Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

How to Make Sure Putin Never Uses Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine

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

The whole world is responsible for upholding the nuclear weapons taboo – not just the United States. Putin is playing the nuclear card—again.

From the earliest days of the war in Ukraine, the Russian leader has regularly sought to remind his adversaries in the West that he remains in possession of a large nuclear arsenal, and that these weapons might be used if Ukraine, the United States, or other NATO countries cross a Russian “red line.”

This is the context in which many analysts have understood Putin’s latest announcement to “suspend” participation in the New START agreement. While the deterioration of the arms control regime is surely regrettable in its own right, it is the not-so-subtle reminder about Russia’s nuclear capabilities that have people in the West worried. But how anxious should they be? And what, if anything, should be done?

The obvious answer is that the world should be very concerned about threats of nuclear escalation. There are no guarantees against the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and guarding against that calamitous outcome is something that requires constant vigilance, prudence, and strategic empathy.

But this says little about the proper way to stop the war from “going nuclear.” This is a harder question to answer, not least of all for Americans, many of whom tend to view the war in Ukraine through the lens of US global leadership. Whenever the prospect of a terrible outcome is discussed in the United States—whether a Ukrainian collapse, a humanitarian catastrophe, or the use of nuclear weapons—the inevitable response is to ask what Washington could and should do to avert disaster.

Last year, for example, retired general David Petraeus argued that it would be proportionate for the US military to obliterate all Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and the Black Sea in response to a nuclear detonation. Others have embraced similarly hawkish means of deterrence.

But threatening massive military reprisals is the wrong approach to avoiding what President Biden has rightly called the prospect of a devastating nuclear “Armageddon.”

First, there is an obvious credibility problem. Why should Putin believe that the United States will fight a war against Russia in response to a nuclear detonation? Why would he not conclude instead that Washington is bluffing, and that there would be no military response to his use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

This relates to a second, related problem: the problem of entering into unnecessary and risky commitments. If it is accepted that Putin might discount US threats of a military intervention, is it really in the US national interest to articulate a policy of launching World War III in response to nuclear weapons being used?

Consider what would happen if the United States launched massive conventional strikes on Russian military targets – destroying tank formations, sinking ships, and killing soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Would Moscow be cowed into submission? Possibly. But it might also retaliate in kind (as best it could) or else resort to the use of even more nuclear weapons. There would be no way for leaders in Washington to control the pace or scale of escalation.

Simply put, waging a conventional war against Russia would place US national security in irretrievable danger. Political leaders would forfeit any chance of controlling the military situation. The security of societies across Eastern, Central, and Western Europe would also be placed in extreme jeopardy. Ukraine would become a hellscape.

Fortunately, it is not just the American people who have an interest in deterring Putin from using weapons of mass destruction. The rest of the world has skin in the game, too. This is why, as the risk of nuclear escalation increases, Washington would be better served prodding other governments to make their own (more credible) threats to retaliate against Russian barbarism.

Putin must be told in no uncertain terms that breaching the nuclear taboo would be an offense against the entire international community. It is essential for Putin to know that crossing the nuclear Rubicon would result in his total isolation and delegitimization.

More seriously, the world must impress upon Putin that using nuclear weapons would badly worsen Russia’s economic situation, national security, and even the survival of the present regime. While there are strict limits to what the United States can threaten in this regard, other actors – India and China, especially – have enormous political, diplomatic, and economic leverage over Moscow that must be brought to bear.

It might be too much to expect Xi Jinping or Narendra Modi to make public threats against Putin, of course. But both leaders have a strong self-interest in preventing the normalization of nuclear weapons being used on the battlefield. It is realistic to hope that they might privately warn Moscow about their intentions to withdraw their lifelines in the event of a nuclear attack in Ukraine

Most of the other major powers that have held back from punishing Russia for the invasion of Ukraine – Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa among them – have even stronger reasons to deter Putin’s use of nuclear weapons. For these countries and others like them, it would verge on being an existential threat to face a world in which nuclear blackmail becomes commonplace and proliferation becomes harder to hold in check.

For nearly 80 years, the nuclear taboo has held strong. Not since Hiroshima and Nagasaki has a nation used nuclear weapons in anger. Every government has benefited from this de facto prohibition on nuclear attacks. This is why deterring Putin from using nuclear weapons is of the utmost importance – not just the United States, but for the entire international community.

Can Putin be made to believe that using nuclear weapons would bring about his total isolation and the potential collapse of his regime at home? It is a deterrent well worth trying for – but it will take a global effort, not unilateral threats made by the United States.

MORE: B-21 Raider: China Should Fear America’s New Stealth Bomber 

MORE: H-20: China Is Building a New Stealth Bomber 

MORE: Is Russia’s Su-57 Felon Stealth Fighter a Total Bust?

Author Expertise and Experience 

Dr. Peter Harris is an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities, and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive.

