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How to Deal with Putin’s Nuclear War Threats Once and For All

Cold War Nuclear Weapons Test. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Putin keeps making nuclear war threats. Here is how the United States should respond over the long term: 

In 2008, distinguished Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhuaer observed, “…our superiors are potentially ready to burn all of us in nuclear fire because of disputes over ice, rocks or South Ossetia.” I have quoted this many times because I feel is sums up quite well Putin’s desire for territorial expansion (in this case the Arctic and part of Georgia) and the role of nuclear threats in supporting it. This has most clearly been on display in Putin’s long war against Ukraine. It’s noteworthy that in July 2014 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made an implied nuclear threat against NATO relating to a hypothetical NATO response against the Russian invasion force in Crimea by referencing their military doctrine. In March 2015, President Putin said that during the Crimea crisis he would have put Russian nuclear forces on alert if it had been necessary.

Felgenhauer was proved correct in September 2022 when Putin’s Deputy at the Russian National Security Council (and former President) Dimitri Medvedev declared, “The Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk) republics and other territories will be accepted into Russia….Russia has announced that not only mobilisation capabilities, but also any Russian weapons, including strategic nuclear weapons and weapons based on new principles, could be used for such protection.” This statement was in support of President Putin’s nuclear threat associated with his mobilization decree. He said, “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.” “Territorial integrity” includes areas seized by force and annexed after a sham referendum.

According to Russian exile and former world chess champion Garry Kaparov, “I have been fighting Mr. Putin for 20 years and have always said that his regime is bound to become a fascist threat – not only to Russia, not only to its neighbors, but to the whole world.” Putin does not embrace the vile Hitler version of Fascism (although some of his supporters do) but he does embrace territorial expansion by war. Moreover, the Putin regime is not averse to threatening a nuclear holocaust even involving the entire world. According to Medvedev, “The idea of punishing a country that has one of the largest nuclear potentials is absurd. And potentially poses a threat to the existence of humanity.”

Boris Bondarev, a Russian diplomat who resigned in protest over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, agrees that Putin has created a dangerous “fascist state” which if it defeats Ukraine will go on to attack a NATO state. In an important article in Foreign Affairs and in an interview with Sky News, he describes Putin as willing to accept World War II level casualties to win. He describes Putin as isolated from reality and says that the Russian Foreign Ministry is facilitating this. He reveals that Putin’s ultimatum to the West in the form of draft treaties that would fundamentally change the status of former Warsaw Pact states and increase the threat to them came directly from the Kremlin. Bondarev describes the following exchange with one of his colleagues:

For some, this was a way to evade responsibility for Russia’s actions; they could explain their behavior by telling themselves and others that they were merely following orders. That I understood. What was more troubling was that many took pride in our increasingly bellicose behavior. Several times, when I cautioned colleagues that their actions were too abrasive to help Russia, they gestured at our nuclear force. “We are a great power,” one person said to me. Other countries, he continued, “must do what we say.”

He also describes another exchange with one of his colleagues:

One official, a respected expert on ballistic missiles, told me that Russia needed to “send a nuclear warhead to a suburb of Washington.” He added, “Americans will shit their pants and rush to beg us for peace.” He appeared to be partially joking. But Russians tend to think that Americans are too pampered to risk their lives for anything, so when I pointed out that a nuclear attack would invite catastrophic retaliation, he scoffed: “No it wouldn’t.”

I believe Mr. Bondarev’s information is quite credible and explains why the Russian nuclear war threats are coming from the Kremlin and the Foreign Ministry. Notably absent are nuclear threats from Russian generals which is in stark contrast with previous Russian nuclear threats. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s description of the October 2022 Grom exercise as training for “a massive nuclear strike by strategic offensive forces” is clearly part of the orchestrated nuclear threat campaign. However, while Shoigu holds the rank of General of the Army, he is not a military man. However, significantly, Mr. Bondarev warns that the generals would likely implement a nuclear launch order from Putin. The argument that the generals have to “agree” for Putin to launch nuclear weapons, in my opinion, is nonsense. Only a mutiny followed by a coup could prevent such an eventuality.

There appears to be an enormous disconnect between the Biden administration’s stated perception about Putin and Russia and the nuclear deterrence policies it is pursuing, according to the Biden administration’s October 2022 National Security Strategy:

-“Russia’s brutal and unprovoked war on its neighbor Ukraine has shattered peace in Europe and impacted stability everywhere, and its reckless nuclear threats endanger the global non-proliferation regime.”

