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What the Experts Think

What Happens If Putin Uses Nuclear Weapons? What the Experts Told Us

Russia Nuclear War Ukraine
Russia's road-mobile ICBMs that carry nuclear weapons.

The press these days is mad about one question regarding the war in Ukraine: would Russian President Putin dare use nuclear weapons? And as crazy as this sounds, we will find out soon enough if the Russian leader is truly bluffing or not.

Tomorrow the Kremlin is set to annex parts of Ukraine that conducted a sham vote to join the Russian Federation. Putin, in the past, has said that any part of Russia – or what Moscow considers part of Russia – that comes under attack means Moscow will respond. That could mean anything and up to the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

No doubt this is a subject here at 19FortyFive we have been debating and analyzing for several days now, reaching out to top-tier experts for their analysis and expertise on this issue. We asked four specific experts for their ideas on this issue and how Putin will respond in the coming days.

Our specific question for these experts: What happens if Putin uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine? Here is what they told 19FortyFive:

Mark F. Cancian, Senior Adviser, CSIS: “If the Russian use of nuclear weapons were confined to Ukraine, it is unlikely that NATO would support using nuclear weapons in response. The European nations would be terrified of escalation onto their territories, and President Biden has repeatedly signaled a reluctance to “start World War III.” Similarly, I doubt that NATO would use conventional forces either in Ukraine or against vulnerable Russian territory like Kaliningrad because of the same concerns about escalation.

Instead, I think NATO would respond with other tools. Diplomatically, NATO would further isolate Russia, perhaps forcing India and China to stop buying Russian fuel. Militarily, NATO would increase the flow of equipment to Ukraine, assuming they were still resisting. NATO would remove any restrictions on the use of this equipment and supply other capabilities such as ATACMS that could strike the Russian homeland. NATO, but especially the United States, would also move additional troops and air defense capabilities to Eastern Europe to reassure and defend those allies.”

J Andrés Gannon, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations: “I expect NATO to engage in a strong conventional military response aimed at curtailing the Russian offensive and helping Ukraine regain control of territory lost since 2014. NATO is unlikely to use nuclear weapons because similarly-sized tactical nuclear weapons are not a strength of the Western arsenal, nor would they provide much strategic utility.

Conventional retaliation could try to escalate the conflict enough to impose significant costs on Russia, hoping to deter future nuclear use by them or anyone else, while not escalating so much that Russia feels they have nothing left to lose.

The open questions remain whether NATO would attack Russian territory (unlikely) and what counts as Russian territory (Crimea remains ambiguous).”

Ambassador (ret) Melvyn Levitsky, Professor of International Policy and Practice, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan: “I believe the use of nuclear weapons by Russia is highly unlikely.

The Cold War doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, although not as explicitly stated as during the Cold War, continues to hold today to ensure that none of the nuclear powers would risk using nuclear weapons. Russia’s use of even a small tactical nuclear weapon makes no sense. Radiation from such use would affect Russia’s own troops in the Donbas region and spread to Russia itself.

There is a danger of the “caged tiger” syndrome in which Putin would try to use nuclear weapons out of self- or regime preservation, but I think that others in his group would intervene in such a case.

That said, it is important  — as the Biden Administration has reportedly made clear to the Russians — that the Western governments remain resolute in their commitment to respond vigorously by any means to such use.”

Lasha Tchantouridzé, Ph.D. Professor, the Graduate Programs in Diplomacy and IR Norwich University: “Russia is very likely to use a nuclear weapon in its current campaign, but it is unlikely to be done in Ukraine itself. Instead, Moscow may find a more convenient target in Europe.

The president of Russia has at least three options. One, Russia can resort to a high-altitude detonation. This way, it can disable much of Europe’s infrastructure, including Ukraine. Two, it can launch a cruise missile against a sparsely populated area in Europe, i. e. one of Germany’s great forests, a remote part of Sweden, etc. Three, it can deploy a nuclear device covertly to a less significant NATO city, causing thousands of casualties and blaming Americans. NATO cannot do much in any of these cases.

