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Why NATO Needs to Plan for Nuclear War

As the alliance meets this week, leaders must discuss how they will react if Russia uses weapons of mass destruction.

By , a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
A military aide carries the "nuclear football," which contains launch codes for nuclear weapons, while walking to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House Oct. 3.
A military aide carries the "nuclear football," which contains launch codes for nuclear weapons, while walking to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House Oct. 3.
A military aide carries the "nuclear football," which contains launch codes for nuclear weapons, while walking to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House Oct. 3. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

NATO defense ministers will gather this week for a ministerial meeting, but one topic of discussion will be anything but routine: the risk that Russian President Vladimir Putin might use nuclear weapons in Europe. The recent massive, disproportionate missile attacks launched against Ukraine in response to the truck bombing of the Kerch Bridge reinforce the notion that the Kremlin remains unpredictable.

Although Russian use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against non-nuclear Ukraine seems unlikely for several reasons, including the fact that it may frustrate Russia’s broader goals, Western military officials can and must think through their potential responses. Doing so is inherently difficult given the many variables in play, but there are options that would punish Moscow and safeguard alliance interests without necessarily propelling the West up a nuclear escalation ladder.

The ministerial meeting in Brussels this week, which will include a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, provides an opportunity for NATO allies and partners to gauge the trajectory of the conflict at a critical moment. Recent Ukrainian battlefield successes, Putin’s partial mobilization, the Ukrainian attack on the Kerch Bridge, and widespread Russian retaliation striking critical infrastructure add up to a war with no end in sight.

NATO defense ministers will gather this week for a ministerial meeting, but one topic of discussion will be anything but routine: the risk that Russian President Vladimir Putin might use nuclear weapons in Europe. The recent massive, disproportionate missile attacks launched against Ukraine in response to the truck bombing of the Kerch Bridge reinforce the notion that the Kremlin remains unpredictable.

Although Russian use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against non-nuclear Ukraine seems unlikely for several reasons, including the fact that it may frustrate Russia’s broader goals, Western military officials can and must think through their potential responses. Doing so is inherently difficult given the many variables in play, but there are options that would punish Moscow and safeguard alliance interests without necessarily propelling the West up a nuclear escalation ladder.

The ministerial meeting in Brussels this week, which will include a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, provides an opportunity for NATO allies and partners to gauge the trajectory of the conflict at a critical moment. Recent Ukrainian battlefield successes, Putin’s partial mobilization, the Ukrainian attack on the Kerch Bridge, and widespread Russian retaliation striking critical infrastructure add up to a war with no end in sight.

Putin’s illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions; his reputation for rash, shortsighted behavior; and his nuclear saber-rattling have many on edge about an even more dramatic escalation.

Perhaps most importantly, Putin’s illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions; his reputation for rash, shortsighted behavior; and his nuclear saber-rattling have many on edge about an even more dramatic escalation of the conflict.

So far, Western governments have reportedly seen no evidence—such more trucks or trains appearing to move toward Ukraine from known storage locations—of Russian preparation for the use of nuclear weapons. For this reason, NATO defense ministers could merely continue to condemn the reckless and destabilizing Russian rhetoric regarding nuclear weapons.

For some, this may suffice, under the assumption the risks for Putin are just too high and the associated military benefits too low. However, depending on where, how, and how many are used, tactical nuclear weapons could conceivably counterbalance a quantitative or qualitative disadvantage in conventional forces. This is why the United States developed and fielded them in the Cold War, especially in the 1950s, at a time when the Soviet Union had conventional superiority in Europe.

While their use against a nuclear-armed foe might lead to uncontrolled escalation, it’s unclear that this would occur against a nonaligned country without the ability to respond in kind—like Ukraine. So, it’s possible there could be some military efficacy.

The bigger question is whether there would be any political efficacy. If Putin were to use nuclear weapons in the war, even if only for demonstrative purposes, he would likely further unify NATO and alienate his remaining friends in Europe. He would probably turn China, India, and much of the rest of the world against him. And he could make those areas of Ukraine that he attempted to annex uninhabitable for decades if not longer. From the outside, these all seem like highly undesirable outcomes for the Kremlin.

However, one area where the Kremlin may be willing to risk all that and more is in defense of Crimea. Illegally annexed in 2014 by Moscow, Crimea has a large Russian-speaking population that is generally sympathetic to Russia. It is also home to the strategically important Russian naval base at Sevastopol, which is the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s home port, as well as other military infrastructure, such as Saki air base. Since 2014, Crimea has seen an exodus of ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars, an influx of Russians, and a military buildup.

