The president and his advisers have been closely following signals from the Kremlin, which Biden says are bringing the world closer to “Armageddon” than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cabinet-level officials have publicly warned that any move by Russia to materialize threats to go nuclear will result in a “decisive” response with “catastrophic consequences.”
“Talk about the use of a weapon of this type is dangerous and irresponsible,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters last week of Russia’s nuclear threats, adding: “If that happened … you would see a very significant response from the international community.”
Administration officials balked when asked to elaborate on what that response might look like, citing the need for strategic ambiguity – and the value of keeping their options open. They have been very specific, they say, with Russia through private channels, including direct engagements between Cabinet officials and their counterparts in Moscow that increased in frequency as Kremlin rhetoric grew more threatening. They also point out that the United States has a vast array of response options to choose from.
Yet the administration’s hands may be more tied than its representatives would like to admit.
Sanctions would be an obvious means of punishment – but some experts fear that punitive economic measures alone are not enough bring Putin to heel.
“Sanctions have not been proven as a deterrent,” said Eddie Fishman, a former State Department employee who worked on the Russia sanctions portfolio during the Obama administration and now teaches at the University. ‘Columbia University. “Unfortunately, the ship sailed on it. … The United States must be prepared to use military force.
A military response would be a more forceful display of Western repudiation, but a retaliatory attack on Russian interests risks sparking a war between NATO and Russia, something the Biden administration has so far carefully tried to do. to avoid.
The idea of responding to a nuclear strike with a nuclear strike, according to experts, is expressly ruled out.
“I don’t think the United States would even consider a nuclear response. If Putin is bad at detonating a nuclear bomb, then the United States is also bad at detonating a nuclear bomb,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “You break the taboo and get nothing out of it – the only thing you get out of it is nuclear escalation.”
This leaves the United States in strategically uncharted territory. For decades, the entire approach to maintaining, updating, and growing America’s nuclear arsenal has been to deter attacks on the homeland, American allies, and other interests. It’s much less clear what the playbook is for controlling a rival nuclear power that carries out a radioactive attack on a third country in a way that morally offends and upends decades of precedent – but doesn’t necessarily pose a direct physical threat to American or NATO soil.
“Political context, intelligence, intent and our overall context here would matter a lot,” said Thomas Karako, who leads the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, throwing out some sample considerations. “What was the nature of the nuclear use, what was the altitude, what were the effects, how many people died?”
The increased concern aroused a Russian radioactive attack revolves around two key scenarios: Moscow using a dirty bomb or a “tactical” nuclear weapon against Ukraine.
Speculation about the dirty bomb is linked to comments by Sergei Shoigu, Russian Minister of Defenseand repeated last week by Putin, suggesting that Ukraine planned to detonate a device loaded with fissile material on its own territory. US officials believe it is more likely that Russia’s warnings were actually the first steps in a false flag operation, signaling the Kremlin’s intentions to use such a weapon and blaming the Ukrainians for the fallout, literally.
The comments added new urgency to worries that Moscow could draw from its copious arsenal of low-yield nuclear weapons to deliver a devastating but geographically limited blow against Ukraine. Such a decision would not only terrorize the local population, but would throw a gauntlet at the feet of the rest of the world, which has not seen a nuclear weapon used in combat since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 – attacks carried out by the United States, as Putin was keen to point out.
“The only country in the world that has used nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state is the United States of America; they used it twice against Japan,” he reminded attendees of the Valdai Discussion Club last week. “What was the purpose? There was no military need for it. … The United States is the only country that did it because they felt it was in their interest.”
Yet despite the urgency that such potential developments have injected into government planning, Washington has mostly played down the idea that Putin would follow through on his threats. Austin said last week there was “no indication” that Russia was actually planning to use a dirty bomb. Military leaders have likewise sought to defuse Biden’s recent statement that Putin was “not kidding” about a potential “Armageddon,” stressing that the beleaguered Kremlin strongman was far more likely to let off steam, as Ukrainian fighters pushed the Russian army into a series of embarrassing retreats.
Biden walked back his own comments a few days later, saying that he did not think that Putin would indeed use nuclear weapons.
In recent days, Putin has also tried to back down. Last week, in his speech to the Valdai Discussion Club, he insisted that his government had “never said anything proactively about the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons; we only hinted in response to statements made by Western leaders. Putin also insisted that Russia “didn’t need” to use a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb, arguing that “it doesn’t make sense to us, politically or militarily.”
But US officials are loath to let their guard down. According to administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss their battlefield assessments, Russia is unlikely to be bullied into a full retreat anytime soon, even if recent victories of Ukraine on the battlefield put its forces on their backs. And like Russia exhausts its troops and its conventional arsenal, the danger mounts of Moscow turning to more insidious tactics and weapons to repel Ukraine’s counteroffensives.
“The practical effect of their exhaustion of their conventional forces is unfortunately an even greater reliance on their nuclear forces,” a senior defense official told reporters last week, speaking on condition of anonymity for discuss US nuclear strategy.
Against this backdrop, US officials have been extremely reluctant to signal any sort of limits on the use of the US nuclear arsenal – the only one in the world of a size that can rival Russia’s – to constrain Putin’s intentions. . They continued to remain mum even after French President Emmanuel Macron said earlier this month that France would not respond to a Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine with a nuclear strike on Russia – a position he later took defended under firedeclaring “we don’t want a world war”.
Military analysts believe that in a face-off between conventional forces, NATO has the overwhelming advantage.
“That’s why he made these nuclear threats all along anyway; he tried to dissuade NATO from getting involved in a conventional way,” said Heather Williams, director of the nuclear issues project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Yet officials and experts increasingly believe that what could bring Putin back from the brink of radioactive warfare is not the threat of mutually assured destruction by the West, but to lose his last remaining allies.
Russia has managed to keep its war machine and national economy afloat despite a series of punitive Western sanctions, thanks to oil and gas sales. In the eight months since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has injected fossil fuels not only into European energy grids, but also into the huge markets of China and India.
Beijing and New Delhi, two nuclear powers, have remained largely neutral on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, repeatedly abstaining from key United Nations votes condemning the Moscow war and recent annexation of Ukrainian territory. So far, they have refused to embrace Western efforts to establish price caps on Russian oil that could limit the energy benefits accruing to Moscow.
But experts doubt that China and India would support Moscow if it used a nuclear weapon.
“For Putin, any nuclear use is a huge risk, because he cannot know for sure, one way or another, how New Delhi and Beijing will respond to it,” Williams said, pointing out that Asian economic powers could distance themselves from Russia if Putin crosses a line.
If Russia the last remaining friends had to show their disdain for the use of a radioactive weapon, it could pull the rug out from under Moscow’s entire war effort.
“By using nuclear weapons he could win the battle,” Williams said, “but not the war.”