Like the United States, Russia certainly has tactical nuclear weapons, which are exponentially less powerful, but can still deliver a 10-kiloton explosion and possibly up to 50 kilotons of TNT each (the yield of the Hiroshima bomb was about 15 kilotons) and which reach relatively short battlefield. It has reportedly built up its stock of these weapons. In raising the nuclear threat, Mr Putin implicitly put forward a principle known as “escalate to de-escalate” under which Russian forces would use low-yield tactical nuclear weapons in Europe to counter large-scale NATO conventional action. prevent. The principle does not fit any of the doctrinal scenarios above, but it is consistent with Moscow’s capabilities.
Tactical nuclear weapons destabilize to the delicate balance of deterrence. They reduce the barrier to nuclear use and blur the line between conventional and nuclear war. Russia’s nuclear threat is also likely to give added impetus to the most troubling aspect of US nuclear modernization plans: its own focus on tactical nuclear weapons. The Trump Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review dropped the Obama administration’s concerns about such weapons because of their destabilizing effects, and considered their development in response to the possibility of localized and limited aggression—to some extent, in response to Russian promptings. that it would use the weapons before the war. empty.
If the United States doubled down on its tactical nuclear weapons in response to the threat from Russia, the world would return to a state of nuclear fear similar to that of the early 1980s. Instead, the United States should reaffirm its faith in conventional deterrence by emphasizing its adherence to the established framework.
The attempt could begin with a refutation of Mr Putin’s story, which includes the idea that the invasion of Ukraine was undertaken to prevent NATO’s aggression against Russia, which was staged from Ukraine. This is not credible. NATO’s stance is clearly defensive, with small forward-positioned NATO positions essentially acting as a tripwire and a multinational backup force for rapid reinforcement to hold the line.
The Biden Administration Must Call Back Public Disclosures About What It Will Do not do military. Such talk implies that the United States and NATO do not believe in the alliance’s deterrence and Mr Putin’s suggestion that any form of NATO aid to Ukraine would risk nuclear war. Putin’s own behavior implies that this is not true. Mr Putin has drawn his red lines: no interference in Russia’s attempt to include Ukraine and no arms convoys. Yet the United States and NATO have both crossed red lines without facing a Russian response. Maintaining a false sense of Russia’s willingness to take extreme measures only helps Mr Putin.
Due to the strong resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces and the widespread support of the West for Ukraine, Russia may renounce military conquest and consider a negotiated political solution. Caution is still advised: Mr Putin’s true boundaries remain unclear. The United States should continue to send Ukraine military equipment, especially anti-aircraft systems and anti-tank munitions.
At the same time, the United States and its allies must continue to strengthen NATO’s conventional readiness to respond to Russian aggression against any NATO member or on NATO territory, whether as a result of a deliberate decision or an overflow of operations in Ukraine. The message to Mr Putin is that the United States and NATO strongly reject his attempt to raze the architecture of deterrence.
Jonathan Stevenson, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the editor-in-chief of Survival, served on the National Security Council staff in the Obama administration and is the author of “Thinking Beyond the Unthinkable.” Steven Simon is a fellow at MIT and an analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He served on the State Department and on the National Security Council staff in Republican and Democratic governments.