Written By

Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy.



  1. Paul Hoffman

    February 24, 2023 at 8:31 am

    The US will be the first to use tactical nukes in Ukraine…as Russia grinds up Ukraine, we will use nukes to “save” Ukraine on the battlefield.

    This is insane it must be stopped…I pray for the Ukraine soldiers and citizens not for Ukraine’s government.

  2. Gary Jacobs

    February 24, 2023 at 10:04 am

    Paul H.

    Worst take ever. Has the US used nukes since 1945? No. But we sure have lost in Vietnam and Afghanistan without using them.

    Not sure what fooled you into believing the Us would use them now, but Biden has gone out of his way to take that notion so far off the table it’s patently absurd to claim otherwise.

    It is %100 Russia livestock from the troll farm who talk about use of nukes. Oh ya, and Russian officials themselves.

    That’s it.

  3. Bertram

    February 24, 2023 at 1:37 pm

    Pressure must be put on the Chinese, with threats of consequences should Russia use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

    Russia has been transforming into a Chinese client state as their real power wanes, and their military is ground up in Ukraine.

    China has great interest in seeing a weaker Russia, even to the point of assisting them to continue their ruinous war against Ukraine. China must understand that they will share the blame if Russia utilizes their nukes, and they must put a leash on Russia or deal with the consequences..

  4. pagar

    February 24, 2023 at 3:11 pm

    Putin may not want to resort to use of nukes but putin is not russia.

    But (many) people in russia may want to force putin’s hand as they watch biden and co supply endless amounts of weapons to the fight.

    Putin must use nukes in ukraine. TO SAVE RUSSIAN SPEAKERS OF DONBASS AND CRIMEA. Simple as a child’s learning its ABCs.

    Nothing complicated.

    The west, led by antichrist biden, has burned all the bridges and connections to moscow.

    Absolutely no reason to hold back. Use nukes against the ukro forces now, today, and thus shut up biden’s gap once and for all.

    Use of nukes will force biden to withdraw into his shell and/or retaliate against (pro-russian) east asian nuke powers. Let’s see how biden’s going to handle the situation.

    Recall the ‘The okinawa missiles of october’ when USA military was preparing to nuke east asian targets in the run-up to the cuban crisis.

    Look it up. The Okinawa Missiles of October.

  5. Commentar

    February 24, 2023 at 4:35 pm

    Russia will almost certainly use nuclear munitions in ukraine.

    Former russian president dmitry mededev has already spoken on the need for total overthrow of neo-Nazism in ukraine. Just hours ago, in fact.

    Ukraine today is a hotbed of extreme fascism. Its Right Sector is particularly famous.

    What did the speaker of ukraine parliament said in september 2018, which by the way, was not reported by most western media.

    Andriy Parubiy exclaimed without batting an eyelid that hitler was the torchbearer of direct democracy.

    Today, ukraine is filled with extreme rabid anti – russian sentiments, very similar to hitler’s germany which was once filled with extreme rabid anti – semite sentiments.

    The only solution to the ukraine problem is overthrow of the neo-nazis. Via nuclear weapons.

  6. Bertram

    February 24, 2023 at 4:41 pm

    Putin won’t use nukes in Ukraine because the Chinese will not allow him to.

  7. YS

    February 24, 2023 at 6:04 pm

    Let’s hope (and pray) Biden gets impeached before he (even accidentally) pushes that button for Ukraine

  8. Walker

    February 24, 2023 at 7:28 pm

    So the author is kind of psychotic. He states the US can’t use threats to stop Russia but that the world needs to make Russia know that using nukes is unacceptable. How?

    The Author needs to be realistic. First, the real way to stop Russia can’t be through public statements. They must be made by back channels that are 100% clear, credible and serious. These can’t be done “by the world”. They can only be done by credible countries such as the U.S. but also by NATO. They do need to go something like the statements Patreas made. Because the only thing that can really stop Russia is to know that if it uses Nukes severe consequences will happen.

    So what does it hurt that Patreas says in public what is being done in private. My guess is that he is just saying what he knows was the case when he was in the know, not what is actually being done, but I guess that is also being done.

    Personally, I don’t take Russia seriously when they talk of using nukes publicly. If they start threatening in back channels, that would worry me, but I certainly am not privy to that.