-“Our competitors and potential adversaries are investing heavily in new nuclear weapons. By the 2030s, the United States for the first time will need to deter two major nuclear powers, each of whom will field modern and diverse global and regional nuclear forces.”

-“Russia’s conventional military will have been weakened, which will likely increase Moscow’s reliance on nuclear weapons in its military planning.”

Recently, concern has focused on the threat of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine, but most of Russian nuclear threats associated with Putin’s aggression against Ukraine have been aimed at the U.S. and NATO. President Putin does not want a nuclear war, but he thinks he has a nuclear advantage and his nuclear weapons can be used to intimidate the West. The constant Russian emphasis on its nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles is part of this saber-rattling strategy. Indeed, Medvedev declared, “Let them [the U.S.] run or crawl back themselves and ask for it [nuclear arms negotiations].” This is not only Medvedev. In 2013, then Kremlin Chief of Staff (and former Defense Minister) Colonel General Sergei Ivanov stated, “When I hear our American partners say: ‘let’s reduce something else’, I would like to say to them: ‘excuse me, but what we have is relatively new’. They [the U.S.] have not conducted any upgrades for a long time. They still use Trident [missiles].” The modernization asymmetry he cited is real. In August 2022, STRATCOM Commander Admiral Charles Richard said that Russia had modernized 86% of its strategic nuclear forces compared to zero for the U.S.

President Putin’s constant wielding of his nuclear superweapons reflects this same perception. When he brandished them in his 2018 State of the Nation address to the Duma, Putin declared, “Russia still has the greatest nuclear potential in the world, but nobody listened to us. Listen now.” What he means is not “listen” but “don’t oppose our aggression” and “don’t sanction us.” When he invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, President Putin threatened NATO should it intervene against Russia, stating that Russia would respond “…immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history. No matter how the events unfold, we are ready. All the necessary decisions in this regard have been taken. I hope that my words will be heard.”

According a recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Today US and Russian nuclear arsenals are smaller than in 1962…” This is partially correct. There has been a vast reduction in the U.S. nuclear weapons numbers from the level that existed at the time of the Cuban missile crisis while Russia today reportedly has more nuclear weapons than the Soviet Union did in 1962. Moreover, Russian numbers are increasing while ours are declining. (This will be discussed below.)

The nuclear asymmetries favoring Russia today are not an accident. They are the result of policy decisions resulting in the U.S. and Russia going in opposite directions in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis. The path toward Minimum Deterrence was started by Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He rejected the usefulness of nuclear superiority, evangelized the view that missile defense against Russia was a bad thing and that we should accept Mutual Assured Destruction. He set us on the long a path to today’s crisis. The world’s leading authority on deterrence Dr. Keith Payne has characterized U.S. policy as “The Great American Gamble.”[2] The current risk we face is the result of losing this gamble.

McNamara did a good job in hiding what he was doing. By deploying the Poseidon highly-MIRVed SLBM, he dramatically increased the number of U.S. strategic nuclear warheads. However, they were the wrong kind of weapons to implement U.S. strategy. At a 1985 NSC meeting, President Reagan was told by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John W. Vessey about:

…U.S. weapons capabilites, asymmetries in U.S. Soviet targeting tasks and the need for prompt hard target capability in the U.S. modernization plan. He added that caping MX [the Peacekeepr ICBM] at 50 would be very bad but that keeping 50 MMIII [Minuteman III] and C-3 [Poseidon] missiles in the force would help. However, the latter only contributed in the case of soft targets. With a fully generated force we can cover all soft targets [in the Soviet Union] whereas day-to-day coverage was only 50% today rising to 100% by 1994. The Chairman indicated that the military implications of retaining or removing Poseidon/MMIII didn’t make much difference in the outcome of a war, assuming the full strategic modernizaqtion plan to include 100 MX is realized.

The projected modernization program that General Vessey mentioned was almost completely eliminated or dramatically reduced by the administrations that followed President Reagan largely based upon fantasies about the benign nature of the Russia Federation and later Putin in the post-Cold War world. At the end of the Cold War, the George H. W. Bush administration and subsequent administrations dramatically cut back the number of U.S. nuclear weapons. Indeed, during the George W. Bush administration, the Peacekeeper ICBM and the Advanced Cruise Missile were eliminated. This completely eliminated two of the three best U.S. weapons against hard targets. Because of these policies, we probably have less capability against hard targets today than we did in 1985.

