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What Will NATO Do If Russia Uses Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine?

F-35 NATO
A U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II aircraft assigned to the 34th Fighter Squadron receives fuel from a KC-10 Extender aircraft over Poland, February 24, 2022. U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Joseph Barron/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Throughout his war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has obliquely hinted that he might use nuclear weapons. I have argued in these pages that this is unlikely. There is no obvious Ukrainian military or infrastructural target of a size commensurate with a nuclear weapon’s power. Russia would be badly isolated by the rest of the world if it took this step, so any target would need to be worth the huge geopolitical blowback. Ukraine does not appear to have one. Its army is spread out across a thousand-mile front. None of its essential infrastructures is so massive that it needs a nuke to disable it. Much of the nuke talk in the West is overwrought.

NATO and Nuclear Weapons

Nevertheless, it is wise to consider how NATO and the wider world of democracies will and should respond if Putin nonetheless takes this step. If Putin is losing badly in Ukraine and his rule at home is threatened by widespread unrest over the course of the war– a somewhat credible scenario for next year – perhaps he will take this gamble to turn things around. So what will the West do?

Would NATO Nuke Back? 

So long as a Russia nuclear strike was limited to Ukraine, NATO would almost certainly not respond in kind. To do so would risk a further Russian nuclear response and a spiral of nuclear exchanges. The Ukrainians might be so shocked and horrified by the extraordinary damage, that they would demand this. But the West will almost certainly reject that request, just as it rejected Ukrainian demands for a no-fly zone back in March.

But the West also need not escalate like that. NATO is conventionally superior to Russia, and that lead has widened considerably because of Russian losses in Ukraine. If Russia cannot defeat Ukraine, then it is very vulnerable to NATO conventional retaliation. The West will almost certainly start there, if only to prevent nuclear escalation.

NATO’s Conventional Options

The retaliatory choices here are wide. The most likely initial move would be to remove the many informal restrictions on weapons sales to Ukraine. To date, NATO states have hesitated to donate long-range strike systems, advanced aircraft, and their most modern armored vehicles. The rationale has been to avoid provoking Russia too much in what has slowly become a proxy war between it and the West, and to inhibit the ability of Ukraine to strike inside Russia itself. Ukraine has chafed at these restrictions, claiming they slow the pace of its victory. That argument will win in the wake of a Russian nuclear strike. Ukraine’s air force could be given stealth fighters, for example, and the army the most powerful American and German tanks.

NATO might also intervene directly. A ground intervention would still be unlikely. Even a Russian nuclear strike would not destroy the widely dispersed Ukrainian army, and a land-based NATO assault would look like a NATO invasion of Russia. Instead, NATO could deploy airpower – to enforce the previously rejected no-fly zone and to sink the Russian Black Sea fleet. This would mean direct kinetic contact between NATO and Russian forces – a risk – but it would be limited as it was to just air combat in the Korean War.

NATO’s Economic Options

Where NATO’s military options would still be constrained for fear of nuclear escalation and large-scale ground warfare between NATO and Russia, the non-kinetic, economic options would be very expansive.

The already harsh sanctions on Russia would be expanded significantly, including a complete cessation of carbon imports. A massive cyber war would be unleashed to cripple the electronic systems Russia needs to fight the war. Russia would be expelled from the SWIFT inter-bank transfer system. Its financial assets in Western banks would be seized, and Russian overseas properties would be shut down, foreclosed, or confiscated. Russian nationals in Western corporations and universities would be expelled. Indeed, one domestic reason why Putin has likely not gone nuclear to date, is his circle’s fear of being cut off from the West permanently. They are already having their yachts impounded. It will become far much worse if Putin uses a nuke on the battlefield.

Stridsvagn 122 NATO

Swedish soldiers with the Wartofta Tank Company, Skaraborg Regiment in a Stridsvagn 122 main battle tank conduct the defensive operations lane during the Strong Europe Tank Challenge, June 7, 2018. U.S. Army Europe and the German Army co-host the third Strong Europe Tank Challenge at Grafenwoehr Training Area, June 3 – 8, 2018. The Strong Europe Tank Challenge is an annual training event designed to give participating nations a dynamic, productive and fun environment in which to foster military partnerships, form Soldier-level relationships, and share tactics, techniques and procedures. (U.S. Army photo by Gertrud Zach)

What if Putin Nukes a Ukrainian City?

