Nuclear Threats and the Game Changing Tactic in Ukraine

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

OPINION — The United States needs to publicly respond to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s coercive threats regarding nuclear weapons.

Putin’s most recent coercive nuclear threat came three days after Russian troops invaded Ukraine. In a February 27, televised meeting with his senior military advisors, Putin ordered them “to move Russia’s deterrence forces to a special regime of combat duty.”

During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last Tuesday, Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) was asked by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), “How would we respond under our current nuclear posture to a Russian use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine?”

“Senator, I’d be happy to answer that in closed session,” Richard replied.

Ten minutes later, when Sen. Tom Tillis (R-N.C.) asked about whether Putin’s statement had led to an increase in Russian nuclear readiness, Richard again deferred details to the closed session but asked to make what he called “a broader point that relates.”

Richard said, “The scenarios that we are seeing right now, potential escalation, limited nuclear use in a conventional aggression scenario.  STRATCOM has been preparing for this for years along with other combatant commands…We have rewritten deterrence dynamics theories over the years…To this point nothing has happened that we didn’t anticipate, we hadn’t thought about and hadn’t prepared for.”

If it came down to it, Richard said during one point in the hearing his “forces are ready right now to do anything [President Joe Biden] asked us to do.”

Perhaps it is time for the Biden administration to answer Putin by disclosing in a general fashion what Richard’s prepared response would be. The U.S. is in an information war with Russia and a release of classified intelligence last month undercut Putin’s attempts to mislead the world on his reasons for invading Ukraine, although it did not stop him from doing so.

Putin’s nuclear threat is based on the publicized Russian military doctrine that it could initiate use of nonstrategic or battlefield, tactical nuclear weapons in conventional warfare under certain circumstances.

“Where Russia…has doubts about the effectiveness of its conventional forces, its doctrine allows for the possible use of nonstrategic nuclear weapons during a local or regional conflict on its periphery,” explains a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons, updated March 7. “The doctrines do not say that Russia would use nuclear weapons to preempt such an [conventional] attack, but it does reserve the right to use them [nonstrategic nuclear weapons] in response.”

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Outside analysts have termed this approach as the “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine, the CRS report states. Translated, that means you escalate to tactical nuclear weapons to de-escalate a conventional war you may be losing.

The CRS report adds that many analysts “believe that Russia might threaten to use its nonstrategic nuclear weapons to coerce or intimidate its neighbors.”

Since Putin has threatened possible Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons it has been part of the broader Ukraine war conversation. On Friday, for example, Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby was asked, “Are you seeing any indications that Russia may be considering planning for the use of a nuclear – tactical nuclear weapon?”

Kirby responded, “I want to be very careful here in talking about intelligence assessments. I would just say, and this is something we look at every day….I would not speak to anything specific on the Russian side. I would just tell you that we’ve seen nothing that gives us a cause or reason to change our deterrent posture at this time. I think that’s really about as far as I could go.”

Adm. Richard told the Senate committee last week, “I don’t think that we fully understand or thought about in a long time, what the coercive use of these [nuclear weapon] capabilities looks like. We are getting real world demonstrations of that right now.”

In an indication that he believed there was a need to respond to Putin’s coercion threat, Richard told the Senators that up to now, “we are so trained in thinking that all we do [with nuclear weapons] is deter,” others such as Russia from using their nuclear weapons.

The obvious purpose of Putin’s nuclear threats has been to make the U.S., NATO and European Union countries think twice about the type and amounts of military assistance to be given to the government un Kyiv.

President Biden has since acted responsibly, but to the public, the U.S. responses have appeared passive. Biden and other officials have repeatedly made clear there has been no change in the alert status of either U.S. or NATO nuclear forces. In fact, according to officials, there has been no evidence that Russia has changed its own nuclear posture other than to add some personnel to its strategic forces headquarters.

However, three days after Putin’s threat, the Pentagon on March 2, announced a delay in a scheduled Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile test. At the Pentagon, Spokesman Kirby said the rescheduling was done “to send a strong, clear, unambiguous message to Mr. Putin how seriously we take our nuclear responsibilities at a particularly tense time.”

Since then, Biden has also refused to support a no-fly-zone over the battlefield which would involve direct conflict with Russian aircraft or provide offensive weaponry such as Polish MiG-29 aircraft sought by Ukraine.

As Biden put it last Friday, “We will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine. A direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III, and something we must strive to prevent.”

It’s not as if the U.S. has not itself in the past, coercively used the nuclear threat, although one difference from today is that it was done fairly discreetly.

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For example, former-Secretary of State James Baker, in an interview for Frontline, described how he told then-Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in January 1991, in a private conversation, that if Iraqis used chemical weapons against American forces “that the American people would demand revenge, and that we had the means to extract it. The obvious suggestion,” Baker said, “was that we would give consideration to using even perhaps nuclear weapons. That’s what we wanted them to believe. In retrospect, we think that’s what they did believe, and we think that’s why they didn’t use chemical or biological weapons on our forces.”

During the Korean War in the 1950s, both Presidents Truman and Eisenhower at one time or another threatened to use atomic weapons when U.S. forces were in trouble [Truman], or to seek to end the war [Eisenhower].

When asked during last Tuesday’s hearing why U.S. possession of low-yield nuclear weapons would be important in deterring Russia or China from initiating use of such weapons, Adm. Richard replied, “Limited nuclear use is deterred differently than the way you deter the classic large attack and it is designed to make sure that the opponent does not think there is some threshold below which they can use a nuclear attack leaving us with a disproportionate response that ultimately winds up self-deterring us.”

The U.S. already has many such low-yield weapons. The B-61 tactical nuclear bomb (some 100 or more already are stationed in Europe) can be set to detonate at very low yields. In addition, the stealth version of the W-80 air-launched cruise missile, 12 of which can be carried on a single B-52 strategic bomber, also can be set with very low yields. And U.S. strategic submarines, some of which are regularly on patrol, may be armed with new, low-yield, W-76-2 warheads, which were specifically built and deployed for just the tactical situation Richard described.

The March 7, CRS report recalled that back in February 2018, then-Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis told a House Armed Services Committee that when it came to nonstrategic weapons, “Our goal is to convince adversaries they have nothing to gain and everything to lose from the use of nuclear weapons.” Mattis, who said he did not believe there was such a thing as a tactical nuclear weapon, said, “Any nuclear weapon used any time is a strategic game changer.”

The CRS author went on to say that Mattis possibly meant any use of nuclear weapons “would expand and escalate the conflict beyond the immediate battlefield.”

I agree.

Nuclear weapons were created as terror weapons to end a war, not to fight them. Just look at the damage today’s conventional weapons are causing in Ukrainian cities. Multiply that by ten and remember that those cities struck by a nuclear weapon where the nuclear fireball touched the ground could neither be rebuilt nor lived in for 40 years.

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