In the modern world, nuclear weapons are seen almost entirely as deterrents, with most nations adopting a “second strike” approach to even newly developed nuclear delivery vehicles like intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). This “second strike” mindset is, at its base level, an extension of the long-standing doctrine of mutually assured destruction — with nuclear nations working to ensure they can respond in kind to even the most widespread of nuclear attacks. However, the Pentagon believes that Russia, in particular, has a strategy aimed at operating just beneath the threshold of global nuclear war.

The United States seems to be looking to respond in kind.

In a recent interview with Seapower magazine, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood explained intelligence reports of a Russian plan to use low-yield nuclear weapons in the early stages of a large scale conflict with the intent of intimidating an adversary into submission. The concept would involve using small nukes, which would be deployed in a low profile manner, serving simultaneously as an effective tactical weapon and a looming threat of nuclear escalation. Currently, the United States and its allies employ only relatively large scale nuclear weapons delivered via traditional means. A small nuclear attack would force the U.S. to choose between escalating a nuclear conflict toward mutually assured destruction by initiating a full scale launch… or not responding at all out of fear of the same.

This possibility is of particular import in places like the Baltics, where Russia could feasibly cut the Baltic states off from NATO support entirely simply by capturing the narrow stretch of territory between Belarus and Kaliningrad known as the Suwalki Gap. Once the gap falls, Russia could rapidly take over Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania — then use low-yield tactical nukes near Poland’s borders to show that Russia is willing to use its nuclear arsenal to defend its newly acquired territory.