and prevention measures. 

Russia used powerful nuclear weapons on the centers of populated cities, committing the biggest war crime possible, and shattering the international norms and American deterrence. Therefore, the rationale behind the American response is preventing any achievement from Russia and sustaining the deterrence from using nuclear weapons in the rest of the world.

To do that, the US will exert maximum political, economic and military pressure to end the war as soon as possible in a complete defeat for Russia and Putin (with the aim of removing him from power). This includes enforcing a 48-hour ultimatum for a cease-fire and an immediate cessation of nuclear weapons use, while prioritizing a complete Russian withdrawal as soon as possible to keep Ukraine independent.

The US will avoid the use of nuclear weapons in response to Russia, given the danger of escalation of the war, and to present Russia as the only side who committed crimes against humanity. The ultimate goal of this strategy is a cease-fire within 48 hours and a clear defeat for Russia and Putin.

Regarding the American action, first, President Biden will open the hot-line and will speak to Putin. The message will be that the US will exact a maximum price from Russia and will cut off all relations and communications with Russia apart from military contact to avoid escalation. In addition, the US will intervene directly in the war and is declaring a 48-hour ultimatum for a cease-fire.

Militarily, the US will secure humanitarian corridors, supply chains, and communications lines for the Ukrainians. NATO will announce that violating the ultimatum, using nuclear weapons again, or attacking NATO forces or state members will be answered with a military response against Russian military targets in Ukraine or in Russia itself.  In addition, the US will deploy a variety of nuclear and conventional weapons that can endanger Russian targets.

Diplomatically, NATO will lead a global effort to ban Russia from the international community: to close Russian embassies, to ban Russian delegates from international institutions, and to cancel Russia’s veto power in the UN Security Council.

Economically, the US and Europe will cut off all economic ties with Russia, while coordinating with Saudi Arabia to produce more oil and balance the rise in its price. The US will make significant efforts to persuade all the countries in the world to cut off their economic ties with Russia. The message to those countries refusing will be that the more pressure put on Putin now, the faster this war ends and the danger of calamity passes. It will also be hinted that the West will punish the states who chose to collaborate with Putin.

In the press, pictures and videos from the horrific disaster in Ukraine will be brought to the whole world, together with evidence that the Ukrainians are not breaking and remain independent. In addition, the US will conduct efforts to spread information to the Russian public to facilitate domestic pressure on Putin to end the war. These will include securing Ukrainian communications and breaking through the Kremlin’s firewall (Todd C. Helmus, 2022).

To present Putin with an alternative, the US will work with China to mediate for a peace settlement. This will include an offer for gradual removal of economic and diplomatic sanctions as long as the cease-fire and Russian withdrawal remain in force. In addition, the US will offer to commit to avoid security cooperation with Ukraine, which will be established as a neutral state in its constitution, so long as the Russian forces remain outside of Ukraine.

Conclusion

This paper discussed three scenarios for Russian use of nuclear weapons and suggested US strategies. The first scenario (“demonstration”) is driven by an effort to deter the West from further involvement in the war. It includes a single blow in an unpopulated area, which resembles an experiment, albeit in Ukraine’s territory. The proposed strategy is immediate and extended deterrence against the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The second scenario (“breakthrough”) is driven by an effort to change the war’s course, if it deteriorates for Russia. It includes detonating TNWs against Ukrainian military targets in order to paralyze strategic facilities and weapons. The proposed strategy is enforcement on the use of nuclear weapons, including a 48-hour ultimatum to completely stop any use of nuclear weapons. The third scenario (“a killer blow”) is driven by an effort to break the Ukrainian resistance, and is possible in case of immense damage to Russian interests which poses a real threat to Putin’s regime. It includes blowing a SNW on two symbolic Ukrainian targets. The proposed strategy is a combination of enforcement after Russia’s use of nuclear weapons on civilians with a 48-hour ultimatum for a complete cease-fire and an immediate cessation of nuclear weapons use, and deterrence from attacks on the US or NATO members by punishment and prevention threats. 

Looking forward, two subjects for future research stand out: A. The Chinese role – as the most powerful state in the world other than the US, and who has immense influence on Moscow, China can be a tiebreaker. Although it may seem like China and Russia are always “on the same page”, in fact they are compete for dominance in the same region and have opposite perceptions of the international system (China tries to achieve influence within it while Russia aims to “break it”). The way to reach China and make it cooperate to make Russia comply is of utmost importance. B. Security arrangements – Ukraine’s neutral status is a major issue that each side cannot compromise on (Beddoes, 2022b). Although agreeing to remain outside of NATO, Ukraine seeks “hard” assurances that it will not be attacked again, while Russia denies any Western involvement. A formula that could be agreed on both sides (at least temporarily to end the war) can be a decisive factor in presenting a workable alternative to Putin.

Yuval Rymon
Yuval Rymon
Yuval Rymon is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) student at Tel Aviv University, and incoming student at Columbia University (starting September 2022). He has previously served as an officer and head of research teams in various positions in the Israel Defense Forces Intelligence Directorate.