The above options all reflect the general belief that, if Putin were to go nuclear, he would use a battlefield nuclear weapon. This would be an effort to turn the tide of the war. But there is also the even more extreme possibility that Putin nukes a city to simply kill as many Ukrainians as possible. Putin has shown a willingness to launch gratuitously harsh strikes against civilians. He could do the same with a nuke.

NATO Germany

A Challenger 2 main battle tank (MBT) is pictured during a live firing exercise in Grafenwöhr, Germany. Exercise BAVARIAN CHARGER was the first of three large contingency operation exercises being undertaken by 20th Armoured Brigade between May – October 2013. Contingency Operations training is known as Hybrid Foundation Training or HFT.

This would be akin to nuclear genocide, though. Russia would immediately lose its remaining friends in the world. China and India would turn against Russia – if only out of sheer terror at Putin’s depravity and recklessness. They, too, would support Ukrainian victory and the replacement of Putin himself. And NATO might even enter the ground war if Putin was that dangerous. But even then, a NATO nuclear strike – with its possibility of sliding escalation – is unlikely.

In short, Putin has no particularly good nuclear options. Even a nuke will not help him win, and the costs would be massive. This scenario remains highly unlikely.

Expert Biography: Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_KellyRoberEdwinKelly.com) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. Goran

    October 20, 2022 at 11:32 am

    NATO should not get involved militarily, but it should increase its assistance in equipment tenfold and immediately.

  2. 403Forbidden

    October 20, 2022 at 12:30 pm

    NATO mustn’t do ANYTHING STUPID. Fullstop.

    Russia has every right to use nukes against rampaging ukros.

    Remember, US used nukes against japs even though they were already fully down on their knees and on point of complete collapse, very unlike ukros who’re presently striking INSIDE russia with great vigor.

    It would be totally dumb of putin not to use nukes.

    Not using nukes would amount to an act of betrayal against donbass inhabitants who’ve endured 8 long years of massive heavy military firepower from Right Sector extremists & banderitist azov battalion fighters and ukrainian national guards units aided by CIA operatives with huge prior covert combat fighting experience obtained in havoc-ridden middle east.

    Biden must be forced to eat HJMBLE PIE for very stupidly & unthinkingly fomenting a crazed bizarre confrontation against a major nuke power with a massive hinterland to boot.

    Forget bali 2022.

  3. Eric-ji

    October 20, 2022 at 12:36 pm

    If Putin uses nukes there is no need for NATO or the US to get involved further. Perhaps the UN will censure Russia if it uses nukes. If Putin uses nukes the current posture of NATO and the US should be maintained — nothing more.

  4. marcjf

    October 20, 2022 at 12:45 pm

    What will Russia do if NATO uses WMD as a false flag in Ukraine?

    There is a view expressed here on 1945 and across much of the west that Putin is desperate and is keen to use nukes. Much of the pro-Russian and indeed neutral commentators and writers see things quite differently. They see the Ukraine as being losers quite soon – after the Raputitsa – and any use of WMD- particularly an event rather than a sustained campaign – as being more likely a false flag designed to get NATO directly engaged.

    The US mid-terms are a key point in time and in my view the reason why DC is talking up the risk of Russia using nukes.In my view that risk is negligible.

    Much like Russia blowing up its own pipeline, I would take some persuading it was Russia that “did it” should a nuke go off.

  5. Jim

    October 20, 2022 at 1:04 pm

    The tactical nuke in Ukraine meme, thankfully seems to be dying down due the realization that Russia is unlikely to use one because it would cause “blowback” from countries it wants support from in the Global South… and the idea that Russia is on the ropes just isn’t true.

    And the realization that the most likely scenario is a black-op by the CIA as a false flag.

    And, now, likely, it would be identified as a false flag perpetrated by the U. S.

    (They can’t get away with it.)

    This war is the biggest effort at propaganda/information war in my lifetime.

    Sadly, too many have fallen for it… mostly the hard core warmongers…. who don’t care how they get their war… as long as they get it.

  6. Rick

    October 20, 2022 at 1:04 pm

    403 seems to be wetting himself over NATO destroying a broken army run by a diminutive fool who thinks he’s eight feet tall!

