Just about every month since Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin has attempted to rattle his most powerful saber with a threat to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine to scare the Hell out of the world.

In the very early hours of the invasion on February 24th, 2022, Putin issued his first nuclear threat as his tanks had just begun to roll into Ukraine, “Whoever tries to hinder us… should know that Russia’s response…will lead you to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history,”

Since that time, the threats have been issued monthly as reversal after reversal on the battlefield for Putin have made a mockery of the once much-feared Russian army and its generals.

As we’ve reported previously, Putin really isn’t in charge of launching nuclear weapons on his own authority.  It is the military that comes to him and recommends a nuclear strike based on some really particular circumstances, like a NATO army marching on Moscow or a first strike by the US and other NATO countries like France and the UK which have their own nuclear arsenals.

We also tried to imagine a circumstance where Russia gives sovereign recognition to the seized territories of Luhansk and Donbas and at the behest of these puppet governments, Russia uses a nuclear weapon inside these territories to destroy Ukrainian forces. They could deny it was a use of nuclear weapons on Ukraine but on the soil of these two “new” countries. Not that anyone in the world but Russia would go for it.  Today though we see Russia holding sham referendums to incorporate these two regions into the Russian Federation to give them status now as Russian territory.

If he were to order the launch of a nuclear weapon into disputed Ukrainian, his own military might refuse to carry out the order.

These continued nuclear threats could be seen in two ways, first as a bluff meant to undermine Western support for the Ukrainians and second as a way of testing the US and NATO’s resolve to retaliate.

Of the two, the one we should most concern ourselves with is the possibility of Putin trying to determine what the consequences might be if he did employ such a weapon.

US and NATO deterrence is built upon something called Flexible Response. NATO does not give details on when it might use nuclear weapons to create a kind of ambiguity about the when, where, and how of a potential nuclear strike on Russia.

This means that the first use of a nuclear weapon is on the table.  While the United States itself says it will not use nuclear weapons in a first strike, acting under the umbrella of its NATO treaty obligations would allow it to do so in the right circumstance. It would also allow France and England to do so as well as the other two nuclear-armed powers in NATO.

The exact number of nuclear weapons under NATO control is not known, the US maintains as many as 150, B61 nuclear gravity bombs at NATO air bases in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey. Upgrades to these weapons now allow for a yield selection between 0.3 KT to 170 KT, allowing the blast to affect a small area of a battlefield or take out an entire city in a single blinding flash.

As this is being written, the Air Force is working to certify the F-25 Lightning as a nuclear-capable bomber of the B61-12 version which has a set of tail fins that allow it to be steered to a precise GPS location by the F-35.

 

Titan II ICBM at the Titan Missile Museum in Arizona. Photo; Steve Jurvetson, Menlo Park California. creative commons attribution

How serious is this threat?

Putin’s latest threat sounded like this, “I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction … and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” Putin added. “It’s not a bluff.” These remarks in a speech were framed defensively in terms of Russia defending its territory against a large-scale invasion by Ukraine with NATO which is Putin’s fever dream scenario. In it, he imagines NATO exploiting Russian reversals on the battlefield and marching on Moscow.

At a recent political fundraiser, President Biden pointed to Russia’s military failures in Ukraine, as “..significantly underperforming.” He then added that this raised the threat of Putin using nuclear weapons adding,  “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis,”

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Biden made the remarks at a fundraiser though, as opposed to a nationally televised speech to the nation. This suggests we don’t take the latest threat by Putin very seriously.  The administration’s national security agencies say there is no reason to believe that Russia intends to use a nuclear weapon in the near future.

 

Quiet Deterrence

Behind the scenes and without any public disclosure the United States could take some steps to put Putin on notice that he would not get away with using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. These are strategic moves that Russia would notice without them being noticed by the public and the media.

For example, the US navy could send all its ballistic missile submarines out to sea and move its cruise missile-carrying surface ships closer to the Russian mainland in the Sea of Japan, the Mediterranean, and the Baltic Sea.

The Air Force could deploy a wing(or more) of B-52s and B-2 bombers to England and other countries in Europe.

In the countries where US nuclear bombs are kept, the air squadrons tasked with delivering them to their targets could increase their training flights.

We might also reposition and add to the number of our satellites over Russia.

Finally, the US might engage in test firings of its land and sea-based missiles.  It is customary to advise Russia in advance of these tests and tell them where and when they will occur.

Without a tat-for-tat in the international press, or offhand remarks by the President at a political fundraiser these measures conducted in whole or in part outside the public eye would communicate to Russia just how seriously we consider his threats to be.  We really haven’t seen any indication that these things are happening.  We also note that Ukraine has launched several attacks inside Russian territory since the war began, most recently hitting the Kerch bridge between the Russian mainland and Crimea without Russia responding with a nuclear weapon.

It should be remembered that Putin would like to have Ukraine in one piece while keeping Russia in one piece as well. While Russia is obviously on the back foot when it comes to the fighting on the ground and in the air, it should be remembered that the Russia idea of “acceptable losses” is very different from our own here in the West. In WWII, Afghanistan, and the wars in Georgia and Chechnia, the Russians were willing to take routinely horrific losses in men and material without quitting. As long as Russia itself survives, its leaders are willing to shed a lot of their own blood in attaining their foreign policy aims.  While their losses in Ukraine would be staggering by US standards, they are not seen that way by Moscow which continues to feed the meatgrinder hoping to exhaust the resolve and weapons of Ukraine and its backers in the West. This strategy has a foreseeable outcome for Putin if successful while using a nuclear weapon unleashes great uncertainty into the prospect of a Russian victory in Ukraine. At this point, Russia hasn’t reached the point of desperation born of a fear of the whole country collapsing that would compel them to use a nuclear weapon.