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How should the US respond to a Russian nuclear attack?

We are entering the most dangerous nuclear crisis since the 1980s.

By Anusar Farooqui

We have entered a more fraught and dangerous phase in the Russo-Western struggle over Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s recent decisions – mobilising reserves, the alleged sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines and annexing four regions in south-eastern Ukraine – have two parallel objectives. One is to bolster Russia’s tactical position. The more significant goal is to signal resolve and convince his adversaries in Kyiv and Washington that he will not accept defeat in Ukraine; that he is prepared to dramatically escalate the situation; and that they had better sue for peace before things get out of hand. What is emerging is the most dangerous nuclear crisis since Able Archer in 1983.

Not only did he order a mobilisation of some 300,000 reserve troops – that number could get considerably larger – he was almost surely behind the sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines. The intent here was not so much to expose the vulnerability of European infrastructure to clandestine Russian sabotage. It was to “burn one’s bridges”. Putin is saying in effect: “F*** you, Berlin, you can forget about the cheap Russian gas forever.”

The “burning one’s bridges” or “resolve-signalling” theory is even more compelling for the most significant escalation: the annexation of the four occupied regions of south-eastern Ukraine. This dramatically raises the audience costs – the domestic cost leaders pay for backing down in an interstate conflict – of Russian withdrawal from these occupied territories. In the same speech where he announced the reserve mobilisation and referendums, Putin also issued pointed nuclear threats, using the language of Russia’s published nuclear policy to describe the Ukraine situation.

Whether or not the annexed territories shall be considered Russian territory is not the important question. It is not even whether Russian elites believe that preventing Ukraine from becoming a Western bulwark is vital to Russian interests. Rather, the ante has risen dramatically for Russia because the country’s entire world position is now at stake. If Russia cannot avoid military humiliation in Ukraine, it will not survive as a great power.

As Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, spelled out, the US’s war aim now is to “see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine”. American officials believe, not altogether implausibly, that Russia can be ejected from the ranks of the great powers.

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If there was some physical law that forbade Russian escalation to the nuclear level, this might be an attractive goal for US-Russia policy. But given that Russia’s entire world position is now at stake because of the conflict, this is an extremely dangerous assumption to entertain. Russia can and may well introduce nuclear weapons into the Ukraine war. It is vital, then, to think about what Russian nuclear use will entail and how the US should respond in that scenario.

Suppose that Russian armies in Ukraine are at risk of collapse, so that Putin’s options are to introduce nuclear weapons into the conflict or capitulate. In such a desperate situation, Putin may well find escalation more attractive than capitulation. But what will this look like?

Russian nuclear use at any scale whatsoever will transform the conflict into something entirely different and much more dangerous. Breaking the 77-year-old nuclear taboo would be an extremely dramatic event. We should expect a worldwide panic, of the sort we have never seen before; not even in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, which was, as the nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling put it in his book Arms and Influence (1966), a “a mild crisis”. (He was trying to grapple with the probabilities of risk-taking and pain tolerance in contests.)

[See also: What could happen if Russia used nuclear weapons?]

Consider the least escalatory option, that of a “demonstration detonation”: Russian forces air burst (to avoid the nuclear fallout that results from a ground detonation) a tactical nuclear weapon with sub-kiloton yield (that is, no bigger than a large conventional weapon) over uninhabited territory somewhere in south-eastern Ukraine. This would be consistent with Russia’s “escalate-to-de-escalate” doctrine. What happens then?

Precisely because it is such a dramatic break with precedent, even a demonstration detonation would radically change the character of the Russo-Western conflict over Ukraine. Residents in the capitals of the West are likely to flee the cities. Everywhere, in Europe and America, supermarkets would empty within hours. Many local authorities may institute civil defence measures, even as governments urge calm. A widespread breakdown of law and order would be a real possibility; especially in the US, where it would be attended by partisan passions and finger-pointing. Under such conditions, keeping the Western alliance together will become extraordinarily difficult. It is possible that even Nato would break under pressure, as anti-war and/or pro-Russian political forces emerge from repression and threaten to break the Western coalition.

