It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Would Putin Use Nuclear Weapons?

The urge to do more to help Ukraine is running up against concerns over nuclear escalation with Russia.

By , a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
A Russian nuclear missile rolls along Red Square during a military parade
A Russian nuclear missile rolls along Red Square during a military parade
A Russian nuclear missile rolls along Red Square during a military parade marking the 75th anniversary of Nazi defeat, on June 24, 2020, in Moscow. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
It's Debatable

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt. So, we’re now in week three of the Russo-Ukrainian war. It has been a surprising few weeks: European states decided to massively increase their defense spending, the United States just banned Russian oil imports, and—perhaps most surprisingly—the Ukrainians have managed to drag this fight out far longer than most observers thought possible.

Matthew Kroenig: Yes, the world has changed dramatically in the past several weeks. I feel as if 10 years’ worth of developments have been packed into several days. I never thought, for example, I would ever see Germany decide to more than double its defense spending.

But you overlooked what may have been the most frightening development: a renewed risk of nuclear war between Russia and the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin placed Russian nuclear forces on alert for the first time since the end of the Cold War. What do you make of this threat?

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt. So, we’re now in week three of the Russo-Ukrainian war. It has been a surprising few weeks: European states decided to massively increase their defense spending, the United States just banned Russian oil imports, and—perhaps most surprisingly—the Ukrainians have managed to drag this fight out far longer than most observers thought possible.

Matthew Kroenig: Yes, the world has changed dramatically in the past several weeks. I feel as if 10 years’ worth of developments have been packed into several days. I never thought, for example, I would ever see Germany decide to more than double its defense spending.

But you overlooked what may have been the most frightening development: a renewed risk of nuclear war between Russia and the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin placed Russian nuclear forces on alert for the first time since the end of the Cold War. What do you make of this threat?

EA: It couldn’t have been a clearer signal if Putin himself had airdropped into Ukraine and planted a giant sign saying “Keep out!” in front of the border. Indeed, in addition to the alert, we’ve also had public statements from Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov effectively threatening nuclear retaliation if the West intervenes further in Ukraine. The Russian government is reminding everyone in no uncertain terms that Russia is a nuclear power.

MK: Indeed. As a specialist in nuclear strategy, I have to say I wasn’t at all surprised. In fact, I was predicting that the Ukraine crisis would become a nuclear crisis several months ago.

This is Russia’s so-called “escalate to de-escalate” strategy: threatening (and if necessary carrying out) nuclear strikes on the assumption that the West will back down and the Kremlin can get its way.

At this early stage of the crisis, I think these threats are mostly a bluff to get the United States and NATO to curtail their support to Ukraine, but I do think there is a real risk of Russian nuclear use if the war continues.

EA: It’s funny you should mention “escalate to de-escalate.” Though a favorite of Washington defense planners—perhaps because it justifies having a larger, more diverse nuclear arsenal—military analysts who focus on Russia largely argue that there is no such concept in Russian military doctrine. The only Russian work that actually proposes an escalate-to-de-escalate policy was an article in a military journal, and there were a few muddled official statements. This position was never confirmed or followed up on in official government writing or doctrine. There’s no formal evidence that the Russians have such a policy, and there’s certainly no incentive to keep it quiet if they do have one. I remain unconvinced.

MK: Oh boy, where to begin. First, I have never met anyone who harbors the goal of building more nukes for fun and is just going around looking for excuses to do so. Those, like me, who support the United States having flexible nuclear options for Russia do so because they see a real threat against which the country must defend.

Second, the U.S. government, including in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, states that Russia has such a doctrine. You are right that some think tank experts have disputed this, but, as we have seen over the past few weeks, the U.S. government has pretty good insight into Russian defense planning. I trust the U.S. government over outside experts on this point.

Third, the academic debate about whether there is a formal Russian doctrine or not misses the point entirely. The real question is, would Russia find it attractive to threaten to use (and in certain circumstances actually use) nuclear weapons in order to win a conflict with the West? And, as we are seeing this week, the answer is unequivocally yes.

EA: I’ll be honest—I’m not sure I consider the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review a particularly reputable source.

Doctrine aside, though, I think there’s a pretty clear difference between what you’re describing as escalate to de-escalate—that is to say, using a low-yield nuclear weapon to encourage the other side to back down—and what Russia is actually doing here, which is using its nuclear weapons as a potential screen to encourage other states not to challenge it conventionally. One is nuclear use; the other is rhetoric. Russia is reminding us that starting a war with a nuclear power could be disastrous for us all.

MK: As you know, military threats are most effective when one doesn’t have to carry them out. Russia is starting with threats in the hope that will work, but it retains the option of following through with actual nuclear strikes if it comes to that.

We saw Russia run a similar playbook in 2014. As Putin invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region, he said, “Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers. … It’s best not to mess with us.” Russian officials relayed similar threats to Western leaders. And while Russia did not put its nuclear forces on high alert, Putin later bragged that he almost did.

So, essentially, Russia is backstopping its conventional aggression with nuclear threats. Step 1: Invade your neighbors. Step 2: Threaten nuclear war to prevent outside interference that could reverse your conquest.

EA: That’s a better characterization. As the Georgetown University professor Caitlin Talmadge pointed out last week, the Russians are largely using their nuclear weapons as an umbrella, presuming that the stability-instability paradox—which suggests that states with nuclear weapons are even more likely to start a war, assuming that nuclear weapons will prevent the worst outcomes—will hold that and they’ll be able to get away with conventional military activity as a result.

