WASHINGTON – Russia’s attack on Ukraine and its veiled threats of nuclear weapons are forcing politicians, both in the past and now, to think about the unthinkable: how can the West react to a nuclear bomb blast on the battlefield?
The answer to the US default policy, say some architects of the post-Cold War nuclear order, is discipline and restraint. This could lead to tougher sanctions and the isolation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Rose Gottemoeller, NATO’s deputy secretary general from 2016 to 2019.
But no one can count on a calm mind to win at such a moment, and real life rarely goes according to plan. World leaders would be angry, offended, intimidated. There may be wrong attitudes and confusion. Hackers can add chaos. The requirements would be excellent for harsh retaliation – one that can be done with nuclear missiles capable of moving faster than the speed of sound.
While military and civilian officials and experts have in the past acted out Russian-American nuclear tensions, table exercises sometimes end with nuclear missiles sweeping across continents and oceans, striking the capitals of Europe and North America, killing millions in hours, Olga said. Oliker, Program Director for Europe and Central Asia International Crisis Group.
“And, you know, pretty soon you just had a global fusion war,” Oliker said.
This is a scenario that officials hope to avoid, even if Russia targets Ukraine with a nuclear bomb.
Gottemoeller, the Obama administration’s chief U.S. negotiator on nuclear talks with Russia, said the outlines President Joe Biden had so far outlined in his nuclear policy were in line with past administrations’ statements on the use of nuclear weapons only in “extreme circumstances.”
“And the only Russian demonstration on the use of nuclear weapons or, horribly, the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, I don’t think will rise to that level,” is the demand for a US nuclear response, said Gottemeller, now a professor at Stanford University. .
For former Senator Sam Nana, a Democrat from Georgia who has helped shape world nuclear policy in Congress for nearly a quarter of a century, the West’s option of using nuclear weapons must remain on the table.
“This is what the doctrine of mutual guaranteed destruction has been about for a long, long time,” said Nan, now a strategic adviser to the security organization of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which he co-founded.
“If President Putin used nuclear weapons or any other country used nuclear weapons first, not in response to a nuclear attack, not in response to an existential threat to their own country … this leader must assume that they use the world’s high risk nuclear war and nuclear exchange, ”Nan said.
For U.S. officials and world leaders, discussing how to respond to a limited nuclear attack is no longer theoretical. In the early hours and days of the Russian invasion, Putin referred to Russia’s nuclear arsenal. He warned Western countries to stay out of the conflict, saying it was bringing its nuclear forces into heightened combat readiness.
Any country that intervenes in Russia’s invasion will face consequences “you have never seen in your history,” Putin said.
How to respond to any use by Russia of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons was one of the issues discussed by Biden and other Western leaders during a meeting in Europe in late March. Three NATO members – the United States, Britain and France – have nuclear weapons.
One major concern is that by using nuclear weapons as tactical weapons to be used in combat, Russia could break nearly eight decades of global taboos on the use of nuclear weapons against another country. Even relatively small tactical nuclear weapons are approaching the power of the atomic bomb that the United States dropped on Hiroshima in Japan during World War II.
Gottemoeller and Nan praise Biden’s restraint in the face of Putin’s unimaginable nuclear warnings at the start of the war. Biden has not taken any known steps to raise the status of U.S. nuclear readiness. Last month, the U.S. also postponed a routine test launch of Minuteman III to avoid escalating tensions.
But in the short and long term, the world seems to be at greater risk of nuclear conflict as a result of Putin’s clumsy invasion and nuclear threats, according to arms control experts and negotiators.
Weaknesses that have uncovered Russia’s invasion of its regular military forces could make Putin feel even more compelled in the future to threaten to use nuclear weapons as the best weapon against the much stronger United States and NATO.
While Gottemeller argued that Ukraine’s surrender of its Soviet nuclear arsenal in 1994 opened the door to three decades of international integration and growth, she said some governments could learn another lesson from Russia’s nuclear invasion of a nuclear-free Ukraine – what they needed nuclear bombs as a matter of survival.
Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute, said the nuclear threat was growing.
“And we can say which ways will lead to further increase in risk. And, of course, the direct conflict with Russia on the part of forces based in NATO countries is one of the ways to nuclear war, “Lewis said.
Gottemoeller perceived the fact that at the end of last month, Putin publicly complained about the “abolition of culture.” This shows that he was vulnerable to global condemnation over his invasion of Ukraine, and even worse if he violated the taboo on a nuclear attack after World War II, she said.
Exploding a nuclear bomb in a country Putin sought to rule next to his own would not be rational, Nan said. But he said it was also not Putin’s announcement of heightened nuclear alarm.
As a young aide to Congress during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Nan witnessed how American officers and pilots in Europe awaited an order to launch nuclear weapons across the Soviet Union. The danger today is not as great as during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba increased the threat of nuclear war with the United States, he said.
But the risk of deliberate nuclear escalation is now high enough to make a ceasefire in Ukraine crucial, Nan said. The current threat of cyberattacks increases the risk of erroneous launches. And it is unclear how vulnerable U.S. and especially Russian systems are to such burglary attempts, he said.
Putin “was very reckless, brandishing swords with nuclear weapons,” Nan said. “And that, in my opinion, has made everything more dangerous, including a mistake.”