Nuclear Weapons

Russian Mobile ICBMs. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

However, the United States will have a choice between a retaliation followed by many millions of casualties and an acceptance of whatever explanation Moscow may produce. The latter choice is much more likely for at least two main reasons: since 2008, Washington has largely accepted the Russian versions of events, and two, the American president is not likely to trade American cities to retaliate for an attack on an unknown European city the name of which most Americans cannot even pronounce.”

Expert Biography: Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) serves as President and CEO of Rogue States Project, a bipartisan national security think tank. He has held senior positions at the Center for the National Interest, the Heritage Foundation, the Potomac Foundation, and Pacific Forum. Kazianis has also worked as a defense journalist, serving as Editor-In-Chief of the Diplomat and Executive Editor of The National Interest. His ideas have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN, CNBC, and many other outlets across the political spectrum. He holds a graduate degree focusing on International Relations from Harvard University and is the author of the book The Tao of A2/AD, a study of Chinese military modernization.

Written By

Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) is a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive and serves as President and CEO of Rogue States Project, a bipartisan national security think tank. He has held senior positions at the Center for the National Interest, the Heritage Foundation, the Potomac Foundation, and many other think tanks and academic institutions focused on defense issues. He served on the Russia task force for U.S. Presidential Candidate Senator Ted Cruz, and in a similar task force in the John Hay Initiative. His ideas have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN, CNBC, and many other outlets across the political spectrum. He holds a graduate degree in International Relations from Harvard University and is the author of The Tao of A2/AD, a study of Chinese military modernization. Kazianis also has a background in defense journalism, having served as Editor-In-Chief at The Diplomat and Executive Editor for the National Interest.



  1. Kevin McGrady

    September 29, 2022 at 11:30 am

    These are supposed to be expert opinions? They may well be if Putin was a normal range Dictator. However, he is nothing of the kind. He is a trained KGB propagandist and liar. First, no cruise missles can be launched anywhere in Europe without the origin being known. It would be impossible to blame a nuke on others as the component radioactive material would reveal its origin.
    I feel very confident that if there were some kind of attack outside of Ukraine that NATO would immediately act to attempt to remove Russian nukes from the board. This action would be swift, decisive and very effective in my view. I do not think nuclear.
    If Russia uses a nuke in Ukraine they will be punished. Not by forcing choices on India or China, why escalate another possible war? The idea is not well thought out. I think NATO can and will destroy the majority of Russian military capability in Ukraine and the Black Sea area with cruise missle strikes. From what I see at this point, it could be coordinated and thousands launched within a few hours and would devastate Russia. This would leave it open for Ukraine ground forces to quickly mop up and win the war within a short time.
    I would also question the term used “nuclear expert” expert at what? There has been no nuclear action in war since WW2. We all know that war planning does not generally include scientist. My bet is that NATO will follow the same strategy in such cases as they do in other cases of conventional threats. It will be a list of options to be presented to Commanders to make the call based upon conditions on the ground. This unless there is a mass attempted launch, then it will become a decision at a higher pay grade.

  2. Jim

    September 29, 2022 at 11:35 am

    Lasha is whacked. Melvyn probably has the most cogent and accurate POV. That said, Putin is digging a hole for himself and he keeps looking for better shovels. I’d also say that considering how he uses and treats his troops and even citizens, he doesn’t care. He’s showing psychopathic and antisocial personality traits that are and should be troubling. My comment to him might be targeted towards what motivates him and how going down the road he has will not get him what he wants. History will see him in the same company with other despots and what a sad POS he is. The choice is his: Choose to show a little humanity and keep the marbles you already have or jump off a cliff into a destiny and place in history that won’t be favorable to anyone except some that trend higher on the PCL-R.

  3. 403Forbidden

    September 29, 2022 at 12:16 pm

    What happens after putin hurls a coupla nukes, well, US will learn a lesson not to mess with russian pipelines.

    Jokes aside, biden will ramp up his russophobia and call for regime change in moscow.

    But biden’s dementia addled brain will be full of images of GOP congresswoman Jackie Walorski. So, biden isn’t going to contribute anything useful other than blaring hideous screams at putin.

    Walorski could be giving warning messages from the other side to biden, telling him he’s already has completely bloodstained hands.

    Now is not the time to drag entire world TO THE EDGE OF THE GREAT ABYSS !!!


