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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Would World War III Start if Russia Attacked with Nuclear Weapons?

Russian TOS-1 Rocket Artillery. Image Credit: YouTube Screenshot.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has escalated rhetoric and threatened a nuclear response against Ukraine and the West in a 20-minute speech on September 21. Putin said that there would be a partial mobilization of reserve soldiers that could number as many as 300,000 call-ups to fight in Ukraine. He also warned NATO countries to not interfere in the war, reminding the West that Russia has nuclear weapons – “lots of weapons to reply” and that he is “not bluffing,” if the West encroaches on Russia’s “territorial integrity.” 

Putin said that his country would “use all the means available to us.” He also accused Ukraine’s allies of nuclear brinkmanship. “Now they [the West] are talking about nuclear blackmail.”

Biden and Zelensky to Respond at the UN 

President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will address the United Nations on September 21. According to CNN, Biden is expected to say there will be a “firm rebuke of Russia’s unjust war in Ukraine,” according to his national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and Biden will deliver “a call to the world to continue to stand against the naked aggression that we’ve seen these past several months.”

Don’t Do It

Biden warned Putin about the potential use of weapons of mass destruction in an interview with 60 Minutes on September 18, “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. You will change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.”

NATO Can Defend Itself With a Nuclear Option

Biden did not specify the U.S. or NATO’s response if Putin opts to deploy the nuclear, chemical, or biological option. Three NATO members – the United States, France, and the United Kingdom – have nuclear weapons. NATO said in a nuclear deterrence fact sheet that “If the fundamental security of any ally were to be threatened, NATO has the capabilities and resolve to defend itself – including with nuclear weapons.”

There Are Tactical Nuclear Weapons Stored in Europe

The United States stores nuclear bombs with NATO members in Europe. There are alsoallies with airplanes that can deliver those nukes. These are comprised of 100 B61 tactical weapons housed with some member countries. There is a Nuclear Planning Group within NATO that has been in charge of nuclear policy since 1966. All allies except France have representatives that belong to the group. This body informs the greater NATO North Atlantic Council on nuclear matters.

NATO Nuclear Planning Group Would Recommend a Response 

With Putin’s recent saber rattling, the Nuclear Planning Group is likely to have meetings to discuss options and report to the council its recommendations. The council would have final authority on the use of nuclear weapons if a member is attacked. This would create an Article V mutual defense assistance trigger and the alliance would come to the aid of an ally who was attacked by Russia. Military action against one or more members would be seen as an attack against all.

What Would This Look Like?

Let’s say Poland is struck by Russia with a nuclear device. NATO could respond with its own attack with a B61 against Russian forces in Ukraine. However, the fallout could endanger Ukrainian forces. So, NATO would probably deliver a B61 against military targets inside Russia. This would initiate the response Putin has warned about and possibly lead to a wider exchange of intercontinental ballistic missiles that would necessitate World War III.

Escalate to De-escalate 

But due to the reticence of all NATO members to nuclear war and the inertia inherent in democratic decision-making, the alliance would likely be frozen before it decided how to respond conventionally or with nuclear weapons. This is what Putin would hope to happen that the political nature of NATO is not up to the challenge of facing down Russia during a nuclear crisis. Putin could test a nuclear weapon to escalate tensions and then de-escalate the crisis with Russia in a better situation militarily while NATO dithers on what to do. This is the “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear doctrine that Russia is expected to employ. Moscow is gambling that NATO could be scared into inaction if a crisis transpires. 


An artist’s concept of a Soviet Yankee class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine after conversion into a test platform for the SS-NX-24 cruise missile.

Putin is expected to up the nuclear rhetoric as he engages in conventional military action against Ukraine. As the most powerful member of NATO, the United States will have to take the lead during any nuclear crisis. The other allies may indeed be frozen to inaction as the more dovish members would wish to avoid the use of nuclear weapons. All members would have a difficult decision to make if Russia brought on a nuclear apocalypse.

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.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, 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.