But for the United States, the result is the same whether or not Russia says it out loud. The United States doesn’t have an interest in getting in a shooting war with Russia, particularly given the risks of nuclear escalation that come with it. There’s a reason why, during the Cold War, the superpowers typically kept conflict contained to proxies.

MK: So you don’t think there is any risk that Russia will use nuclear weapons? I don’t want to overstate this. It is very unlikely at this point, but depending on how this conflict develops, I see a real threat. In fact, I think Putin would use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, for example, as a last resort in a desperate effort to stave off an embarrassing military defeat.

And while you are right that the United States has an incentive to avoid nuclear war, so does Putin. The United States is a nuclear superpower, and a nuclear exchange would also result in unacceptable costs for Russia. If the West simply cowers in response to his nuclear threats, we are essentially telling him, “Threaten nuclear war and you can invade whomever you want.”

EA: I do think there is a risk of nuclear escalation here, which is why I’m so concerned about increasing the United States’ and NATO’s exposure to this conflict. The United States and Europe have already placed unprecedented and punishing sanctions on the Russian economy. They’re continuing to arm and supply the Ukrainians and taking a number of diplomatic steps.

But Ukraine isn’t a NATO member. It isn’t under America’s nuclear umbrella. The United States should not get into a war for Ukraine. And too many of the options on the table at this point—such as a no-fly zone—risk pulling the United States directly into this conflict in ways that could eventually go nuclear.

MK: The West faces a dilemma. On the one hand, it wants to support Ukraine in fighting for its freedom against this act of naked aggression by Russia. On the other hand, it does not want to cause a major war between Russia and NATO. A key question, therefore, is: Can the West do more to effectively support Ukraine’s military without running undue risks of escalation with Russia?

I think there are several options that remain on the table for dialing up support to the Ukrainian armed forces, including transferring Russian-made fighter aircraft from Poland and Turkish drones that have already proved effective on the battlefield and carving out a humanitarian zone in Ukraine’s west, perhaps protected by a no-fly zone.

EA: Look, I can get behind the military aid, though I worry that the planes from European nations may be an escalatory step—as, apparently, did the Biden administration. But your third point is much more problematic. Carving out a “humanitarian zone” in Ukraine’s west is a serious military commitment that would put U.S. and NATO forces in the same airspace as Russian forces and would be tantamount to a declaration of war.

I just don’t get this. Explain to me how you carve out a humanitarian no-fly zone—or whatever it is we’re calling it these days—without starting a war.

MK: Easy. The West declares this is happening, and Russia stays away because Putin does not want a war with NATO either. George W. Bush made a similar move in Georgia in 2008, and many analysts think this is what caused Putin to stop short of taking Tbilisi. The West should not be the only side that restrains itself to avoid escalation.

EA: Bush actually decided against the use of force in 2008; what you’re talking about here is completely different. It seems to me that your argument in favor of a no-fly zone is effectively an argument that we should play chicken with the Russians. You’re arguing that they will blink if we call their bluff.

There are three problems with that argument: First, Russia is heavily invested in the war in Ukraine, and it’s entirely possible Moscow wouldn’t blink. Second, any deployment like that in contested airspace is liable to see some mistakes, with all-too-tragic results. And finally, it’s typical when setting up a no-fly zone to first target ground-based air defenses to protect the pilots involved.

Are you suggesting skipping that step? Either you leave Russian air defenses alone and risk American pilots or you take them out and start a shooting war. I know there has been a lot of talk about a “limited” or “humanitarian” no-fly zone, but I’ve yet to see any proposal that resolves that concern or presents any specific solution.

MK: In fact, Bush sent U.S. Air Force planes and U.S. Navy ships on a humanitarian mission to Georgia. Biden should do the same to Ukraine now.

I am not arguing we should play chicken with Russia. We already are playing chicken with Russia, and you are essentially recommending that we swerve first and lose.

There are problems with your counterarguments. You are right that Russia is invested in slaughtering Ukrainians, but the rest of the world is invested in stopping him. Putin is also invested in avoiding a war with a NATO alliance that has him greatly overmatched. Washington simply has to say, “Get out of our way. We are coming. Western Ukraine is a safe zone. Our military forces will provide humanitarian aid.” NATO does not need fire on anyone. Putin will not be foolish enough to pick that fight.

EA: Have you ever actually played chicken? Do you know what happens when no one swerves?

MK: I suspect you’ve never actually won a game of chicken? Sure, the West can swerve and let Putin maraud across Europe, but that does not advance Western interests.

EA: Regardless, the Pentagon said this week that Russian missiles can effectively reach anywhere inside Ukraine, so I don’t believe we could set up a no-fly zone, period. There’s also a mismatch problem there. If you limit a no-fly zone to western Ukraine, how are you keeping open humanitarian corridors from besieged cities in the east? This whole proposal is not practical, it’s not strategic, and it’s just doing something for the sake of acting.

Ultimately, there is still something worse than this conflict: an escalation to a broader NATO-Russia war. A no-fly zone is almost guaranteed to do that.

MK: What is impractical and nonstrategic is letting fear override the hardheaded pursuit of one’s interests. The free world can eliminate any risk of a Russia-NATO war by simply capitulating and letting Putin do whatever he wants. But then where does one draw the line? Kyiv? Warsaw? Paris?

EA: I think we have to draw the line here, at least. No more time to debate today.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War.

  Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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