You’ve heard by now that Russian President Vladimir Putin has engaged in nuclear saber-rattling. He has vowed that his country would use nuclear weapons if its sovereignty was threatened by a military attack from the United States or NATO. Putin is sometimes a blowhard with no follow through, but he is definitely a risk taker who is willing to be a gunslinger.
If we operate under the assumption that he would do the unthinkable such as deploying a tactical, battlefield nuclear weapon in Ukraine, what would NATO do?
Russia Will Pay Dearly
Some observers have said the United States would make mincemeat of Russian warships in the Black Sea, but this would be conducted by conventional means and not nuclear. To eliminate the Black Sea fleet, the United States would have some military options. The Americans could deploy an aircraft carrier strike group and unleash F-35s and F/A-18E/Fs to bomb and strike Russian ships with missiles. Submarines, cruisers, and frigates could launch anti-ship cruise missiles. The Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group was in the Black Sea in March of 2021, so a naval deployment in those waters is achievable.
The U.S. Air Force could fly B-52, B-1, and B-2 warplanes to bomb and fire missiles at the ships. This operation could be conducted quickly before the naval strike group could come into range. The Air Force would likely attack first followed by the Navy.
NATO Article V In Play
NATO would get involved if the Russians fired back and hit or destroyed U.S. aircraft or ships. This would trigger an Article V condition of military escalation in which an attack on one member is an attack on the entire alliance. This would place NATO allies under high alert and heads of state and their defense ministers and advisors would be conducting numerous meetings across the alliance’s membership on military options.
But could this create analysis paralysis among the United States and NATO members? Meaning there would not be enough political will power to strike back at Russia if the Kremlin decided to go with the nuclear option. President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have repeatedly warned Russia not to engage in a nuclear strike. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, and Antony Blinken, his Secretary of State, have shared this much with the media – declaring there would be “catastrophic consequences.”
Other Counter-attacks After the Russian Nuclear Strikes
But words do not always translate into action. The U.S. and NATO response would not likely be a nuclear exchange, but there would be conventional measures that could be undertaken beyond or in addition to attacking Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Air strikes on Russian military positions in Ukraine near the Russian border would also be plausible. It would be the same type of attack outlined above – from the Air Force first and then the Navy once a carrier strike group is in range. The U.S. military could make the Russians pay dearly on the battlefield. This would likely not include an attack inside Russian borders though. That could create a situation in which Russia could react with a strategic ICBM.
Would NATO Sit It Out?
Without U.S. resolve, NATO is not likely to attack if Russia goes nuclear. There is just not the political willpower for a full war in Europe. Memories of World War One and Two still linger. No one is ready for World War Three. That leaves the United States to answer if there is a Russian nuclear escalation. NATO would only get involved if the Russians destroyed American aircraft or ships – only if Article V is triggered.
Who Answers the Global 9-1-1 Call?
This means the United States would act like the world’s police agency. If the Americans ignore the crime of a nuclear attack, no one else is going to play global cop. Putin could thus paralyze the world with a nuclear weapon if Biden does not order a counter-attack. That is what Putin hopes to achieve in a nuclear crisis – that nobody would dare hold him accountable and hit back.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.