When Putin Uses a Nuclear Weapon, How Should the World Respond?

Illustration by The New York Times; images by FPG, Drew Angerer, and Gavriil Grigorov via Getty Images

If Putin Uses a Nuclear Weapon, How Should the World Respond?

Oct. 5, 2022

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The threat of nuclear war has hummed in the background of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for over seven months now, and in the past couple of weeks, it’s become even more difficult to tune out. In a televised speech, President Vladimir Putin warned that should Western forces endanger the “integrity” of Russian territory — which, as Putin defines it, may now include the four regions of Ukraine that he illegally annexed— “we will certainly use all the means at our disposal.” He added, “This is not a bluff.”

The Ukrainian government, at least, seems to be taking him at his word. According to a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, the country’s intelligence agencies believe there is a “very high” risk that Russia might use so-called tactical nuclear weapons, less powerful cousins of conventional nuclear weapons that are designed to be used on the battlefield.

U.S. officials maintain that the risk remains low, having detected no evidence of a nuclear mobilization. But they are far more worried about the possibility than they were at the outset of the conflict, The Times reported, and have begun gaming out post-strike scenarios. If Putin does break the 77-year-old nuclear taboo, how should the world respond? Here’s what people are saying.

‘Catastrophic consequences’

In response to Putin’s speech, President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said that any nuclear weapon use would result in “catastrophic consequences” for Russia, which he had “spelled out” in private communications with Moscow.

What exactly those consequences would be is of course not known to the public. One option would be for the United States to respond in kind with its own tactical nuclear weapon strike. As the Atlantic Council’s Matthew Kroenig writes, “A nuclear response is most likely to reinforce the deterrence of adversaries, result in the assurance of allies, and re-establish the global taboo against nuclear use in the future by demonstrating that countries cannot use nuclear weapons without dire consequences.” Otherwise, he added, “both allies and adversaries might be surprised or perceive weakness.”

Administration officials, however, have said for months that there are almost no scenarios in which the United States would respond with nuclear weapons, and for good reason: As Kroenig notes, while U.S. nuclear retaliation could restore the nuclear taboo, it could also start a cycle of mutual escalation ending in full-blown nuclear war.

Less remote are the chances of other military responses, such as using conventional weapons against the site from which the nuclear strike originated or giving Ukrainian forces the weaponry to do so themselves. The former general and C.I.A. director David Petraeus recently went so far as to speculate that the Biden administration would lead NATO in a collective military effort to “take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea.”

Any attack on Russian forces would still be considered an attack on Russia, “but it would be sort of at a half step, if you will,” said Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “You could still say to the Russians, ‘We’re doing this not to threaten Russia, as such, but to tell you that if you continue to do this then the next phase would be a lot more serious.’”

Still, even a conventional military response — which, it bears noting, would probably be conducted without congressional approval — would result in a direct clash between Russia and NATO, “and therefore incurs the risk of World War III, with Armageddon still one scenario at the end,” Andreas Kluth argues in Bloomberg. “Putin might conclude that the U.S. isn’t prepared to retaliate with nukes, and launch even more nuclear strikes.”

Economic warfare

Russian officials seem to believe that they could deploy a nuclear weapon in Ukraine without running a high risk of military retaliation from NATO. “Overseas and European demagogues are not going to perish in a nuclear apocalypse,” Dmitri Medvedev, vice chairman of Putin’s security council, wrote in a post on the Telegram social network. “Therefore, they will swallow the use of any weapon in the current conflict.”

But inviting a “nuclear apocalypse” and doing nothing are not the only ways Ukraine’s allies could respond:

  • Ukraine has received tens of billions of dollars in military aid, including $15 billion in weapons and equipment from the United States. Still, after Putin brandished the nuclear option last week, Zelensky calledon allies to provide his military with tanks for its offensives in the east and the south, as well as air defenses to protect civilian infrastructure from Russian barrages. Should Putin follow through on his threat, those allies may feel more pressure to grant Zelensky’s request.
  • As severe as the sanctions on Russia are now, Eliot A. Cohen, a professor at the school of international studies at Johns Hopkins, argues that Ukraine’s allies still have economic arrows in their quiver: The United States, in particular, he says, could impose unlimited secondary sanctions on anyone doing business with Russia and move to confiscate the roughly $300 billion Russia has in accounts held abroad. Ukraine’s allies are also mulling putting a price cap on Russian oil to further squeeze the Russian economy.
  • Some analysts believe that the oil price cap scheme could succeed only with the cooperation of big oil purchasers like China and India, which, like most of the world’s 195 countries, have not joined in imposing sanctions on Russia. If Putin were to break the nuclear taboo, however, that could well change: “The whole world would stop,” said Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear expert at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Yet given the strength of Putin’s resolve to this point, some analysts doubt that expanded sanctions and military support would be enough to break it or restore the nuclear taboo. “Moscow would have gotten away with using a nuclear weapon, shown that deterrence was meaningless, and set itself up to use nuclear weapons again in the future,” Dan Goure, a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute, writes in The National Interest. “Putin’s fortunes at home would certainly improve. He would claim to be the Russian leader that stood up to the West and got away with employing a nuclear weapon to defend the motherland.”

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