At the time of the Reagan briefing, the U.S. had about 10,000 deployed strategic nuclear weapons with a total U.S. nuclear inventory of over 23,000. Today, our total active and inactive weapons inventory is 3,750, while our deployed strategic and non-strategic force is reportedly under 2,000 weapons. Reportedly, the U.S. has 200-230 tactical nuclear B-61s bombs and a total of 300 strategic bombs and nuclear-armed cruise missiles. It is clear that our retaliatory capability today is only a tiny fraction of what it was at the end to the Cold War, even if we ignore the fact that our bombers currently are not on alert. The most survivable element of our nuclear Triad against a small nuclear attack, the ICBM force, does not carry low-yield nuclear weapons.

Advocates of Minimum Deterrence seek to reduce the number of U.S. nuclear weapons dramatically and, furthermore, usually advocate the elimination of one or more legs of the U.S. nuclear Triad. Minimum deterrence is frequently linked to the objective of nuclear zero. The Minimum Deterrence narrative involves a near unanimous consensus that there is no serious threat relevant to nuclear deterrence from Russia, China, North Korea or Iran, now or in the future. For example, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Minimum Deterrence report written by George Perkovich asserts, “Large-scale aggression is not a realistic challenge to today’s nuclear-armed states and NATO.”[3] The Global Zero “Commission” (it was not a Commission) presented its Minimum Deterrence policy recommendations as a step toward nuclear abolition. It denied a threat from Russia because, “The dramatic shift in the threat environment from the 20th to the 21st century [which is] is underscored by last year’s survey of several hundred experts by the Council on Foreign Relations [in which] Russia is not even mentioned among the top twenty (20) contingencies that in their view directly threaten the U.S. homeland or countries of strategic importance to the United States.” This was five years after Putin and his cronies starting making irresponsible nuclear threats against the U.S. and NATO and only two years before his forceful seizure of Crimea and the initial invasion of Eastern Ukraine.

The Global Zero report came close to the rejection of extending nuclear deterrence to our allies. It advocated that, “All U.S. tactical nuclear weapons would be eliminated over the next ten years.” In the same year the report was published, NATO reaffirmed the requirement for nuclear deterrence. In 2022, NATO’s reaffirmation of the need for nuclear deterrence was much stronger.

No one knows for sure whether President Putin will use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. If he does, American Minimum Deterrence advocates will have made their contribution to his decision. While they have not achieved all of their goals, since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, they have seriously eroded American nuclear capabilities. The 2022 Nuclear Posture Review report made nuclear program cuts which is rather amazing in light of the nuclear crisis we are now experiencing. The Biden administration has stated it has taken no action to enhance U.S. nuclear deterrence during the current crisis. As a result, we are in a crisis with a non-crisis nuclear deterrent posture.

The impact of this inaction is to leave U.S. strategic forces more vulnerable to small pre-emptive surprise nuclear attacks including attacks even with low-yield nuclear warheads than it would be if we took prudent actions. There has been some minor U.S. nuclear signaling such as testing a Minuteman III ICBM with three warheads, deployment of a Trident nuclear ballistic missile submarine to the Indian Ocean, and the appearance of another Trident submarine at Gibraltar. However, nothing really timely and significant has apparently been done.

As Pavel Felgenhauer has pointed out:

After 1991, as the Cold War ended, the U.S. unilaterally retired and eventually scrapped almost all of its nonstrategic nuclear weapons—both the delivery systems and the warheads themselves. Only several hundred nuclear bombs, designated for use by NATO-allied jets, have been left at bases in Europe. Russia has retained its nonstrategic nuclear arsenal. In the last two decades, it has been expanding it by deploying nuclear field artillery, different land, air and sea-based missiles, nuclear torpedoes and other weapons.

In 1999, Colonel General Vladimir Muravyev, then-Deputy Commander of the Strategic Missile Force described it as follows: “…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…” Russia has long been developing low-yield and low-yield/low-collateral damage (low-fission) nuclear weapons. Low-yield/low-collateral damage nuclear weapons are more militarily effective than fission weapons, and they are easier to use because they are cleaner. The great disparity in low-yield nuclear weapons and the Russian monopoly in low-yield/low collateral damage weapons is one of the biggest problems we face in deterring Putin. These weapons are the core of Putin’s nuclear strategy.