Given all this at stake, it’s likely Putin perceives Crimea as closer to the core of Russian vital interests than, say, the Kharkiv region, which was recently liberated by Ukrainian forces. If and when Ukrainian conventional military forces approach Crimea in hopes of liberating it, Putin may feel more tempted to use a nuclear weapon.

Whether used to defend threats to Russia’s occupation of Crimea or otherwise, potential Russian use of nuclear weapons demands at least thinking through possible responses. The United States has reportedly devoted some effort to studying this, beginning shortly after Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine. Washington remains clearly committed to avoiding direct involvement in the war, but Biden administration officials have noted that Russian detonation of a nuclear weapon, no matter how small, could prompt a reconsideration.

It’s important for alliance members to discuss potential alliance-wide responses now, rather than waiting until a crisis moment.

Although the administration has rightly been vague in spelling out what that reconsideration might entail, one former government official recently speculated that Russia’s use of nuclear weapons could prompt the United States and its allies to destroy Russian forces inside Ukraine.

Although U.S. officials have reportedly briefed allies on contingency plans in Washington, it’s unclear if NATO itself has conducted an in-depth discussion or assessment of options. In an alliance that operates by consensus and given strong U.S. preferences to maintain a unified approach to Moscow, getting NATO on board is critical. It’s important for alliance members to discuss potential alliance-wide responses now, rather than waiting until a crisis moment, and this week’s meeting presents an ideal venue.

Ministers should begin by acknowledging that they have a collective, vital security interest in maintaining the taboo on nuclear weapons usage. Whether responding to a violation of that taboo would lead to immediate, direct allied military involvement in Ukraine is unclear, but ministers should be clear that such an attack would compel an unprecedented alliance response.

What might the menu of next steps include? There are too many variables at play to identify with precision if, where, or how the allies might respond to a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine. Ideally, any set of responses should entail severe punishment of Moscow and the specific individuals who authorized and conducted the nuclear attack. It should also try to minimize the risk of escalating the conflict further along WMD lines. And it should seek to reestablish the taboo by leaving open the possibility of additional options as a way of deterring another Russian use of WMD.

Within this broad framework, the alliance could consider several options if Russia were to unleash a nuclear weapon against Ukraine. First, NATO could consider further augmenting its presence in Eastern, Northeastern, and Southeastern Europe at sea, in the air, and on land.

Decisions on the alliance’s military presence in Eastern Europe made at the Madrid summit just a few months ago were somewhat restrained, and there remains significant room for increasing NATO’s presence. This might include a reassessment of whether the alliance should deploy land-based nuclear missiles in Europe; expanding allied presence in the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania; or increasing allied air and naval presence in and over the Baltic Sea.

Additionally, NATO could eliminate remaining inhibitions on providing the kinds of equipment to Ukraine that it has been reluctant to hand over thus far. Foremost among these might be longer-range precision artillery, advanced Western tanks, and advanced combat jets. (Air defenses are reportedly already en route.) Furthermore, NATO could authorize and coordinate cyberattacks against critical dual-use Russian infrastructure used to support or finance the war effort. And the allies could begin to seize Russian assets abroad, owned by both the Russian government and individuals directly involved in WMD use, using them to finance recovery in Ukraine.

Other steps could include more direct operational support of Ukrainian forces, such as by embedding military personnel in Ukrainian units. This could be aimed at facilitating advice; providing training and field support for more advanced Western weapons; further easing and speeding the flow of intelligence; and helping in target identification on the battlefield.

In a similar vein, the alliance could conduct clandestine military operations within Russian-occupied Ukraine, including sabotage and aiding resistance forces. And if the alliance wanted to pursue horizontal escalation, it could consider similar clandestine military operations in Russian-occupied Moldova and Russian-occupied Georgia.

In sum, there are many responses NATO can and should consider in the event of Russian WMD use that would not necessarily lead to a spiraling nuclear conflagration. Deliberating those options now is wise so they are ready and available should NATO’s leaders need them. Moreover, examining possible alliance-wide responses to a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine would help achieve two other important goals.

First, it would prepare both allied leaders and citizens for such a crisis. Although NATO remains a nuclear alliance, some European allies have long preferred to see nuclear weapons relegated to the background when it comes to allied defense. And second, just indicating that NATO was conducting a robust assessment of possible responses would signal to Moscow that WMD use would bring not only greater U.S. involvement but also broad-based European action.

 

John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is the author of NATO and Article 5: The Transatlantic Alliance and the Twenty-First-Century Challenges of Collective Defense. The views expressed are his own. Twitter: @JohnRDeni

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