  9. Cheburator

    February 24, 2023 at 7:37 pm

    Gary Jacobs

    You are either an idiot or you pretend to be an idiot.
    Russia’s withdrawal from the nuclear weapons treaty is not a threat to Ukraine, it is a threat to the United States. Russia does not consider Ukraine an adversary against whom it is necessary to use nuclear weapons. All publications about the victories of Ukraine are conscious lies. It is enough to study the analytics of the Turkish, Israeli or Hungarian special services. Ukraine is losing this war, which is why the State Department and EU officials are so hysterical.
    Ukraine is losing and the US and EU economies are disintegrating, but Russia does not seek to develop an offensive. Zelensky and Ukraine play the role of genitals, and Putin has clamped them in a vise, and is squeezing them more and more every day.
    The industry of Europe is dying, the US economy is in anticipation of a big recession – the mortgage rate has increased 3 times, the refinancing rate of banks 15 times.
    Putin doesn’t need some big victories, he needs to keep the balls of the United States in a vice. And what does nuclear weapons have to do with it, you ask – and nuclear weapons and withdrawal from the agreement are a warning for NATO hotheads – in the event of NATO’s forceful intervention in the war in Ukraine. Missiles will not fly to Kiev, they will fly to Washington, Brussels, London and other member capitals NATO.

  10. Cheburator

    February 24, 2023 at 7:38 pm


    As for China and sanctions in the technology sector – wake up, you crap yourself. None of the Western media will write about this, but a Chinese court has nullified the patents of American companies. Licensing agreements are now worth nothing, and China, by domestic law, is not even required to pay license fees for the technologies it uses. Hello tech giants who launched licensed production on advanced technologies in China.

  11. Jai

    February 25, 2023 at 5:15 am

    Putin should be given a clear understanding that using nuclear weapons would result in his personal, individual demise, along with that of everyone else in the chain of command and execution.

    He is well known to be terrified of facing personal consequences (such as those Gadaffi experienced). I mean he won’t even sit near anyone else in a meeting because he is so scared of being poisoned (not surprising given he has personally ordered that so many others be poisoned).

    He will eventually be tried as a war criminal (unless he is summarily murdered by compatriots) anyway, and he is probably aware of this to some degree, so it’s important for him to know that serious personal consequences for nuclear escalation would follow quickly, sooner than military defeat.

  12. Gary Jacobs

    February 25, 2023 at 12:01 pm


    LoL, you claim ‘Ukraine is losing this war’…

    Last time I checked it was Russia retreating from Kyiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Lyman, Izyum, Kupyansk, and Kherson.

    As well, Ukraine has been employing a rope-a-dope strategy in Lysychansk, Bakhmut, and Soledar areas.. with Russia helpfully playing the part of dope…and people like you desperately clinging to any hope the Russians give you in order to pretend things are going well for Russia. They are not. The reality is that this is the one area where Russia has an easy logistical supply line, so its the only spot where they can mass for attacks. Ukraine is simply grinding them down and allowing them to punch themselves into exhaustion.

    Furthermore, The US has urged the Ukrainians to hold off on further major offensives until the new western equipment arrives, and the combined arms training is done. By which time the summer will have dried the mud in Ukraine.

    IF the western powers get GLSDB, Storm Shadow, JDAM-er and other precision weapons soon [btw, Mariupol is already experiencing 3 days of mass explosions from long range fire], and in enough quantity to shape the battlefield until summer… and then enough tanks and IFVs into Ukraine, along with the combined arms training…spoiler alert: Russia is in deep trouble in Ukraine.

    Time will tell if all that happens in the right order and fast enough… but at this point the smart money is on Ukraine, not Russia.

    Have a liberating day.

  13. Ben d'Mydogtags

    February 25, 2023 at 1:02 pm

    Russian doctrine is sometimes nicknamed “Escalate To De-Escalate,” meaning they will increase pressure, up to and including tactical nuclear strikes, to bully adversaries to back-down. So theory-people like Petraeus say to just call their bluff. If Russians are only using limited nuke strikes to intimidate, they “should” back off before they run themselves over the precipice into total destruction.

    But there is NEVER a guarantee countries will actually follow their doctrine or behave rationally in the heat of passion. As Carl vonC once wrote: “primordial violence, hatred, and enmity… are to be regarded as a blind natural force.” The risk of counter-escalation is just too great.

  14. Charlie

    February 25, 2023 at 3:55 pm

    How many countries did Putin Invade during the Trump years?

    Trump was trying to establish good relations with Russia. For that he was accused of Russian collusion. The Dems even impeached him.

    FDR was an ally of a Russian worse than Putin during WW2. Stalin committed war crimes against Ukraine. Look at the famine he caused there. But I am happy FDR had Stalin for an ally rather than seeing him aligned with Hitler.

    Nixon got North Vietnam back to the peace talks by carpet bombing Hanoi . Putin can just carpet bomb Kiev without using nukes.

    I hope and pray Ukraine doesn’t lead to WW3.

    Finally we did support a coup in 2014 that overthrew an elected Ukraine government.