In September 2022, Politico quoted a Biden administration “official” as saying, “They [the Russians] have warheads we call micro-nukes, with tens to hundreds of tons of explosive yield.” Twenty years ago Felgenhauer warned us that Russia was developing this capability (nuclear weapons with yields of tens to hundreds of tons including on ICBMs). We ignored the warning. In 2008, Russian state and non-state media reported that Russia was deploying 50 to 200 ton yield warheads on some of its SLBMs.[4] Dr. Philip Karber, President of the Potomac Foundation, has stated that roughly half of Russia’s 5,000 tactical nuclear weapons have been modernized with new sub-kiloton nuclear warheads for air defense, torpedoes and cruise missiles. His source is under Chatham House rules, but he is a very well-known Russian expert.

There can be no serious debate concerning who has more nuclear weapons. The only real issue is how much of a margin of superiority Russia has achieved. Even the Federation of American Scientists analysis gives Russia a more than two-to-one advantage over the U.S. in its strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapons inventory. They estimate Russia’s non-strategic inventory at just over 1,900 warheads. While this is treated as holy writ by media all over the world, it is actually only one of a series of estimates of Russian nuclear capability, some of which go much higher. For example, 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.

Russia is generally credited with 2,000 or 2,000+ non-strategic nuclear weapons. A 2019 report of the Congressional Research Service said 2,000-6,000. 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!” It is also based on the official Russian claim that it has reduced its tactical nuclear weapons 75% from Cold War levels which equates to about the same number. Russia repeated the 75% number in August 2022.

In 2021, 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, the U.S. reportedly has under 25 low-yield Trident warheads, 200-230 tactical nuclear B-61s bombs and a total of 300 strategic bombs and nuclear-armed cruise missiles. These are reportedly our only weapons with low-yield options. Except for the low-yield Trident, the low-yield nuclear weapons are carried by aircraft that are not survivable because they are not on alert. Pavel Felgenhauer has observed, “At present, the West seems to lack the political will to do much about the rapidly escalating problem and lacks any deployment-ready offensive or defensive weapons systems capable of providing a counterbalance.” Felgenhauer credited us with 50 low-yield Trident warheads and pointed out how important these were for deterrence of Russia. Nothing was done to enhance deterrence of a low-yield attack until the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review which created the low-yield Trident deterrent. The most important of the programs in the long run, the nuclear sea launched cruise missile, was rejected by the Biden administration.

In October 2022, President Biden stated that Putin was serious in his nuclear threats, and, “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Yet the Biden administration insists on maintaining a peacetime non-crisis nuclear deterrent posture. In March 2022, U.S. STRATCOM commander Admiral Charles Richard said, “Today’s nuclear force is the minimum required to achieve our national strategy.” Chris Gordon, writing in Air and Space Forces Magazine, has pointed out, “The governments of the U.K., France, and the U.S., all nuclear powers, issued a joint statement that said the allegation against Ukraine was false and warned Russia not to “use this allegation as a pretext for escalation.” Still, the Biden administration, while saying it takes Russian nuclear threats seriously, is continuing to do nothing to improve our nuclear deterrent posture. The Biden administration’s view appears to be based on ideology rather than any form realistic assessment of the threat.

The Biden administration’s refusal to enhance our nuclear alert status has minimized our deterrent posture to Russian tactical nuclear weapons use. It gives Putin the option of eliminating all of our low-yield nuclear weapons except for the portion of the relatively low-yield Trident nuclear warheads which are actually at sea, with an attack involving as few as ten to twenty mainly low-yield nuclear strikes.[5] Unless we put our nuclear-capable aircraft on alert, such an attack could eliminate almost our entire deployed heavy bomber force, our deployed dual capable fighter aircraft and half of our ballistic missile submarines. This is hardly a good deterrent posture.

President Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis stands in stark contrast to President Biden’s handling of the Ukraine war crisis. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the U.S. had a massive nuclear advantage with over 25,000 nuclear weapons while Soviet forces are estimated to have had 3,300. Despite this, President Kennedy enhanced our deterrent capability. All U.S. Strategic Air Command nuclear forces were put on “… DEFCON 2 at the time and would remain on that alert until November 21 when they downgraded to DEFCON 3.” DEFCON 2 is the highest alert level short of nuclear war. If you believe what his administration has repeatedly stated, President Biden has done nothing to enhance our nuclear deterrent in this crisis. President Kennedy, in his speech announcing the quarantine of Cuba, famously said, “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” We have not heard anything like this from President Biden and likely will not.

In 1973, President Nixon went to DEFCON 3 when, according to declassified CIA documents, “American intelligence had detected a Soviet ship headed for Egypt that it believed was carrying nuclear weapons.” Russia was threatening military intervention against Israel in the Yom Kippur War.