  4. Froike

    September 29, 2022 at 12:27 pm

    I saw a condom package with Putin’s Face…it said, “For people who don’t know when to pull out!” That about sums it up.
    Nuclear Weapons=Mutually Assured Destruction! Is he crazy enough to do it? Maybe…

  5. Ján Macek

    September 29, 2022 at 12:35 pm

    Are these seriously the answers of experts?
    Do the experts even understand that if Putin uses a nuclear bomb once, he will use it again and again and again?
    There’s nowhere to retreat here.
    I think that if a tactical nuclear weapon (or several) are used in Ukraine, NATO will attack the military infrastructure with cannon weapons and destroy the Black Sea Fleet.

  6. Goran

    September 29, 2022 at 12:47 pm

    Option a).
    A high level of autonomy for Russian speaking areas within internationally recognized borders of Ukraine.

    Option b).
    Escalating until there is no more Russia, either demographically, economically or literally

    Is it possible that fear is so intense that 100 million people will let one man make this choice?

  7. Bob Allen

    September 29, 2022 at 1:54 pm

    Kevin MCGrady nails it above.
    Any nuclear attack on NATO ground, wherever it may be, will likely trigger a decisive US/NATO blinding/takedown of Russian military satellites in conjunction with a full-on cyber attack on Russian military and command and control assets, and possibly even direct fire on launchers themselves.
    A tactical nuclear attack within the Ukrainian theater is different, and NATO may be unwilling to escalate.

  8. Roger Bacon

    September 29, 2022 at 1:56 pm

    Man, the threshold for being an “expert” must have dropped a lot recently. Makes me wonder how many things I’m an ‘expert’ at now.

    Putin won’t use nukes. He will continue to throw Russians into a meat grinder, confident in the fact that he can wear down Ukraine. Hopefully the rumors of his ill health are true and events will remove him soon. That will give the new Russian leadership the excuse they need to change course. Blame Putin and withdraw.

  9. MrSatyre

    September 29, 2022 at 3:26 pm

    Letvisky shows a profound disconnect from historical facts as recent as today with this absurd statement: “Radiation from such use would affect Russia’s own troops in the Donbas region and spread to Russia itself.”

    The Kremlin demonstrates daily, hourly, by the minute that it does not care one whit about their own troops or the people in the Donbas region, or any other region.

  10. Septimus

    September 29, 2022 at 3:39 pm

    If Putin strikes NATO countries, NATO, and especially the U.S. as leader of NATO, must respond decisively and destructively, or else that is simply the end of NATO and the U.S. alliances.

    The calculation is simple: if Putin can drop a nuke on a NATO country, and that doesn’t draw a like response, this isn’t just a failure of NATO; it calls into question U.S. credibility, particularly with its willingness to use nuclear weapons in response. The advice to Biden will, I think, be unanimous: you cannot let him get away with that or else we’re finished; he can blackmail us with nukes from now on, even threatening the U.S. homeland, because — by a similar calculation — why trade just one American city for the whole country? Better to back down.

    The only way to avoid that outcome is to say: an attack on one is an attack on all, and any attack will draw a response in kind. Nuking a NATO country draws a nuclear response; whether it’s U.S., UK or France, I don’t know.

  11. Septimus

    September 29, 2022 at 3:59 pm

    Another point:

    Apart from what anyone, even experts such as those cited above, may think about how Biden and other NATO leaders would hold back from responding with nukes if a NATO country is nuked…

    How confident could Putin or those around him be about that?

    It seems like a pretty risky gamble. If Russia herself is at risk, sure; but in order to take Ukraine?

    “Mr. President, here’s a box. You can’t see what’s in it, but if you reach in, you might come out with a million dollars, or you might come out with your hand chewed off. What do you do?

    Substitute “million dollars” with Ukraine and “hand chewed off” with global thermonuclear war.

    And substitute “Mr. President” with those around him, whose help he needs to launch the weapons.

  12. Tamerlane

    September 29, 2022 at 5:00 pm

    Kevin’s comment is something I’d expect to see from some caricatured character in Dr Strangelove. The retaliation he is describing would result in a wholesale launch and an estimated 1,000,000,000 immediately foreseeable deaths. Ukraine isn’t worth that to the west, nor should it be.

