Nuclear Saber Rattling

As the Russian Federation continues to rattle its nuclear sabers, its chilling rhetoric is reminiscent of the Cold War. These apocalyptic threats of nuclear weapons use, in response to NATO’s support for Ukraine, have further isolated Russia from a once tolerant, if not pragmatic, NATO. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dream of returning Russia to Cold War superpower status has fallen wistfully short, and his nuclear threats have rightfully put NATO on alert. Since the end of the Cold War, global nuclear weapons stores have been reduced dramatically, but their importance as a deterrent can’t be oversold. President Putin must be reminded that his reckless threats have slowly marched the Russian people and his regime down a dark path.

President Putin’s desire to remain in power has become one of his greatest vulnerabilities. He has, through decree, referendum, and constitutional amendment, again been reelected. The latest constitutional manipulation has ensured Putin can remain in power until 2036. That’s a thirty-six-year run as President and Prime Minister. His lust for power and imprisonment and assassination of political rivals is a shadowy and ruthless throwback to his days as a KGB officer. It may contribute to why he appears unconstrained by anyone’s opinion except his own. It is why he can invade a sovereign country, reject the International Criminal Court’s indictments, and threaten to use nuclear weapons.  What Putin has seemingly forgotten is that Russia is but one of several nuclear-capable countries, and only Russia stands alone and unallied.

Putin’s Autocracy

With the failed invasion and annexation of Ukraine, a failing economy, and further regional isolation, Putin’s autocracy is becoming both more fragile and less predictable. It is the fragility that has NATO pushing back on Putin and his inflammatory nuclear threats. It is also his unpredictability that has led to recent NATO expansion. The thirty-two NATO nations of the alliance include a recently admitted Finland and Sweden, ironically joining fourteen former Soviet Union satellite nations. While any use of nuclear weapons by Russia would signal the end of Putin’s reign, NATO’s response to his unconstrained rhetoric, as seen recently, needs to remain uncompromising.

Last month, France’s President Macron countered Putin’s arrogant and threatening statement concerning the use of nuclear weapons either in Ukraine or in Europe. President Macron reminded President Putin that nuclear threats are unnecessary for nuclear powers and said that:

“Vladimir Putin is captive to repression and authoritarianism in his country, which in recent years has decided to become a destabilizing state.”

This all came before the United States Congress agreed to provide $60 billion dollars (US) to further bolster the conventional defenses of Ukraine on April 21st.

France joins the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Turkey, and Italy as nuclear-capable NATO militaries. Macron is not the only NATO leader to aggressively rebuke Putin. Finland’s Foreign Minister, Elina Valtonen, issued a stark warning. Valtonen, a member of the National Coalition Party, assessed that Russia is likely to become increasingly aggressive towards European countries in the coming years, going so far as to describe it as an “existential threat to all of Europe.”

 “Dictators can be deterred, they can be crushed – but they can never be appeased.” – Margaret Thatcher

Other Nuclear Powers

Outside of Russia, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel are recognized nuclear militaries. Even within this very small list of nuclear-equipped militaries, there are distinct levels of capabilities. The United States possesses a “nuclear triad” that includes submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and aircraft capable of delivering an even more varied number and type of weapons.

The most resilient component of the nuclear triad is unquestionably the ballistic missile submarine. While our adversaries possess knowledge of the fixed locations of our ICBM silo sites and the departure times and flight paths of our aircraft bombers, only a select few among the crew of a ballistic submarine on strategic patrol are privy to the whereabouts of this critical asset. Nestled in the vast expanse of the ocean, these behemoth submarines, often dubbed “boomers,” operate as virtually invisible launch platforms for intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles.

Their primary objective is to deter adversaries from initiating a nuclear attack with a possible outcome of mutual destruction. Bolstered by their stealth capabilities, these submarines represent an impenetrable force within the formidable United States submarine fleet. They can traverse beneath the ocean’s surface thousands of miles for months at a time, evading detection by adversaries like the Russians, poised and ready to execute their mission at a moment’s notice.

“The three most powerful men in the world: the President of the United States of America, the President of the Russian Republic, and the Captain of a United States nuclear missile submarine.” – From the opening scene of the movie Crimson Tide

Currently, the United States has fourteen ballistic missile submarines in service with two operating continuous alert – 24/7/365 – ensuring a constant presence of nuclear deterrence capabilities, reducing the likelihood of adversaries perceiving windows of opportunity for aggression. This persistent deterrent posture contributes to overall strategic stability and reinforces the credibility of nuclear deterrence commitments. Overall, the possession of ballistic missile submarines and their associated nuclear weapons capabilities serves as a cornerstone of national security strategy, providing an indispensable deterrent against existential threats while maintaining strategic stability on the global stage. France and the United Kingdom also have formidable ballistic missile submarine capabilities to share in our mutual deterrence to prevent war.