The Biden administration apparently has a completely different view concerning what constitutes effective deterrence. According to The Washington Post, “The Biden administration generally has decided to keep warnings [to Russia] about the consequences of a nuclear strike deliberately vague so the Kremlin worries about how Washington might respond…” This approach does not maximize deterrence. The Biden administration has warned Russia about “catastrophic consequences” if Russia uses nuclear weapons against Ukraine but this is clearly ambiguous in its meaning and what is meant is almost certainly not a tit-for-tat nuclear response.

Retired Army General and former CIA Director David Petraeus has suggested that, “Just to give you a hypothetical, we would respond by leading a Nato – a collective – effort that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea.” Soon after this, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned Russia that, “Any nuclear attack against Ukraine will create an answer, not a nuclear answer but such a powerful answer from the military side that the Russian Army will be annihilated.” Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior NATO official reportedly said that a nuclear strike by Moscow would “almost certainly be drawing a physical response from many allies, and potentially from NATO itself.” Professor Paul Bracken writes, “There would be attacks on the Russian Navy, and major cyber strikes on their power grid and pipelines.”

The wisdom of these proposals can be debated. In my opinion, it would be much more useful to be thinking about how to deter Putin from using nuclear weapons rather than fighting him with restrictive rules of engagement, after he has shown a willingness to use nuclear weapons. In any event, it would be irresponsible to fight Russia without doing everything that is possible to improve our nuclear deterrent posture and reduce our vulnerability to a small low-yield Russian nuclear attack.

In an apparent response to these statements, President Putin has threatened that “a direct clash with the Russian Army is a very dangerous step that could lead to a global catastrophe.” Medvedev wrote, “Various retired idiots wearing a general’s insignia should know better than to try to scare us with speculations about a NATO strike at Crimea. Hypersonic retaliation is…able to reach targets in Europe and the United States much faster, it’s guaranteed.”

Waging a conventional war against Russia after it has introduced nuclear weapons into the conflict risks gradual Russian nuclear escalation as President Putin tests the limit of what he can get away with. Those who believe that nuclear weapons will not be decisive in conflict would do well to read Emperor Hirohito’s surrender speech:

Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization. Such being the case, how are we to save the millions of our subjects; or to atone ourselves before the hallowed spirits of our imperial ancestors? This is the reason why we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the joint declaration of the powers.

Most of the current discussion of the military impact of Putin using nuclear weapons is based upon an almost a complete misunderstanding of the differences between nuclear and conventional weapons, in particular, the impact of prompt radiation on battlefield effectiveness. Anyone interested in understanding this issue should ignore the current press and consult Samuel Glasstone’s and Philip J. Dolan’s The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, a joint publication by the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. The view that tactical nuclear weapons will not be decisive also ignores the new low-yield/low collateral damage weapons, the increased accuracy of delivery since the 1970s and the impact of drones in finding targets beyond the visual range of the troops.

It is foolish indeed to rely on intelligence warning to do timely things to enhance the survivability of our nuclear forces in the current crisis situation. We may not get it, it could be ambiguous or it could come too late. For example, the Russians may use one of their many exercises to hide preparations for a nuclear strike. In the aftermath of Russian nuclear escalation, there may be reluctance in the Biden administration to enhance our alert posture because of fears of Russian misinterpretation.

Our warning system seems to have worked very well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but our nuclear attack warning is complicated by politics, ideology and arms control compliance issues. We are told that all Russian tactical nuclear weapons are locked up in central storage facilities, but is this true? If not, it is an arms control violation related to the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNI) of 1991-1992. This could complicate the warning process. Moreover, there is also the important issue of whether or not Russian warships are routinely deployed carrying tactical nuclear weapons. This is also an arms control compliance issue. If they are, this could further reduce the probability of timely warning. Moreover, some of the weapons Putin may use also violate the PNIs. This is another potential complication. It is interesting to note that in 2004 the Russian newspaper Vremya Novotsety quoted a source on the Russian General Staff as saying, “Those nuclear public initiatives mean nothing to the general staff. Political decisions and the will of God are all that matter.”

It is hardly easy to deal with Russian arms control non-compliance issues in the U.S. government. In 2004, then-Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Rademaker voiced Washington’s concern that Russia “has not fully met its commitments to reduce tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.” Yet, this issue did not appear in a State Department’s report on non-compliance with arms control agreements until 2020 at which time it was determined to be a violation. Even then, it was not a complete treatment of the Russian PNI issues that have appeared in the Russian press.

