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After the first military failures in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has engaged in nuclear blackmail. Western journalists, experts and politicians wonder what will happen if the Kremlin actually decided to use tactical nuclear weapons. The U.S. recently simulated such a scenario in high-level war games: two of the three scenarios considered, involved a nuclear retaliatory strike.

  • Red Button Blackmail

  • «Isolate», not retaliate

  • Strike back, but not on Russia

  • Limited Nuclear War

  • What should we expect?


Red Button Blackmail

A couple of days before the outbreak of war with Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, in the company of Alexander Lukashenko, led a strategic deterrence exercise involving the Air and Space Forces, the forces of the Southern Military District, the Strategic Missile Forces, the Northern Fleet, and the Black Sea Fleet.

In an address in connection with the so-called «special military operation», Putin made rather unambiguous threats to the United States and its allies in an attempt to prevent them from interfering in the Ukrainian conflict:

Whoever tries to interfere with us, much less to create threats for our country, for our people, should know that Russia's response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences that you have never faced before in your history.

And a few days after the invasion, which quickly got bogged down in the maneuvering defense of the armed forces of Ukraine, the Russian president gave an order to put the deterrence forces into a “special combat duty mode”. However, as it turned out later, there is no «special mode» of combat duty of the strategic nuclear forces in accordance with the publicly known legal acts.

According to Western intelligence, following Putin's announcement several nuclear submarines set off for the North Atlantic. The command of the British Navy took this as a signal rather than a real military threat, but since then, NATO has been keeping a close eye on Russia's nuclear arsenal.

Aggressive statements by participants of propaganda TV shows on Russian state channels and blatantly provocative statements by officials regularly add fuel to the fire.

The world has already seen from the example of Ukraine that the Kremlin's show of intentions can easily turn into a real escalation, and now experts and politicians are puzzling over the question: what will the West do if it has to respond to a nuclear attack? Possible answers are provided by the war games conducted by the Americans several years ago.

«Isolate», not retaliate

In 2016, the National Security Council (NSC), a key advisory body to the U.S. president on security issues, conducted a war game simulating a Russian attack on one of the Baltic States. The details are outlined in journalist Fred Kaplan's book The Bomb: Presidents, Generals And The Secret History Of Nuclear War. The pages devoted to it can be found here, and the author's summary here.

Under this scenario, NATO forces successfully withstand an invasion, winning «on the ground», and then the Kremlin strikes with low-yield nuclear weapons (also called tactical nuclear weapons, TNWs) on the accumulation of enemy troops or on a military base in Germany, where drones, combat aircraft or munitions are stationed.

The war game involved representatives of the NSC Deputies Committee, which brings together the deputy heads of major U.S. government, military and intelligence agencies, and at first the discussion went in line with the inevitable answer: what kinds of nuclear weapons should be used and on which targets? But then Vice-President Joe Biden's security adviser Colin Kahl, now Deputy Secretary of Defense for Political-Military Affairs under President Biden, steered the discussion in a very different direction.

His reasoning was that using nuclear weapons for the first time since 1945 would be a game changer and a rare chance to unite the world against Russia, to «isolate» the country and greatly weaken its economic and military potential. On the contrary, a nuclear retaliatory strike would «normalize» nuclear weapons as a tool of warfare and, in any case, would not end the conflict in favor of the alliance faster or with fewer losses.

Using nuclear weapons for the first time since 1945 would provide a rare chance to unite the world against Russia

After hours of debate, both the civilian and military members of the committee (including Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Paul Selva and NATO Europe Commander-in-Chief Philip Breedlove) agreed that at least the first response would be by conventional force, not by nuclear attack.

Strike back, but not on Russia

A month later, the same military game scenario was played out among the NSC Principals Committee. As in the first case, the generals' proposal to switch to a retaliatory strike was challenged with the same arguments: non-military measures (sanctions, cutting off relations, a trade blockade) would cause disproportionate damage to the enemy.

At the same time, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated that such a development would destroy the entire global security architecture built on military alliances led by the United States and, above all, the North Atlantic Alliance, because the partners' faith in American guarantees is built on an unconditional postulate about the ability and determination of Washington to strike back if hostile regimes use nuclear weapons.

Undersecretary of State and now Secretary of State Anthony Blinken then refused to take sides.

Anyway, the committee members moved on to the question: if nuclear weapons are to be used, where should they be used? The proposal to hit the Kaliningrad region was not supported, since this is Russian territory, which means that in response to a U.S. strike, Moscow could attack U.S. territory. The option of attacking the Russian armed forces in the attacked Baltic country was also rejected because of the threat of excessive collateral casualties among the civilian population of a NATO member state.

Most participants eventually supported the compromise - a nuclear strike on Russia's closest ally, Belarus, although under the war game scenario the country was not involved in the Russian invasion (unlike, incidentally, what we are witnessing in the current military campaign in Ukraine).

The compromise in the game turned out to be a nuclear strike on Russia's closest ally, Belarus

Thus, at a higher level within the US National Security Council, a retaliatory nuclear strike was deemed necessary, not for military expediency but for political reasons - as confirmation of America's consistency as a global power center in a situation of critical threat to the established world order.

Limited Nuclear War

In 2020, already under President Donald Trump, the U.S. Defense Department shared details of a war game simulating a Russian attack with tactical nuclear weapons against a U.S. military facility in Europe.

The U.S. Strategic Command, which combines nuclear deterrence, missile defense, and aerospace forces, eventually decided on a limited nuclear response in consultation with the secretary of defense and the president. Because just a week before that, the Pentagon had reported on the deployment of low-yield W76-2 nuclear warheads for Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), experts concluded it was the weapon to be used.

Under the Trump administration, TNWs like the W76-2 warhead were considered the most appropriate option for responding to non-strategic Russian nuclear aggression. Between the options of not responding at all and immediately activating nuclear deterrence forces, tactical nuclear SLBMs did look like an appropriate and moderate solution.

However, there is a nuance. As Fred Kaplan also says, tactical SLBMs launched from U.S. submarines will not be labeled as bearing low-yield nuclear weapons, and Moscow may easily interpret the launch as the first wave of a strategic missile attack and respond with intercontinental ballistic missiles against the U.S., thereby provoking a full-scale nuclear war.

What should we expect?

The West assumes that President Vladimir Putin will resort to weapons of mass destruction (chemical weapons or TNWs) if Russian forces exhaust conventional capabilities before they can achieve decisive success in the Ukrainian theater, especially since sanctions are increasingly hitting the economy and the domestic political costs of continued hostilities are growing.

Indeed, the chances of a real nuclear war are now probably the highest since the Cuban Missile Crisis. What is happening in Ukraine shows that Putin is making extremely important decisions on the basis of completely wrong perceptions of the real state of affairs. And this certainly increases the risk of nuclear escalation.

The chances of a nuclear war are now at their highest since the Cuban Missile Crisis

It took the U.S. military a long time to reach Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. The mysterious movements of government planes and the disappearance of Shoigu and Gerasimov from the public eye have been interpreted by some experts as preparatory stages for a nuclear attack.

On the other hand, the finally sensible negotiation process between Russia and Ukraine, as well as public statements about the reduction of Russian military activity in at least two operational areas in Ukraine, are rather in favor of the implementation of a de-escalation scenario.

In any case, two of the three high-level U.S. government war games simulating Moscow's use of nuclear weapons suggest a nuclear response, and the worst-case scenario is a stone's throw away. As far as one can tell, none of the parties involved in the conflict in Ukraine are ready for that.

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