  15. Tom

    February 25, 2023 at 4:03 pm

    The answer for deterring Russia’s use of (or seemingly endless threats of using) nuclear weapons on Ukraine or its neighbors is simple. Allow these countries to acquire nuclear weapons of their own. Non-proliferation’s usefulness ended years ago. Rogue regimes ignore the agreements they have signed onto, develop weapons and add more “bully’s” to the world stage. The past year has shown that security assurances such as the Budapest Memorandum are utterly worthless. Ukraine gave up one of the largest nuclear arsenals with the promise that Russia would never invade and that the US, England and Germany would protect them if they did. The doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction has benefited the nuclear armed nations of the world, let Russia’s neighbors enjoy this same benefit.

  16. Bertram

    February 25, 2023 at 9:17 pm

    Russia is becoming a Chinese client state. China has an interest in seeing a weak Russia dependent on Chinese aid, while China happily facilitates Russia bleeding itself white in Ukraine and turning into a 3rd rate power.
    China as the patron, will never allow Russia to use nukes in Ukraine, because it is not in their interest that Russia do so. As such, it will not happen. Putin might strain at the collar China has put on him, but he will never slip the leash. Biggest winner in Russia’s war on Ukraine, other than Ukraine itself, is China which has eclipsed Russia as the leading non-US power in the world.

  17. Cheburator

    February 25, 2023 at 9:39 pm

    Gary Jacobs

    When they start listing abbreviations for advanced weapons systems, I remember the joke – “I know karate, aikido, judo and many more terrible names”
    In the information field, there is no information about any high efficiency of advanced weapons systems. In the last few months, there has been an informational calm in general – this is taking into account the fact that Ukrainian propaganda presented each local success as a personal defeat for Putin.

    The success of the autumn 2022 offensive for Ukraine is nothing more than a planned withdrawal of Russia to fortified positions. Ukraine declares the terrible losses of Russia, but the Israeli, Turkish and Hungarian special services claim that Ukraine overestimates Russia’s losses by 3-4 times.
    But Ukraine hides its losses – now questions
    – On February 24, 2022, Ukraine had a combat-ready army with more equipment than all European NATO members combined (with the exception of Turkey) and 250,000-300,000 personnel. – Where are these armed forces?
    – During the year of the war, a huge amount of equipment and weapons was delivered to Ukraine, three waves of mobilization were carried out – Where is all this equipment and soldiers?

    If you type the word “Mobilization” on Twitter, you can find many interesting videos from Ukraine – employees of recruitment centers kidnap people from the streets to force them into military service.

  18. David Chang

    February 25, 2023 at 9:39 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Gary Jacobs is wrong.

    Democratic Party murder people with atomic weapon in 1945, but don’t confess and repent to God, so people in Russia, North Korea, one-China, Iran, and Israel want to make nuclear war.

    Presbyterian church promotes liberation theology and evolution, and promotes equality right, but don’t obey Ten Commandments. Therefore, Putin and Zelenskyy also think that they can murder people with WMD. They think that is their equality right to murder people.

    So Presbyterian and Democratic-Republican Party should confess and repent to God, should obey Ten Commandments.

    God bless America.

  19. ATM

    February 26, 2023 at 2:16 pm

    There are no credible sources that believe that Russia is likely to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

  20. Cheburator

    February 26, 2023 at 9:20 pm

    how funny it is to hear stories about the no justification of Russia’s war against Ukraine.
    Let’s see how this war started and who NATO supports.
    The war in Ukraine did not start in 2022, but in 2014 with a coup.
    With the advent of the junta to power, a civil war began, moreover, it began with the violent suppression of protests by ethnic Russians who demanded that their rights be respected. Orders for the bombing of Luhansk and Donetsk issued by temporary acting officers, i.e. legally without any power. Massacre on May 2 in Odessa.
    25 million Russians lived in Ukraine, and Russia could not turn a blind eye to the crimes committed against this ethnic group. Imagine that a radical government came to power in Mexico and declared Gringos enemies, killing several thousand people – how long would such a government last in power? How long would it take the US Army to cross the Mexican border?

    Now about the current regime of Ukraine, these are racists and Nazis, these are not democrats, and these are such racists who are stigmatized in the USA for using the word N.g.r. Ukrainian Nazis are those who at the beginning call for killing, and then take up arms and go to kill to the cheers of the crowd. And if it were only words, Kiev has killed tens of thousands of ethnic Russians in eight years under the approval of NATO, so Russia not only has a reason, Russia has the moral right to start this war against Kiev and not regret it.

    As for the Crimea and its capture. 70% of the population of Crimea is Russian, and if you didn’t know that Crimea almost separated from Ukraine back in 1992-1993, and had strong disagreements with Kiev, the population throughout the electoral process supported the opposition to the Ukrainian nationalists who are now in power.
    I will quote a major Ukrainian politician – Yulia Tymoshenko – “Odessites and Crimeans need to be drowned in the Black Sea” – she made these statements after it was Crimea and Odessa that destroyed her presidential ambitions. So what kind of Ukrainian Crimea can we talk about if the level of loyalty to Ukraine is so low?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *