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What Would Putin Attack if He Started a Nuclear War over Ukraine?

Russian nuclear submarine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Yes, Russian President Putin keeps making nuclear threats over the conflict in Ukraine. But if he did decide to use atomic arms, what would he target? What would the Russian military strategy be? 

Russian nuclear targeting reflects both doctrine and capabilities. Russia has the lowest nuclear weapons use threshold of the major nuclear weapons states. President Vladimir Putin’s June 2020 directive on nuclear deterrence described six circumstances for nuclear weapons use:

– In paragraph 4, nuclear deterrence is linked to threats to Russian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

– In paragraph 19, nuclear first use is specifically linked to launch under any type of ballistic missile attack, in response to nuclear attack or to attack by weapons of mass destruction, in response to kinetic or non-kinetic attack on Russian nuclear forces and command and control, and conventional attack that threatens the existence of the state.

This list is clearly incomplete. For example, in 2014, retired former Chief of the General Staff and Deputy Secretary of Russia’s National Security Council General of the Army Yuriy Baluevskiy said the “…conditions for pre-emptive nuclear strikes…is contained in classified policy documents.”

We now know that the Soviet Warsaw Pact war plan involved the massive first use of nuclear weapons, including nuclear strikes not only on expected military targets but also against major European cities in support of a Russian invasion. Putin’s strategy involves the limited first use of nuclear weapons with target selection and weapons allocation designed to minimize collateral damage and, hence, the risk of nuclear escalation.

The Russian Defense Ministry describes the mission and targeting of the Strategic Nuclear Forces (the ICBM force) as follows: “…for defeat… of enemy military and military economic potential by means of large-scale, group or single nuclear missile attacks.”

In December 1999, Colonel General Vladimir Muravyev, then-Deputy Commander of Russia’s Strategic Missiles Forces stated, “…the deterrent actions of strategic forces…[involve] strikes with both conventional and nuclear warheads with the goal of de-escalating the military conflict,” and Russian forces “…should be capable of conducting ‘surgical’ strikes…using both highly accurate, super-low yield nuclear weapons, as well as conventional ones…” The Russians call this “escalate to de-escalation” a conflict. A more accurate description of it is “escalate to win.” The Russian assumption is that the West will not respond to the limited nuclear attack and give Russia what it wants. This is similar to Putin’s expectation that Ukraine would not fight and meekly surrender. In 2017, then-Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart stated that Russia is “the only country that I know of that has this concept of escalate to terminate or escalate to deescalate but they do have that built into their operational concept, we’ve seen them exercise that idea and it’s really kind of a dangerous idea…” He also said that he had seen no evidence that this policy was changing.

In December 2009, a more detailed statement of Russian targeting strategy was made by then-Commander of their Strategic Missile Forces Lieutenant General Andrey Shvaychenko. He outlined the role of the ICBM force in conventional and nuclear wars as follows: “In a conventional war, [they] ensure that the opponent is forced to cease hostilities, on advantageous conditions for Russia, by means of single or multiple preventive strikes against the aggressors’ most important facilities. In a nuclear war, they ensure the destruction of facilities of the opponent’s military and economic potential by means of an initial massive nuclear missile strike and subsequent multiple and single nuclear missile strikes.” This is a classic statement of “escalate to de-escalate” or “escalate to win” from the perspective of an ICBM force commander.

In a September 13, 2007 interview in Moskovskiy Komsomolets, former ICBM force chief of staff Colonel General (ret.) Viktor Yesin described Russian Navy strategic nuclear targeting. He said, “The sailors…largely hit targets that do not have any serious protection, such as cities and enterprises, and therefore they don’t require a very high degree of accuracy.” However, this was said before Russia fielded its new and improved SLBMs, or at least more than a small number of them.

Many of the numerous high level Russian nuclear threats since 2007 have involved the targeting of NATO nations with Russian nuclear ICBMs. The most common targets are missile defense facilities, INF missile facilities in Europe (there are none yet) and recently hypersonic missile threats against the U.S. and NATO national command authorities. Russian state television listed specific nuclear targets related to the attack on the U.S. National Command Authority. According to President Putin, one of the main roles of Russian hypersonic missiles is to target the U.S. and allied National Command Authorities. I believe these threats are consistent with actual Russian nuclear targeting.

The only possible targets for the Poseidon (formerly called Status-6) nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed drone submarines are large port cities. In Russia, it is reported to have a 100 megaton warhead which would kill millions by blast and fallout. I believe its role is to deter a response to Russian first use of low-yield nuclear weapons.

While the Russians don’t speak about anything between the limited nuclear strikes and all out nuclear war, there must be something in between. It would be insane for them to go from a limited nuclear strike to all out nuclear war. This may be something similar to the type of large scale very low-yield nuclear targeting outlined by James Howe. It is noteworthy that in December 1999, Colonel General Vladimir Muravyev, Deputy Commander of the Strategic Missile Forces, said nuclear weapons “are capable of nullifying the combat qualities of all modern conventional systems.” STRATCOM Commander Admiral Charles Richard said that Russia had modernized 86% of its strategic nuclear forces compared to zero for the U.S. Russian modernization is continuous and it won’t stop when they reach 100 percent. As stated in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review report:

In addition to modernizing ‘legacy’ Soviet nuclear systems, Russia is developing and deploying new nuclear warheads and launchers. These efforts include multiple upgrades for every leg of the Russian nuclear triad of strategic bombers, sea-based missiles, and land-based missiles. Russia is also developing at least two new intercontinental range systems, a hypersonic glide vehicle, and a new intercontinental, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo.

