Putin and Nukes: Déjà Vu All Over Again?

With his invasion of Ukraine bogged down, Vladimir Putin has ratcheted up his threats to employ nuclear weapons. He previously warned against Western interference with his assault on Ukraine and put Russian nuclear forces on alert.

U.S. officials have voiced concerns about Putin’s threats. Speaking recently at Georgia Tech, CIA Director William Burns raised the possibility of tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons in response to setbacks in Ukraine. For those of us who dealt with national security issues during the Cold War, this has the feeling of déjà vu all over again.

Although any such threat must be taken seriously, the likelihood of Putin using nuclear weapons seems low. To understand why, it is useful to look at the history of nuclear policy and strategy.

During the Cold War, nuclear weapons policy and strategy suffused every aspect of national security, including nonnuclear strategy. For instance, the United States rejected military options during the Vietnam War out of concern that escalation might lead to a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union or China.

Nuclear weapons also shaped overall defense policy and force structure. During the Eisenhower presidency, the U.S. nuclear advantage over the Soviets justified Ike’s “New Look” strategy, which cut the size of naval and ground forces because of the belief that long-range nuclear airpower alone was sufficient to deter hostile action by the Soviet Union and China. Reliance on nuclear weapons to deter Soviet military actions was seen as a relatively low-cost strategic option. 

But there were flaws in this approach.

First, our adversaries realized they could operate below the threshold of nuclear retaliation. They responded by challenging the United States by means of “peoples’ wars” and insurgencies. Of course, “small wars” had been a part of conflict since time immemorial, but they became a staple of communist strategy during the 1950s and ’60s. The Soviets also realized that although the United States might respond with nuclear weapons to a full-scale attack on NATO’s central front, they would not do so in response to such actions as the Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

With the election of John Kennedy in 1960, the United States adopted a strategy of “flexible response” intended to develop and integrate military capabilities across the entire “spectrum of conflict,” from insurgency to central nuclear war. Although conceptually sound, U.S. planners made the mistake of “mirror imaging” Soviet intentions and capabilities, attributing to the USSR our own approach to nuclear weapons. Foremost among these was the belief that nuclear weapons were for deterrence only and that the United States possessed “escalation dominance,” i.e. that in any scenario, conventional or nuclear, the United States could threaten to escalate to a level of conflict at which we possessed the advantage.

Thus in the 1960s and ’70s, U.S. planners understood that NATO lacked the conventional forces necessary to defeat a Soviet conventional attack. But, they reasoned, the Soviets would realize that we could respond by threatening to escalate the conflict by employing tactical, theater, or even strategic nuclear weapons. Deterrence would work because we possessed an advantage at that level, which the Soviets would surely recognize.

But such optimistic assumptions began to go awry in the late 1970s. A watershed 1977 Commentary article by Richard Pipes, “Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War,” laid out the unpleasant truth. The Soviets had begun to deploy theater nuclear weapons and, most critically, to develop powerful counterforce strategic nuclear capabilities, such as the SS-18, that erased U.S. escalation dominance. A U.S. threat to escalate to a nuclear exchange as it was losing a conventional war in Europe now rang hollow.

Beginning in the late 1970s and into the Reagan Administration, the United States responded at the strategic, theater, and conventional nuclear level. At the strategic nuclear level, the United States deployed a whole array of new accurate delivery systems such as the land-based Minuteman III and MX intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the B2 stealth bomber, and the first components of a strategic missile defense. At the theater nuclear level, we deployed the Pershing II intermediate ballistic missile in Europe. But perhaps most importantly, at the conventional level, we responded by developing true warfighting and war-winning operational doctrines. For the U.S. Army and Air Force it was the “AirLand Battle/Operations,” and, for the naval services, the “Maritime Strategy,” designed to bring naval aviation to bear against NATO’s northern flank and in the Pacific. Some of the capabilities these concepts employed were technological, but the most important changes were doctrinal.

These developments represented a true integration of conventional and nuclear strategy and force structure. This was reflected in U.S. professional military education. When I began teaching strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in 1987, over a quarter of our course offerings were devoted to nuclear issues. We discussed the whole lexicon of national security: deterrence, stability, escalation dominance, first/second strike, counterforce/countervalue targeting, single integrated operations plan, nuclear weapons employment policy, etc. The college also sponsored a series of global war games designed to test and refine concepts and doctrine.

With the end of the Cold War, the central importance of nuclear weapons to U.S. security policy dropped precipitously. There were concerns about potential rogue actors such as North Korea and Iran. One of the justifications for launching the Second Gulf War, remember, was to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring a nuclear capability. But as a result, thinking about nuclear strategy and force structure has atrophied. 

For instance, the 2010 Obama nuclear posture review (NPR) stated that, although Russia remains a nuclear peer, “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries, and prospects for military confrontation have declined dramatically.”

The Trump NPR attempted to reinvigorate U.S. nuclear weapons policy and strategy, especially in light of the reemergence of great power confrontation and Russia’s nuclear modernization. The Biden Administration has not yet issued its own NPR.

According to the Arms Control Association, U.S. and Russian warheads currently deployed on strategic delivery systems are about equal in number: 1,458 warheads on 527 intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and bombers for Russia; and 1,389 warheads on 665 ICBMs, submarine-launched missiles, and bombers for the United States. Of particular concern to U.S. planners are Russian hypersonic missiles that are capable of defeating U.S. and NATO missile defense systems. Both sides have more warheads, including tactical ones, in storage. No other country possesses anything near these numbers.

So far, the United States and its NATO allies have successfully provided aid to Ukraine without being drawn into a direct conflict with Russia. The main danger regarding a nuclear confrontation between Russia and NATO is miscalculation. As one commentator noted, “Putin has nothing to lose by threatening to use nuclear weapons. But he has everything to lose by actually using them.”

But would Russia consider using tactical nuclear weapons within Ukraine to break the current stalemate? On the one hand, the Russians apparently have developed very low-yield nuclear warheads that can be delivered by air or short-range ballistic missile (SRBM). Of most concern is the Iskander-M (NATO designation SS-26 Stone), which has already been used extensively to deliver nonnuclear explosives.

On the other hand, Russia possesses nonnuclear warheads (e.g., thermobaric weapons) that produce blast effects and overpressures similar to those of a small nuclear weapon without the stigma of crossing the nuclear Rubicon. The Russians no doubt also have munitions such as the U.S. Massive Ordnance Air-burst Bomb (MOAB), which was used against an ISIS tunnel complex in Afghanistan in 2017. The latter contains some 18,000 pounds of an ammonium nitrate/powdered aluminum gelled slurry detonated by a high explosive booster. 

Russia also has a nonnuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) warhead capable of knocking out communications and modern electronics in a broad area. Such a specialized Iskander radiofrequency warhead delivered by an Iskander-M would affect electronics and communications within a 10-kilometer radius of the detonation point.

On the one hand, Russian actions in Ukraine teach us that we need to reintegrate nuclear weapons into national strategy. The atrophy of nuclear strategy is a vestige of the “era of strategic happy talk” associated with the “end of history” narrative. But as my late friend, Colin Gray, reminded us, “bad times return.” On the other hand, technological advances have caused the effects of nuclear and nonnuclear weapons to converge, one development making it less likely that Russia will exercise the nuclear option in Ukraine. 

About Mackubin Owens

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a retired Marine, professor, and editor who lives in Newport, RI.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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