  7. Goran

    October 20, 2022 at 1:13 pm

    marcjf, can you be more specific with the time-frame and projected advances, what areas do you think Putin will take and when? My guess is that Ukrainians will take back Kherson by New Years Eve. Can you be equally specific with this Russian offensive you are anticipating?

  8. Fred Adams

    October 20, 2022 at 1:45 pm

    Russian aggression in Ukraine, including Crimea, is illegal. Just as Russian aggression in the North Caucasus is illegal. These people don’t want Russian imperialism. The West should unite to break Russia’s attempts at illegal hegemony.

    Russia has for centuries practiced population importation and deportation in an attempt to erase the national identities of their victim appanages. So, yes there are Russians in the Crimea and in the Donbas. If they don’t want to be part of the Ukraine let them be repatriated to Russia. Their presence doesn’t constitute an excuse for Russian invasion.

    Russia is an autocratic society, anathema to the West, and anathema to the historical custom in the Ukraine. Russia has eradicated freedom in every appanage that it has vanquished. Resentment at Russian aggression is likely still alive even in Novgorod, where a comparatively representative custom prevailed before Russian annexation. Moscow can never rest easy atop its collection of conquered peoples.

    Moscow has never shaken off the motives and methods of Ivan the Terrible. Stalin was a later incarnation, and Putin appears to be the same. The world cannot stand by and let this autocratic evil propagate.

    The Moscow power structure must be broken, economically and militarily. Only then can its neighbors have a hope of peace. All means must be considered. And the West will be unable to relax, because the neighbors aren’t all committed to non-aggression.

  9. Doug Hasler

    October 20, 2022 at 3:29 pm

    There is only one word for the comments of our Russian troll friends — Hogwash. Not sure how that translates.

    Putin has lied to the world and his own people every step of the way into the current conflict. Putin assured the world that there would be no Russian invasion of Ukraine in the weeks and days prior to February 24th despite the massing of 100,000+ Russian troops along the Ukraine border. Putin denies that Russian troops are committing atrocities against the Ukrainian people, never mind the bombing of civilian buildings and areas, and the graves of Ukrainian civilians exhibiting signs of torture. Putin tells his people that his Special Military Operation is going according to plan while he proceeds to cut off internet access to international media reports of Russian military setbacks and increasing Russian troop casualties.

    On the issue of whether a tactical nuke will be detonated in Ukraine, our Russian troller friends declare both that Russia is obligated to use nukes in Ukraine, and that if such a weapon is used, it will be a false-flag CIA operation. Now that is what I call covering all of the bases (again, probably does not translate well).

    If Putin does make the mistake of detonating a tactical nuke in Ukraine . . . he will solidify his pariah status among the nations of the world, and further isolate Russia so long as he stays in power. I do not think it would be necessary or appropriate for the US or NATO to respond in-kind to a Russian nuclear strike. I do believe it would be appropriate for the gloves to come off (dang it, another hard to translate sentiment), and we would see US and NATO air and naval assets sinking the balance of the Russian Black Sea fleet. US and NATO air assets would clear the skies of Russian aircraft and engage Russian forces on the ground. Unless Putin declares a cease fire and packs it in, or those around Putin figure out that Russia’s future will look better with Putin removed from power, Russian troops will be in for a sequel to the Iraqi Highway of Death.

  10. CRS, DrPH

    October 20, 2022 at 4:19 pm

    Ukraine has proven that they can strike in the heart of Moscow, when they bombed the car carrying Darya Dugina, daughter of “Putin’s Brain” Alexander Dugin.

    In similar fashion, Ukraine could pre-position radiation dispersal devices (aka “dirty bombs”) throughout Moscow, St. Petersburg and other sensitive locations. Ukraine has substantial high-level radioactive waste (spent fuel rods, material from Chernobyl), and detonation of these materials in population centers would render them unusable for decades or longer.

    Putin better be careful that he doesn’t get more than he bargained for….the Ukrainian people have little reason not to do something like this, if their existence is threatened.

  11. Tamerlane

    October 20, 2022 at 4:35 pm

    The Ukrainian trolls on here seem to forget in their desire to continue drawing the United States into their war that in a fight which is existential to two countries, the one with a few thousand thermonuclear weapons is going to get the decisive vote. America will and ought not escalate to nuclear over a client state like Ukraine, period.