We have no recent unclassified USG numbers for the Russian nuclear stockpile. If we did, they almost certainly would be a large underestimate. It is noteworthy that at the end of the Cold War we underestimated the Soviet nuclear arsenal by 17,000 weapons. Almost everything you see in the press about Russian nuclear warhead numbers is based on a single American source which does not document the numbers. Their numbers for Russian strategic systems appear to be a based on assumed compliance by Russia with the New START Treaty and numbers derived from very old Soviet START Treaty accountability data for legacy Soviet ICBMs and SLBMs applied to the new Russian replacement systems which are far more capable.

Russia probably has between two to four times as many active nuclear warheads as the U.S., most them currently non-strategic. A December 2019 statement by Russian Strategic Missile Forces Commander Colonel General Sergei Karakayev implied that Russia had over 3,300 deployed strategic nuclear warheads. Russian expert Sergei Rogov has said the Russian strategic nuclear stockpile could be around 6,000 and assessments of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons range between several thousand to over 10,000.

Noteworthy, there have not been any NEW START Treaty inspections in 30 months and Russia has just denied us our on-site inspection rights. Absent on-site inspections, Russia could have uploaded its entire strategic missile force or at least most of it. The remaining NEW START verification regime is less than what was in the 1979 SALT II Treaty.

In 2019, former Under Secretary of State Rose Gottmeoller said, “If released from the current 1,500 limit… the Russians could rapidly add several hundred more warheads, some say up to a thousand warheads, to their existing deployments of ICBMs…” With 30 months without inspections, at least this much or even more could have happened. James Howe has done some very good analysis on Russian breakout potential.

Russia is on the verge of deploying its new Sarmat heavy ICBMs. Deployment of the Sarmat will dramatically increase Russian cheating potential, absent on-site inspections. Conflicting Russian statements on its deployment plans indicate that there will be between 46 and 200 Sarmat missiles. According to RT (Russian state media), the Russian Ministry of Defense said the “…Sarmat will be able to carry up to 20 warheads of small, medium, high power classes.”

What does Russia have to implement its nuclear strategy? Unfortunately, quite a bit. Russia has modernized its strategic nuclear forces since the end of the Cold War and now has a much more modern and larger strategic nuclear force than the U.S. In December 2021, President Putin stated that Russia had modernized 89% of its strategic nuclear forces. In August 2022, Putin’s Russia will likely claim it is deployed with 10. The Sarmat will be the main Russian weapon against hard targets although in recent years the Yars-S reportedly has been deployed with medium-yield weapons which will enhance targeting capability against hard targets.

Russia is generally credited with 2,000 or 2,000+ non-strategic nuclear weapons. My estimate is over 5,000. This is based on Russian press reports like which in 2014 said, “Russia, according to conservative estimates, has 5,000 pieces of different classes of TNW [tactical nuclear weapons] – from Iskander warheads to torpedo, aerial and artillery warheads!” and the official Russian claim that it has reduced its tactical nuclear weapons 75% from Cold War levels equates to about the same number. Russia repeated the 75% number in August 2022.

Whatever the total, Russian forces contain battlefield nuclear weapons, air and missile defense nuclear weapons, anti-ship and anti-submarine nuclear weapons and short-, medium- and long-range cruise, ballistic and hypersonic missiles. The very existence of these forces is clear evidence they plan on using them in theater war. These dual capable systems are routinely used in Russian exercises and in the war in Ukraine.

If Russia were to start a nuclear conflict, it would almost certainly be with low-yield nuclear weapons, where they have a massive advantage. According to then-Vice Chairman of the JCS General John Hyten, Russia had “thousands [of] low-yield … and tactical nuclear weapons that Russia is building and deploying…” By comparison, U.S. reportedly has under 25 low-yield Trident warheads and 200-230 tactical nuclear B-61s bombs and a total of 300 strategic B-61 bombs and nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Thus, Russia has a massive targeting advantage and it is growing.

There is some good news. The Ukraine war has demonstrated that Russian non-strategic and one of their strategic cruise missiles have significant reliability, quality control, accuracy and fusing problems. The Pentagon has confirmed press reports that various Russian missiles were experiencing a failure rate of 20 to 60 percent (failure was defined as the inability to launch or hit the target) with the lowest kill rates being in the “cruise missiles, particularly air-launched cruise missiles.” Even with these problems, the Russian missiles are still one of the biggest advantages they have over Ukraine.

Noted Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer observed, “The Iskander as well as other Russian non-strategic missiles can be truly effective only with a nuclear warhead—apparently the way it is intended to primarily be used in any peer-to-peer conflict.” Even with low-yield nuclear warheads, Russia does not need the same level of accuracy that it needs for conventional strikes and the fusing problems probably won’t apply because nuclear systems are the product of different design bureaus and nuclear fusing is significantly different.

Moreover, the relevant comparison is not between the latest and most advanced U.S. conventional cruise missiles and Russian nuclear cruise and non-strategic ballistic and hypersonic missiles, but with the only U.S. nuclear-armed cruise missile, the strategic AGM-86B, which is 40 years old, pre-stealth, pre-precision/near precision accuracy and has seriously eroded and declining reliability, according to General John Hyten when he was STRATCOM Commander.

T-84 Ukraine

A T-84 tank from Ukraine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is far from over and there is still the possibility of Russian use of nuclear weapons. If they do, it would almost certainly be against targets selected to have maximum military effect and low-collateral damage with very low-yield nuclear weapons. If the war were against NATO, the approach would be the same but the nuclear strikes could be against NATO Europe or the U.S. or even possibly both.

Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served as Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions.  He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff. This first appeared in RealClearDefense. 

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