    Froike: yes, I think Putin would use nuclear weapons if necessary to prevent what the Russian gov’t, military, and elites across the political spectrum view as an existential threat to Russian sovereignty: Ukrainian admission to NATO. We in the United States would use any weapon necessary to prevent us from being existentially threatened (at present we are inflicting massive pain on the west as well as China through our monetary actions).

    Ján Macek: I realize why Czechs and Poles would hope this to be the case, but I doubt this is an option, as it would result in a retaliatory strike (now if Russia merely for instance used conventional weapons to strike and destroy a western fleet, I can see that being a viable option).

    Goran: Kiev has already wholly rejected your Option A. Option B is not acceptable to Russia (as one might suspect), and they will escalate as far as needed to prevent this from occurring. Russia offered Option A and a guarantee Ukraine wouldn’t join NATO, thus becoming a quantifiable existential threat to their security, but the U.S. and Ukraine rejected this. This is why there is a war. Option C is the one most likely—Russian escalation until Ukraine unconditionally surrenders.

    Bacon: any successor to Putin would more likely than not have a harder line on Ukraine, as Ukraine in NATO is a self evident existential threat to Russian sovereignty and capacity for self-defense.

  13. Jim

    September 29, 2022 at 6:59 pm

    I don’t accept the premise of the article.

    Russia is unlikely to use a tactical nuke in Ukraine.

    Ambassador (ret) Melvyn Levitsky, “I believe the use of nuclear weapons by Russia is highly unlikely.”

    On the other hand, Russia is likely to use any and all conventional weapons to defend the Donbus and the two other regions, plus Crimea.

    And, should Ukraine and their backers in the Collective West, with the U. S. being the chief backstop, continue the war, Russia will follow through with de-militarization & de-nazification which means in practical terms fighting until unconditional surrender.

    But, my sense is that Russia would accept a peace treaty which makes three demands, no offensive missiles in Ukraine, neutrality for Ukraine: no NATO membership, and accept Russian sovereignty over Crimea, the Donbus, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia.

    As opposed to some on this website, it’s my opinion, Russia has the capability to militarily achieve their objectives until unconditional surrender.

    But will accept a peace treaty.

    The choice is Ukraine’s to make (and whether their backers will accept it).

  14. Bender

    September 29, 2022 at 8:09 pm

    your “expert” Lasha Tchantouridzé is either nuts or a buffoon..

    the other two are -barely- passable.

    you should have asked some retired general from the Pentagon nuclear readiness section..

  15. Scottfs

    September 29, 2022 at 8:09 pm

    The use of nuclear weapons is inexcusable and will not be tolerated. Options include a blockade of Russian Baltic sea ports, the annihilation of the Russian Black Sea, a clear signal to China a tariff of 50% of their imports to the West including the USA, a detonation of a nuclear device iver Russia to cripple them, carte blanche for Ukraine to attack Russia, and a bounty on Putin’s head.

    Strong measures but Putin must know he will be killed if he uses nuclear weapons.

  16. John

    September 29, 2022 at 8:34 pm

    Russia has far superior nuclear forces. If the West is still in existence in the near future, it must expand its nuclear forces for improved worldwide deterrence. Without parity it does not exist.
    We need to activate our 2000 reserve warheads and build new warheads using our reserve pits

  17. Andrew P

    September 29, 2022 at 9:10 pm

    These so-called experts know nothing – especially about predicting the future. My opinion is just as good as theirs. I think Russia will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine because it is doing very poorly and is rapidly running out of options. Just how badly there is no way to know because most reporting includes a lot of propaganda. When Russia uses them, it is likely to be massive strikes with tactical weapons across the entire front with the objective of destroying the Ukrainian Army. Then their newly mobilized cannon fodder will move in to hold the territory. I also predict that it won’t work, as Ukraine will not surrender, and the new Russian draftees will be slaughtered by Ukrainian resistance. Then Russia will have to use hundreds of more nukes, again and again. In the end, Ukraine will be totally destroyed, because it will never surrender, and Russia will occupy a radioactive wasteland.

  18. Steven

    September 29, 2022 at 9:24 pm

    Jim, what is Russia waiting for? lol. Nice try.

