tOver the past week, nuclear rhetoric has seen a rapid escalation, starting with Vladimir Putin’s threat to use “all forces and resources” to defend newly taken territory in Ukraine and ending with Joe Biden’s warning of “Armageddon” if Russia destroys nuclear weapons. Crossing Rubicon.
However, the reality underlying the menacing vocabulary is a much grayer area than the fuss suggests. It is far from certain that Putin would be willing to be the first wartime leader to use nuclear weapons since 1945, because of his territorial ambitions in Ukraine. If his primary goal is to stay in power, that could be exactly the wrong way to go.
Even if he has issued the launch order, he has no guarantee that it will be carried out. Nor can he be absolutely sure that the weapons and their delivery systems would work.
On the American side, despite the US president’s apocalyptic language during a private fundraising drive on Thursday night, it is by no means inevitable that Washington would respond to Putin’s nuclear use with nuclear retaliation. Past wargaming suggests there would be fierce debate within the government to say the least.
Like US presidents, Putin is normally accompanied by an aide who carries a briefcase with codes used to authorize a nuclear launch. In the US it is called football, in Russia it is the save. In the Russian system, the Minister of Defense and the Chief of the General Staff have their own checks but it is believed that Putin can order a launch without them.
however, the save is relevant to the strategic nuclear forces, the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched from land or sea, or long-range bombers. Since they must be launched within minutes in the event of an enemy attack, the warheads must be deployed, mounted on the delivery systems.
Any nuclear use in Ukraine is likely to involve non-strategic or tactical weapons with shorter range systems, and which are usually (but not necessarily) less powerful than strategic weapons, although on average many times more powerful than the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs.
The US has only one kind of tactical weapon, the B61 gravity bomb, of which there are about a hundred in Europe and a comparable number in the US, according to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).
FAS estimates that Russia has 2,000 tactical weapons in many shapes and sizes for use on land, sea and in the air. The weapons are not deployed on missiles or aircraft, but are kept in bunkers in storage depots across Russia. There are 12 national repositories, known in Russian military parlance as “Object S”, one of which is located in Belgorod, right on the Ukrainian border.
There are also 34 “base level” locations, closer to the delivery systems. In a time of crisis, nuclear warheads would be moved from national to grassroots levels – and so far Western intelligence agencies say no such move has been observed.
Such a move would be carried out by the 12th Chief Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces, which is tasked with storing and maintaining the warheads and then delivering them in specialized trains or trucks to base-level locations, or directly to the unit that is designated to launch them.
Pavel Baev, a military researcher who worked for the Soviet defense ministry, said Putin cannot count on these weapons actually working.
“Most of these warheads stored there are very old,” said Baev, now a professor at the Oslo Peace Research Institute. “Without testing, it’s very difficult to say how suitable they are, as many of them have passed their sell-by date.”
Baev added that it is also far from clear that the Russian can successfully link old warheads to the much newer delivery systems that should be used, possibly 9K720 Iskander or Kinzhal hypersonic missiles.
Not all analysts have such a vague picture of the state of the tactical arsenal. Pavel Podvig, who leads a research project called Russian Nuclear Forces and is a senior research fellow at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, said: “There is a maintenance protocol. There are ways to check if a weapon is in good health.”
However, it is more likely that the chain of command would collapse if Putin issued such an alarming and extreme order.
“It’s one thing to follow the order to launch a ‘military special operation’ that you understand will be over in three days,” Podvig said. “It’s another thing to accept the order to drop an atomic bomb. There is a sense that this kind of order is universally considered criminal. I think the calculation would change.”
The Russian leader is already reported to be facing dissent from his inner circle. The jump to nuclear use could stretch his authority to a breaking point.
“I think it would be prohibitively expensive for a commander in chief to give this order because if you give the order and it’s not carried out, it backfires,” Baev said.
If Putin decided to risk everything and if his military officers went with him and succeeded in detonating a weapon in or around Ukraine, then Biden and his team would be faced with choices that all modern US presidents would face. had hoped they would never have to make them.
US warnings to Russia in recent days have been vague about what the response would be, saying only it would be “catastrophic”. The White House must maintain its room for maneuver depending on what Russia does, whether it be a “demonstration” explosion over the Black Sea or the Arctic, or bomb a Ukrainian military target or — in the worst case — a town.
In 2016, the Obama administration conducted war game drills to test its communication channels and decision-making process in the event of a Russian use of a tactical nuclear weapon. There were deep disagreements that led to heated discussions on some occasions.
“The debate has diverged along two pretty important lines,” said Jon Wolfsthal, who was Obama’s special assistant and senior director at the National Security Council on Arms Control and Nonproliferation.
The first question was whether “the US or NATO should respond militarily”.
“In the contest, the answer was no. The US was winning the conventional war,” Wolfsthal said.
The counter-argument was that the US could not afford not to respond with nuclear weapons.
“There were people who said that if you don’t use nuclear weapons, two terrible things will happen. One is: all our allies will doubt our commitment,” he said. “The second is, if you don’t use a nuclear weapon in response, how do you stop Putin from going nuclear again? You needed nuclear weapons to restore deterrence.
“We never answered that. We never settled that debate,” Wolfsthal said.
The 2016 war game – first reported in The Bomb, a book by Fred Kaplan – was played twice, at the level of Cabinet Secretary, the ‘principals’ and by their deputies. The principals voted to respond with a nuclear strike, but not on Russia, in hopes of avoiding a total planet-ending nuclear exchange. Instead, they hit Belarus, arguing it was a “belligerent non-combatant”.
The delegates voted not to respond with nuclear weapons, arguing that the US could win with conventional weapons and that nuclear use would make it much more difficult to isolate Putin internationally. Two of the officials pushed for that option now hold senior positions in the Biden administration: Colin Kahl is the Pentagon’s chief of policy and Avril Haines is the director of national intelligence. After the war games ended, Haines suggested that T-shirts be printed with the slogan “Deputies Should Run the World”.
The 2016 war game took place in a Baltic nation, so within NATO and under its protective nuclear umbrella. Ukraine is outside that umbrella. Probably the most important question is whether the US and its allies should respond with devastating conventional firepower, as Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau and former CIA director David Petraeus have suggested. But that would turn the war into a war between Russia and NATO, in which escalation to a nuclear exchange could become hard to stop.
According to Eric Schlosser, the author of a book on the nuclear establishment, Command and Control, the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) waged another war game involving Russian nuclear use in Ukraine in 2019. The results are top secret, but as Schlosser wrote in the Atlantic, one of the participants told him, “There were no happy results.”