It was not lack evidence that resulted in this delay. Russia admitted it had not fully implemented its commitments regarding Army non-strategic nuclear weapons at the 2002 NPT Review Conference. In November 2003, Colonel General Vladimir Zaritskiy then-Commander of the Russian Missile and Artillery Troops spoke about how important his battlefield nuclear weapons were. He said, “Given the fact that demonstrating nuclear weapons for delivery artillery and missile strikes on the enemy, as well as pinpoint nuclear strikes remain the major deterrent, I think that it is the missile forces and artillery that will play the major role on the modern battlefield.” He talked about Russia retaining short- and medium-range nuclear missiles. In 2007, the Missile Troops and Artillery of the Russian Ground Forces stated that their tactical nuclear weapons were “an Arm of the Land Force, which is the primary means of fire and nuclear destruction of the enemy during conduct of combined-arms operations (combat actions).” In May 2007, General Zaritskiy stated that, “The basic guidelines for … the Concept for the Use of Tactical Nuclear Weapons and the Concept of Effective Engagement, both developed in the late 1990s…[were codified in] new official enforceable legal documents that were issued in 2004.” Then-Chief of the General Staff General of the Army Nikolai Makarov confirmed the many press reports that the new Iskander short-range missile was nuclear-capable. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review report stated that the Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons arsenal included short-range ballistic missiles and CRBM (Close Range Ballistic Missiles or sometimes called bombardment rockets), and ground-launched cruise missiles.

Regarding the central storage issue, in 2007, Colonel General Vladimir Verkhovtsev, then-commander to the 12th Main Directorate of the General Staff, the Russian nuclear weapons organization, said, “In speaking of quantitative and qualitative figures of the RF [Russian Federation] nuclear weapon[s] inventory, I can only confirm the fact that deployed groups of forces, both strategic as well as general-purpose, are fully supplied with nuclear weapons.”

Writing in The Washington Post in January 2001, Walter Pincus reported that, “Over the past year, Russia has been putting tactical nuclear warheads into storage facilities at a naval base in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania, senior U.S. officials said yesterday.”[6] Also in January 2001, Bill Gertz, writing in The Washington Times, reported the same thing. In 2010, then-Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and then-Foreign Minister of Poland Radek Sikorski wrote in The New York Times “…we urge Moscow to make a commitment to the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from areas adjacent to European Union member states. We are thinking of areas like the Kaliningrad region and the Kola Peninsula, where there are still substantial numbers of these weapons. Such a withdrawal could be accompanied by the destruction of relevant storage facilities.” They were talking about Russian tactical nuclear weapons. Kaliningrad is a small Russian enclave annexed at the end of World War II, heavily armed, surrounded by NATO territory, and ethnically cleansed by Stalin through deportation of the local population.

In 2011, then-Lithuanian Defense Minister Rasa Jukneviciene said, “We want major nations to start negotiations on reducing the number of such weapons [tactical nuclear weapons]. It’s no secret that such weapons are deployed near us, in Kaliningrad. And to our east as well.” In 2018, Hans Kristensen reported that, “During the past two years, the Russian military has carried out a major renovation of what appears to be an active nuclear weapons storage site in the Kaliningrad region, about 50 kilometers from the Polish border.” He also noted that, “The site was previously upgraded between 2002 and 2010 when the outer security perimeter was cleared.” It is noteworthy that in 2018 Russia deployed Iskander nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad. In 2022, Russian deployed the longer-range air-launched Kinzhal nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad.

In September 2022, Politico reported that, “U.S. and allied intelligence agencies are stepping up efforts to detect any Russian military moves or communications that might signal that Vladimir Putin has ordered the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, according to five current and former U.S. officials….Another focus outside Ukraine is the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, where the Kremlin has installed dual-use weapon systems and hypersonic missiles.”

In October 2022, Russian expatriate Pavel Podvig wrote that, “…a storage facility known as Kolosovka can store nuclear weapons for all nuclear-capable” delivery systems in the Kaliningrad region.” He also said that Kolosovka is one of “about 35 base-level storage facilities” for non-strategic nuclear weapons. He noted that the there is a nuclear weapons storage facility at “the Soltsy air base, a base of Tu-22M3 [Backfire] bombers…” The Backfire which is linked in the Russian press, including state media, to many New START Treaty violations, can be used to launch low-yield nuclear strikes against Ukraine or NATO with little or no warning. Podvig also said that Russian nuclear weapons can be mated with missiles in the field, which would likely further reduce the probability of warning.