While the imminent possibility of nuclear conflict poses a grave danger to humanity, it’s crucial to consider the rationale behind the development of nuclear bomb technology. Proponents argue that its creation was imperative; if Nazi Germany had acquired this capability first, the trajectory of world history would likely be profoundly different. The moral and ethical decision made by President Truman to deploy nuclear bombs during World War II continues to spark debate among many historians. Furthermore, during that era, the concept of mutual destruction, which serves as a deterrent today, did not apply, altering the context significantly.


Beyond historical context, nuclear weapons offer deterrence, potentially sparing lives. For instance, during World War II, an estimated 70–85 million people, approximately 3% of the global population, perished. Since then, the absence of a global conflict on such a scale has been attributed by some to the deterrent effect of nuclear arms. This suggests a certain utility in possessing strength and capability, possibly averting large-scale conflicts. However, the immediate short-term gain of reducing wartime casualties in the last three-quarter century must be weighed against the long-term risk of nuclear Armageddon, sparking a debate likely to endure for years.

However, the prospect of any nation, including Russia, employing nuclear weapons and triggering a catastrophic escalation to a global Armageddon is undeniably terrifying. One can only hope that considerations of self-preservation, both for leaders like Putin and their respective populations, will dissuade any reckless use of nuclear weapons, even in limited capacities.

The threats from the Kremlin to NATO began in earnest in 2023. As Russia faced international condemnation and isolation for its continued indiscriminate use of force in Ukrainian population centers, it simultaneously looked for ways to deter or delay the delivery of NATO weapons. As armor, artillery, radars, and fighting vehicles began to make a positive impact on defending Ukrainian ground forces, Russia ratcheted up its threats to NATO and those supporting NATO, i.e., Sweden and Finland. The escalation has continued into early 2024 as the Russian offensive failed – failed tactically to secure key objectives while experiencing debilitating losses, failed politically to rally the Russian people, and failed diplomatically to keep NATO from resupplying and reinforcing Ukraine.

This story is far from over, and Russian threats intimate the employment of “tactical” nuclear weapons. These are smaller nuclear weapons designed to be delivered via artillery, strike aircraft, long-range missiles, and even “suitcase” weapons. The context of the threats continues to have the reverse effect on NATO. Undeterred, NATO has accelerated military aid to Ukraine, and Russian tactics have again changed. Putin has since brought out the former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and he wasted no time launching another disturbing Kremlin message.

Medvedev Calls for a Bounty on NATO Troops in Ukraine

Medvedev most recently called for a bounty on any NATO troops that enter Ukraine. His horrifying statements harken back to the darkest days of totalitarian regimes. The complete lack of respect for international law or laws of war is appalling. His statement, “For each NATO fighter killed, blown up, or burned, there must be a maximum reward,” should be remembered. He continued by adding, “There can only be one rule for these overseas lice, who, unlike the unfortunate Ukrainians, were not forced to go to war: no prisoners taken!” These are the impetuous words of a former world leader. Even more alarming is that Medvedev is the deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council.

The Russian Bears continued military, diplomatic, and political missteps reflect a Russia that remains unpredictable and seemingly unconstrained. The threatened use of nuclear weapons demonstrates exactly how desperate Putin has become. Even with his all but guaranteed “democratic reelections” through 2036, his leadership and competency continue to be challenged. Putin is desperate to hold onto the reins of power – without them, he will be isolated, vulnerable, and himself a likely target to international criminal courts and to the wrath of his own people. Now is the time to continue to invest in a committed NATO with both conventional and nuclear-equipped militaries. If not for Ukraine, then for the sake of every Russian and European who lives under the potential trigger finger of a Kremlin fascinated with the idea of a nuclear Armageddon.

Editor’s Note: Navy Captain Robert Roncska co-authored this informative and thought-provoking piece. 

Captain Robert Roncska, USN (Ret), served as the Pacific Fleet’s top fast attack Submarine Commodore, overseeing ten Los Angeles class nuclear submarines. While commanding the USS TEXAS, a Virginia class fast attack nuclear submarine, he completed multiple deployments and conducted the first Virginia class submarine arctic certification. He served as the Naval Aide to the President of the United States, where he was responsible for the safety of the Office of the President and handled sensitive national security programs while carrying the “Nuclear Football.”  He is currently an executive in the healthcare industry and an acclaimed author of Beyond the Sea.

SOFREP is pleased to be able to share his expertise with you.