The immediate battlefield effect would be to force-freeze the military conflict on the ground. The psychological impact of the detonation alone would compel the Ukrainians to halt all military offensives immediately. And if the Ukrainians had such a great risk appetite that they wanted to continue the military struggle, the US would force them to back down on the pain of abandonment. For the diplomatic effect would be just as dramatic. The verbal response of the community of nations will be opprobrium over Russian actions, of course. But, even more importantly, the global pressure on the warring parties to stop fighting and start negotiating diplomatically would be considerable.

If this comes to pass, the US will find itself with only bad options. In effect, Russia would have imposed a nuclear “zugzwang” on the US. A zugzwang is a situation in which the obligation to make a move in one’s turn is a decisive disadvantage.

A US nuclear response would be out of the question, given the realities of mutually assured destruction. The US could attempt to impose heavy costs on Russia through even harsher sanctions (although that resource has largely been exhausted) and escalate the supply of offensive long-range weapons and military aid to Ukraine. But these counters, lacking the dramatic effect of a nuclear detonation, are likely to be perceived as pathetically weak by third parties and the most important audience – Russian policymakers. Meanwhile, the pressure on the US to force the Ukrainians to the negotiating table will be considerable.

Paradoxically, the least escalatory first-use option for Russia puts the US in the worst bind. If Putin uses nuclear weapons over Ukrainian forces in order to achieve tactical outcomes on the battlefield, or anything further up the escalation ladder, a more muscular US response becomes more credible. This need not include nuclear use by the US itself; although it could, if only to “demonstrate resolve”.

In this scenario, that of large-scale use of tactical nukes by Russia, the US could “offer” to fight a limited war in Ukraine. The US could, for instance, introduce Western air power into the conflict and directly attack Russian forces on the ground – with or without nukes. Recall that American military officers are already providing targeting intelligence on Russian assets on the ground to the Ukrainians. But the nationality of combat forces on the ground is significant. As the nuclear strategist Robert Osgood explained in Limited War (1957), once nuclear-armed adversaries are engaged in a military conflict, both sides have a strong interest in signalling their limited war aims and reassuring the other side that the conflict can be contained. The nationality of combat forces on the ground is one such resource. It “should” not matter in some rational sense, but of course it does. Russians and Americans in direct combat is a different war from the sort that is underway in Ukraine.

However credible such a US response, it would dramatically raise the risk of strategic nuclear war between Russia and Nato. For the obvious Russian response to a direct Western air intervention in Ukraine would be to target Nato warplanes and the air bases from which they are launched (most efficiently targeted with nuclear weapons as well). In other words, the US “offer” to fight a limited war in Ukraine, whether from the air or on the ground, would likely be “rejected” by the Russians, and the conflict would escalate; at least to the European level, perhaps within days.

Precisely because Russia is so weak relative to Nato, any Russia-Nato war will eventually escalate into strategic nuclear war, the only level on which the Russia enjoys parity with the US. So, any counter-escalation by the US is fraught with nuclear danger. Bearing this risk could make sense if a vital strategic interest of America was at stake – an attack on western Europe, for instance. But is bearing this escalation risk worth gaining a position all the way up to Russia’s border? And while the US is struggling with this dilemma, the pressure from US allies and third parties to terminate the war and initiate diplomatic negotiations would be relentless.

The underlying weakness of the US position is that, while the stakes are virtually existential for the Russians, they are quite peripheral to the US. For if Russia loses, it loses its entire world position. But if Ukraine loses, or the war ends in a stalemate, the US’s world position will hardly be affected. So the balance of resolve is extremely unfavourable to America.

If the Ukrainians are becoming so strong that a collapse of the Russian war effort, and the risk of nuclear escalation, is becoming more likely, then the US must seek to thwart such a dangerous scenario. Washington cannot abandon Ukraine but now is the time to get the Russians to the negotiating table; well before any of these nightmare scenarios come to pass.

This piece was originally published on the Policy Tensor Substack.

[See also: How much territory does Ukraine control?]

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