There are clearly Russian strategic and non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons in Russian central storage sites. Some of them could be warheads from retired missiles like the SS-21 that could be still stored (the Russians never throw anything away) and could be reactivated if necessary. For example, old Scud missiles were used by Russia in the Second Chechen War. To some extent we have seen this in the Ukraine War conventional strikes. For example, in June 2022, Russia began using old Kh-22 (AS-4) missiles. The British Defense Ministry stated, “These 5.5 tonne missiles were primarily designed to destroy aircraft carriers using a nuclear warhead. When employed in a ground attack role with a conventional warhead they are highly inaccurate and can therefore cause significant collateral damage and civilian casualties.”

The assertion that Russian tactical nuclear weapons are all in 12 central storage sites and this will cause a delay in Russia’s ability to launch a nuclear strike against Ukraine or NATO appears to be political pablum. There is no way that the paranoid Putin regime would put thousands of its nuclear warheads, its entire non-strategic force, into a situation in which the U.S., Britain, France, and China could eliminate them with 12 nuclear warheads. Increased emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons is being urged on Russian state television. The Biden administration’s October 2022 National Security Strategy report recognizes this possibility. In addition, if necessary, Russia can use strategic systems for these strikes including the nuclear capable Kh-101. As noted above, Russian media reported the deployment of very low-yield nuclear weapons on some Russian SSBNs more than a decade ago. These could also be used.

In the PNIs, Russia also committed not to routinely deploy non-strategic nuclear weapons on their naval vessels. However, there is evidence that they do this. If so, it is likely linked to the reported presence of tactical nuclear weapons at Kaliningrad and on the Kola Peninsula. There is strong evidence that when the Kursk submarine sank in 2001 it was carrying tactical nuclear weapons. In 2005, the Russian Defense Ministry issued a paper entitled the “Structure of the Russian Navy” which said, “The main strike force of the Navy consists of nuclear-powered submarines, armed with ballistic and cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. Those ships are constantly patrolling various regions of the oceans of the world and [are] ready for the immediate use of their strategic weapons.” (Emphasis added).

In 2006, at a naval exercise from Kaliningrad, Russian Defense Minister Colonel General Sergei Ivanov, in response to a question from President Putin, said, “Today, there are eight nuclear-powered submarines at sea on combat patrols. Five of them are strategic and three are multipurpose, but each of them has nuclear arms aboard.” After this revelation, Ballona Web reported that, “‘Analysts and US Naval intelligence officials told Bellona Web, however, that Russia had never really complied with the agreement in the first place, which has long been an open secret to the US Military….We have known that patrolling non-strategic subs have carried nuclear weapons for a long time – in many cases they never took the nuclear weapons off’ said one official on the condition of anonymity.” The International Herald Tribune (now defunct) reported that Ivanov was hinting Russia did not intend to comply with the PNIs. Pavel Felgenhauer observed, “Ivanov’s announcement of the battlefield redeployment of non-strategic nukes was hardly a simple slip of the tongue. As the incumbent regime in Russia is preparing for parliamentary elections next year and presidential ones in 2008, anti-NATO and anti-American rhetoric is being supplemented by official anti-Western military actions.”

In 2009, The Barents Observer reported a statement from the Russian Navy “hinting that attack- and multi-purpose submarines could be carrying nuclear weapons.” It is noteworthy that in the same time frame Vice Admiral Oleg Burtsev, deputy head of the Russian Navy General Staff, stated that, “Probably, tactical nuclear weapons [on submarines] will play a key role in the future,” that, “Their range and precision are gradually increasing” and, “There is no longer any need to equip missiles with powerful nuclear warheads. We can install low-yield warheads on existing cruise missiles.” United Press International, citing state-run Ria Novosti, reported that, “Russian military leaders say low-yield nuclear warheads attached to cruise missiles fired from attack submarines make more sense than loading powerful bombs onto bigger strategic submarines…” I believe this is an overstatement, but I did notice at the time that Russian publications were talking about the nuclear missile capabilities of the new Yasin class attack submarine in articles on strategic nuclear forces.

Christopher Bort of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has pointed out the lack of any real response to Putin’s previous aggression encouraged his faith in the Russian military and a belief that the U.S. and NATO, because of fear of nuclear escalation, would not intervene against him. According to former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was “rational” but “wrong and immoral,” and it was the result of views held by Putin and the Russian elite that President Biden was “mentally inept” and that the European Union was “toothless.” He added that if you believe this “…and your goal is to restore the glory of the Russian Empire (whatever that means), then it is perfectly rational to invade Ukraine.”

