The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has noticed an uptick in concerned chatter about the possibility of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine as a means of reversing its fortunes on the battlefield. Given that the use of such weapons would erase a 77-year old taboo against their use, even a slight increase in this possibility warrants greater attention.
The thing is, I am far from certain that the actual probability has increased at all. To understand why, let’s take five different cuts at this question.
The first and most obvious cut is that the Russians sure seem chatty about nuclear escalation. Last month, Russia sent a diplomatic démarche to the United States emphasizing “unpredictable consequences” if the United States ramped up its weapons shipments to Ukraine. This failed to deter the Biden administration. Last week, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that everyone was underestimating the likelihood of nuclear war: “The danger is serious, real. And we must not underestimate it.” A few days later, Putin warned about “lightning fast” responses to any country intervening in Ukraine. And the potential use of nuclear weapons has been all over Russian television.
During the Korean War, China warned the United States not to cross the 38th parallel as the North Koreans were reeling. General MacArthur and the Truman administration ignored the warnings and were caught flat-footed when the Chinese intervened. So it is worth considering whether the Russians mean what they say.
The second way to look at it is that using tactical nukes makes zero tactical sense in Ukraine:
Tactical nuclear weapons would pose risks to the Russian populations if used near the Ukrainian border, and put Russians in Transnistria at risk if used near the Western border. Why risk nuclear escalation — a move that cannot be undone — for a military option that has little tactical value added?
The third cut is that the tactical situation is meaningless: Putin believes that using nukes would create a strategic advantage. Putin’s greatest bargaining edge during his time in office has been the widespread perception that he possesses escalation dominance. The war in Ukraine has upended those expectations, however. Russia’s conventional military power looks hollow, whereas U.S.-led economic sanctions look more potent. Using tactical nuclear weapons would be a way to reassert escalation dominance.
There are widespread reports that Putin views this conflict as an existential struggle with the West. If that is the case, Peggy Noonan might be correct when she writes, “For [Putin], Russia can’t lose to the West. Ukraine isn’t the Mideast, a side show; it is the main event. I read him as someone who will do anything not to lose.” Or as Patrick Porter tweeted, the purpose of using nuclear weapons would be “to inflict psychological shock & fear of further escalation.”
The fourth cut is that using nuclear weapons makes little strategic sense, either — unless NATO escalates. Even Noonan acknowledges that Putin knows the risks of such use would be considerable. Countries that have stayed on the sidelines or proffered support for Russia would think twice if Putin was the first to use nuclear weapons. The uncertainty of retaliation would also give Putin pause. Even his domestic standing might suffer as cracks appear within Russia’s elite.
This seems evident when one looks more closely at Russian comments about nuclear weapons. All of Russia’s statements, from Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov to Lavrov to Putin, make clear that the threat of escalation is contingent on NATO actions. Peskov emphasized that there was no real change in the criteria for using nuclear weapons from before the war. Lavrov said something similar in a recent interview that everyone will remember for different reasons. And Putin stated that any response was contingent on “if someone intends to intervene on what is happening from the outside and creates unacceptable strategic threats for us.”
This all seems like code for NATO forces not intervening directly in the conflict. And as it turns out, that has been the Biden administration’s red line as well. Despite the dearth of diplomacy between NATO and Russia, a tacit arrangement seems to exist. Russia will not launch an attack on NATO soil, and NATO will not send forces into Ukraine. As Lawrence Freedman noted, “[Putin] has a very clear red line — no direct interference by NATO — which is being respected.”
(There is also the risk that, like Russian conventional forces, Russian nuclear forces would prove to be less than effective in their functioning. To put it another way: If Russia deploys a nuke and misses its target, hoo boy.)
The final cut is the simplest one: Putin has other ways to escalate without using nuclear weapons. As RUSI’s Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds note: “the propaganda narrative and local initiatives to rally support appear to be creating an environment in which 9 May can be used as a fulcrum to mobilise a much larger force. It appears increasingly likely that rather than use it to announce victory, the Russian government will instead use 9 May as the day on which the ‘special military operation’ is officially framed as a ‘war’.” The UK defense minister agrees with this assessment.
Watling and Reynolds close their analysis with a warning:
The Russian decision to double down is a high-stakes gamble. If Russia mobilises and eventually overcomes Ukrainian resistance then NATO will face an aggressive, isolated and militarised state. If Russia loses then President Putin has now begun radicalising the population in the pursuit of policies that he will struggle to deliver. Failure to defeat the Ukrainian state after relentlessly comparing it to the Nazi regime may have serious consequences for Putin and those around him. To frame a conflict as existential and to lose must necessarily call the suitability of a leader into question among Russia’s political elites. NATO states therefore need to consider how to manage escalation pathways that follow if Russia is not only defeated in Donbas but finds its newly mobilised and poorly trained troops, with few remaining stocks of precision munitions, unable to deliver a victory in the summer.
My assessment is that Putin, Lavrov, et al. are not considering the use of nuclear weapons except as a response to direct NATO engagement. That is highly unlikely to happen. What NATO needs to start worrying about, however, is what happens if Putin escalates to a general mobilization a week from now.