  12. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    October 20, 2022 at 5:11 pm

    The number of RF trolls on this site is proliferating.
    Editors, I would consider it high praise that propagandists in Putin’s failed Soviet-style regime count this site worthy of their desperate lies 🙂

  13. Froike

    October 20, 2022 at 5:16 pm

    Tamerlane…The War Ukraine is fighting is not only for Ukraine: It is for all Democracies. In case you were asleep, most of The Countries in The World are physically or morally supporting Ukraine’s efforts in defeating Putin and his Cronies.
    Putin and his supporters must be rendered harmless. It’s really a shame that Putin and his Cronies don’t care about The Russian Soldiers that they send to Ukraine. To them, they are just “Meat”.
    On the other hand, Ukraine is fighting to preserve it sovereignty and freedom. It’s a fight that anyone with a Moral Compass should support.
    As for Putin’s intent to use Nukes: I think he would have no place to spend his Billions. Nuking Ukraine would stregnthen the resolve of NATO to defeat Putin. Maybe not with Nuclear retaliation…but by increasing their support to Ukraine Militarily (which they should be doing anyway)

  14. Goran

    October 20, 2022 at 6:17 pm

    Tamerlane: “in a fight which is existential to two countries, the one with a few thousand thermonuclear weapons is going to get the decisive vote”

    First off, Russian military getting out of Ukraine does not pose existential threat to Russia, there is a well defined border that will not be compromised.

    And second, enough with the threats, Ukrainians are making it clear that they will rather die, including in a nuclear explosion, than be subjugated by the Kremlin Dwarf.

  15. Jim

    October 20, 2022 at 9:36 pm

    Goran, if it’s true, “Ukrainians are making it clear that they will rather die, including in a nuclear explosion…”

    Particularly, “including in a nuclear explosion” then that is why they must be defeated… they are a danger to the world…

    Sadly, Zelensky, gives every indication that he would use a nuke if he got his hands on one.

    Neo-nazi with nukes… what a nightmare.

  16. Tamerlane

    October 21, 2022 at 12:48 am

    Froike:

    No, this isn’t some global crusade to “make the world safe for democracy”, this is about Ukraine particularly seeking to enter NATO and Russia maintaining that this action is a national security “hard red line”. Ukraine is merely a client state of the United States, an expendable proxy, that’s all.

    As for “Ukraine […] fighting to preserve it sovereignty and freedom […] a fight that anyone with a Moral Compass should support”, that’s a hoot of a laugh. We in the west don’t give two hoots about that, nor is that what this war is about. If we cared about sovereignty or freedom we wouldn’t have invaded Serbia, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen etc to force our will on their peoples. We wouldn’t have attacked sovereign countries which weren’t belligerents against us. So spare me this utterly neophyte bullshit here. Those of us who have been sent to fight these imperial wars know better than to believe the regurgitated lies you repeat.

    “Strengthen the resolve of NATO to defeat Putin”? So NATO is fighting Russia over a non-ally/non-Member like Ukraine? When did Congress declare this war again? Why should we be arming and funding a non-ally like Ukraine again? What is our American interest in escalation over what to us isn’t a strategic interest but which to Russia is existential?

    Goran: false, Ukraine within NATO is an existential threat to Russian sovereignty and existence. If the Ukrainians would rather die, that’s their call, and I’m fine with that, I just have zero interest in hundreds of millions of Americans or citizens of countries who are actually our allies dying along side them because of that vote. I also have zero interest in sending yet more of our arms and treasure to them, a non-ally client state (the most corrupt gov’t in Europe I’d add as well). If you want to go die with them, by all means go. I will help sponsor your passport application, how’s that? But don’t ask for the American people to sign off on this undeclared escalating, spiraling war to Armageddon. If you want to take the American people to war, go get a declaration of war from congress. Obey the law eh?