Despite this and the frequent Russian nuclear war threats, the Biden administration, if you believe what it has said, has done nothing to enhance our short-term nuclear deterrent and has stated a longer term policy which “…underscores our commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons and reestablishing our leadership in arms control.” The National Security Strategy document reiterated, “This includes taking further steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our strategy and pursuing realistic goals for mutual, verifiable arms control, which contribute to our deterrence strategy and strengthen the global non-proliferation regime.” U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) Commander Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck has said that before the Russian invasion of Ukraine he had to fight “…really hard to get the Russians in there [the National Security Strategycandidly.”

According to the President Biden, President Putin is a “war criminal” who can’t be allowed to “remain in power.” President Putin is unlikely to be impressed by our criticism or our restraint. He is impressed only by firepower. He can engage in nuclear escalation quite rapidly and probably with little or no strategic warning. According to an excellent analysis by Bernard-Henri Lévy, the man, according to The Wall Street Journal, who first predicted that “Ukraine Would Win,” the Russians “are weak in front of the strong and strong in front of the weak.” I believe this is true and an important guide for dealing with the Russians.

In stark contrast to the Biden administration, France was not shy about enhancing its nuclear deterrent in the face of Putin’s February 2022 nuclear threats. After France’s Foreign Minister reminded Putin that NATO is a nuclear alliance, France, for the first time since 1981, deployed more than one of its nuclear ballistic missile submarines to sea at one time – indeed, three submarines. In addition, France put its aircraft carrier, which is part of its nuclear deterrent, under NATO command. This is essentially what we would call generated alert. France also tested its supersonic nuclear cruise missile. It sent a clear message to Russia during a period of unusual tensions in Europe.

The Pentagon’s assertion that “We are completely ready” to deal with nuclear threats from Russia appears to be wishful thinking since the Pentagon has repeatedly said no action has been taken to improve our alert posture. There is always the possibility that things have been done which have not been announced, but we can’t just assume that. I believe we need to do everything that we can in the short run to beef up our nuclear deterrent capability and make sure the Russians know about it. Unfortunately, the New START Treaty limits dramatically our short-term options. According to STRATCOM Commander Admiral Charles Richard, “…two-thirds of those [U.S. nuclear] weapons are ‘operationally unavailable’ because of treaty constraints, such as provisions of the New START treaty with Russia.” Still, there are some things we can do.

Some of our heavy bombers can be put on nuclear alert and even dispersed. Training and the readiness levels of our non-strategic nuclear weapons can be increased. If we have any inactive B-61 tactical nuclear bombs, they could be activated. The nuclear capability of the U.S. F-35s should be brought online as soon as possible. The new B61-12 nuclear bomb should be deployed in Europe as soon as possible. (Reportedly, this is about to happen.) Until the F-35 becomes nuclear capable, the U.S. now has only non-stealthy aircraft to deliver the B61 tactical nuclear bombs. There is a need to impress Putin concerning the effectiveness of our capabilities. A once-a-year nuclear NATO exercise is not enough. All the elements of an effective nuclear strike package can be deployed to Europe. This could include F-22s for air cover, F-18G jamming aircraft and tanker aircraft. Existing European based F-35s could be used for suppression of air defenses in support of the strike packages. These forces could routinely train together to improve their effectiveness. Since this is so far from the norm, it would get President Putin’s attention and it could possibly even deter a decision by him to go nuclear. These are low-cost measures. Most of them could be implemented in days.

The October 2022 NATO nuclear exercise Steadfast Noon has actually made it easier to transition to an enhanced nuclear readiness posture. Hans Kristensen has written, “According to NATO, Steadfast Noon will involve 14 countries (less than half of the 30 NATO allies) and up to 60 aircraft. That involves fourth-generation F-16s and F-15Es as well as fifth-generation F-35A[s] and F-22 fighter jets.” This is most of what I have just recommended. To conduct such an exercise everything associated with the nuclear mission would have to be certified beforehand. According to NATO, “If NATO was to conduct a nuclear mission in a conflict, the B-61 weapons would be carried by certified Allied aircraft, known as dual-capable aircraft (DCA), and supported by conventional forces from across the Alliance.” Instead of going back to business as usual, this capability should be maintained as a deterrent to nuclear escalation by Russia.

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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