  19. Ross

    September 29, 2022 at 10:18 pm

    There is no way the US and other western allies would sit back as Putin drops tactical nukes on Ukraine. You couldn’t trust Putin (not that we really do now) again. And if the west does nothing it give Putin every incentive to continue is western aggression. It’s been 7 months and Russia has managed zero of its prewar goals and tens of thousands of Russian men are fleeing the country but some of you think Russia can achieve the takeover of Ukraine regions that don’t want to be a part of Russia. Based on what evidence? These new recuits will have almost zero training and be dead within a couple days of being thrown into the war. You guys are delusional.

  20. Jon

    September 29, 2022 at 11:23 pm

    Is Putin very sick? There were rumors about his health earlier. Does anyone want to play chicken with a dead man?

  21. oracle2FG

    September 30, 2022 at 1:12 am

    Experts? Seriously. Russia still holds considerable territory in the Ukraine. It will not be a trivial matter for UAF to remove Russians proxies and irregulars in LNR,DNR, Kherson let alone the Crimea.
    The next few months will tell the story between the onset of winter and the mud season prior to spring. I sense Russia waits for the EU to survive the winter and gas shortages, tries to add weapons and looks at what territory they hold. If and only if, the Crimea is threatened, does Putin reassess that option. The risk to Russia is far greater if they use nukes. They will lose the global energy trade, the UAF will get access to deadlier weapons, and it will possible trigger domestic terrorism in Russia that will be hard to control. We shall see.

  22. aldol11

    September 30, 2022 at 6:12 am

    the Russians themselves need get rid of Putin

    this war will escalate on both sides until they do

  23. Matt

    September 30, 2022 at 7:39 pm

    First, I think Professor Tchantouridzé must have had one too many to drink or have been otherwise incapacitated when he wrote this blurb.

    After the annexation of the four Ukrainian territories into Russia, I think Putin has backed himself into a corner with his threat to use the most destructive weapons available to him if Russian territory is violated. He must now either act on that threat or tacitly admit to the world his bluff.

    Given the importance of projecting strength and saving face to Putin, he is now nearly committed to acting. I believe that the form that action will initially take is use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine.

    The US and NATO will be obligated to respond lest they establish the precedent of succumbing to nuclear blackmail. Exactly what this response will look like, I’m not sure but it could very well involve a massive and direct NATO attack on Russian forces in Ukraine. That, in turn, could trigger a much wider nuclear response from Putin. Then, doomsday.

    Geopolitically, the world is easily in the most perilous spot since the Cuban missile crisis. We stand at the precipice.

    The only realistic hope I have for a sane resolution to this insane situation Putin has put the world in is either: 1) Putin is overthrown in a coup by courageous Russian leaders, or 2) China and India let Putin know, in no uncertain terms, ideally now, or less ideally, after, using a nuclear weapon, that their markets are closed to Russia and that they are joining in with the existing regime of Western sanctions imposed on Russia. An action like this is entirely in China’s and India’s interest because their nations will both suffer tremendously in an all-out nuclear war from both the nuclear fallout and the likely destruction in Europe and the US of massive markets for their exports.

  24. ObxRex

    October 1, 2022 at 2:02 pm

    If Putin pops a tactical nuke in Ukraine, which I believe he eventually will as his army continues to disentegrate, the west will shut down Russia’s entire electrical grid. We have this capability. This will be a far greater punishment than a military strike, and will mobilize the country to oust Putin.

  25. Goran

    October 1, 2022 at 3:27 pm

    Jim, you still think that “Russia has the capability to militarily achieve their objectives until unconditional surrender”?

  26. Birder

    October 1, 2022 at 3:53 pm

    Time to arm the thousands of men fleeing Russia and send the freedom fighters back in to free Russia from the closet communists!

  27. Wally1

    October 10, 2022 at 10:55 am

    I live in the real world. Should the Russians use a tactical nuke in Ukraine, NATO will do nothing. Biden will do nothing. The sheep will be upset, but do nothing. Years ago Ukraine actually gave up their security and ability to defend themselves for an I.O.U. See how that worked out. That is the real lesson.
    Like having an emergency, someone breaking into your house and calling 911, the cops are only 38 minutes away. They arrive to investigate your murder, …. OR you could be prepared, have a gun, know how to use it and solve your own problems.
    Now if uyour a liberal minded person, it may take a while but there is a solution in there somewhere! Like I said, some of us live in the real world.

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