  17. Tamerlane

    October 21, 2022 at 12:56 am

    Doug:

    You write a series of utterly ignorant and highly dangerous comments. You state regarding American responses to Russia engaging a non-ally like Ukraine with a nuke:

    “I do believe it would be appropriate for the gloves to come off (dang it, another hard to translate sentiment), and we would see US and NATO air and naval assets sinking the balance of the Russian Black Sea fleet. US and NATO air assets would clear the skies of Russian aircraft and engage Russian forces on the ground. Unless Putin declares a cease fire and packs it in, or those around Putin figure out that Russia’s future will look better with Putin removed from power, Russian troops will be in for a sequel to the Iraqi Highway of Death.”

    What you’re endorsing here is WWIII. I note that you don’t begin here by stating that congress would, per our constitution, first have to meet and formally declare war… am I right that you acknowledge that the president can’t unilaterally take the country to war without congressional action first right? If you were an American, or had served in our armed forces, you’d be aware of this constitutional necessity.

    Secondly, if the United States attacks a non-belligerent, Russia, surely you are aware that the Russians will “take off the gloves” in their response to this unprovoked attack on them and their armed forces? If they lack the conventional means to fully respond, I think it quite likely they will respond non-conventionally. Unlike 1991 in Kuwait, we are talking about engaging Russia, a power with thousands of thermonuclear warheads capable of reaching our homeland. If their armed forces are attacked by the United States, and their country’s existence threatened in that way (their existential interest in Ukraine threatened with failure by American intervention), surely they will respond to being attacked. As a Ukrainian, you are sympathized with here, but no thanks to being sucked into a nuclear war over your shithole of a country. Sorry.

  18. Steven

    October 21, 2022 at 8:02 am

    I love how we keep propping Russia up, and it is funny to see these Russian trolls living in a fantasy land concerning Russia’s power. This is the reality: Russia got it’s ass kicked in Ukrain, and they have already lost. Nukes mean nothing, Russia ain’t nuking anyone. Russia already has lost. The work on the street is that Russia’s nukes don’t even work. Plus we would shut their grid down with cyberwayr before they fired a shot. Putin is finished. It’s just a matter of time before Putin “jumps” out a window.

  19. Goran

    October 21, 2022 at 11:28 am

    Jim, threatening with nukes is getting stale, repeating how Russia has thousands of nukes will not make Ukrainians change their mind. It’s like saying Russia has a larger population, big whoop. Means nothing, both to Ukrainians and those who sympathize with them.

    Tamerlane, Ukraine, as a sovereign country that has freedom to decide which alliances to join is no more of a danger to Russia than Finland doing the same. Subjective judgments on what is of existential importance to Russia (judgments made by imperialist and chauvinist ideologues withing Russian establishment) get us to a point where everyone can declare anything to be of existential importance, including me saying the same about having a threesome with Jennifer Lopez and Shakira. My claim is no less credible than Putin’s claim that Ukraine’s sovereignty is a threat to Russia. They are both very, very subjective and should be rejected.

  20. CRS, DrPH

    October 21, 2022 at 2:37 pm

    Prediction: Russia will break apart, as did the USSR. Far Eastern territories & oblasts are sending their youth to fight in a war they do not believe in, and these areas are basically colonies to Moscow = plundered for natural resources, but receiving little in return.

    IF this happens, many of these territories will opt to retain their nuclear weapons. When the USSR broke up, weapons were surrendered, including from Ukraine. No one will be so stupid as to make that mistake again.

    Poo-teen is done, put a fork in him.

  21. Tamerlane

    October 21, 2022 at 7:29 pm

    Goran,

    Completely false. Historically ignorant. Morally abhorrent.

    We have the right to decide what countries to admit to OUR alliance. I understand as a Ukrainian troll you have no loyalty to America or our sovereignty, but to those of us who are American; it’s a real concern. Of course Ukraine in NATO is an existential threat to Russia. That is a fact obvious to anyone who has studied military science.

    And yes, of course threats are subjective; but what is objective is the power backing the perception up, in this case some 6500 nukes. Your opinion re: J Lo or Ukraine’s opinion re: whether it intends on threatening Russia, are irrelevant. What is relevant is whether Russia believes it to be a threat—just like the U.S. after 9/11 and it’s perception of Iraq or Afghanistan. The truth… meh, that doesn’t matter as much. In world affairs, strong countries (America included) so as they will, and weak countries suffer as they must. Russia is aware of how America deals with this, in reality, and they are acting with open eyes.

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