The odds of Russia using nuclear weapons in Ukraine remain low despite Putin brandishing the threat as he has done frequently in the past. Tactical nuclear strikes on Ukrainian military units or logistical centers will not suffice for Russia to prevail against an adversary as capable and determined as Ukraine, absent the collapse of NATO support. Nor are Russian units trained to operate in a nuclear environment. Even in the likely event that NATO would not reply with nuclear weapons, Russia crossing the nuclear threshold may galvanize a devastating NATO conventional response that would ensure Putin’s defeat in Ukraine, confounding the motivation for Putin to go nuclear in the first place. Putin reaps the maximum benefit and minimum risk of Russia’s considerable advantage in tactical nuclear weapons via nuclear blackmail, inspiring fear. Russia also has an array of conventional military options that could achieve as much or more on the battlefield than any plausible tactical nuclear strike.

Yet prudence forbids ruling out categorically the possibility that a combination of desperation and calculation may impel Putin to go nuclear. What then? The global consequences will depend largely on what NATO and the United States in particular choose to do and not to do. Every option on the spectrum entails significant costs, risks, and imponderables.

Any variation of the soft option—acquiescing or imposing more sanctions without significantly increasing the quality and quantity of military aid to Ukraine—likely will amplify the ominous ramifications of Russia using nuclear weapons. To begin with, it would almost guarantee more Russian nuclear blackmail beyond Ukraine, starting with the Baltics, then Poland, with the object of neutering NATO and decoupling NATO from the United States.

Any variation of the soft option also would trigger major negative domino effects in the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East. Those commentators who speculate that China would distance itself from Russia if it launched a tactical nuclear strike woefully underestimate the broadening and deepening cooperation between Xi Jinping and Putin, which they formalized in the Sino-Russian Pact announced on February 4, 2022. Putin’s imperial ambitions mesh nicely with Xi’s own implacable determination to have China displace the United States as the world’s preeminent power. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently warned that China is moving on a much faster timeline to take Taiwan. A soft response to Russia using nuclear weapons in Ukraine would accelerate that timeline.

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States faced a perilous and deteriorating military position in East Asia. The Heritage Foundation’s “2023 Index of U.S. Military Strength” underscored the strong possibility that the United States could lose a war to China, rating our navy weak and our air force very weak. Although the domestic turmoil Xi unleased with his draconian Covid lockdowns may stay China’s hand for the time being, any perception that Russia benefitted from crossing the nuclear threshold is more likely to lower rather than raise the inhibitions of Xi to coerce the surrender of Taiwan sooner rather than later. Even if Xi ultimately refrains from following through on a nuclear threat, a Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine will boost the credibility of any Chinese bluff, making a less than stalwart Biden Administration even more reluctant to call it. Meanwhile, an insidious combination of a Russian nuclear attack, swelling Chinese belligerence, and the perception of diminishing U.S. reliability should the Biden Administration opt for a soft response likely will spur Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to become nuclear powers themselves.[1]

The perception of a weak response to Russia using nuclear weapons will entail immediate and intense negative repercussions in the Middle East. The Iranians would almost certainly react by intensifying their strategy of nuclear blackmail against American allies in the region, and doubling down on their threats to annihilate Israel, giving Israel even more incentive to launch a preemptive attack to forestall an Iranian nuclear attack. Even if that danger does not materialize, Russia using nuclear weapons will accelerate the burgeoning nuclear arms race in the world’s most volatile region.

The antithesis of the soft option—NATO replying in kind to Putin’s use of nuclear weapons—is the least likely and perhaps even less desirable response than doing nothing. The danger of catastrophic escalation, the existence of effective but more limited conventional alternatives to Russia’s huge advantage in tactical nuclear weapons, and the less than implacable resolve of the Western European continental members of NATO and the Biden Administration render this option moot.

General David Petraeus’s more muscular version of various intermediate options between doing nothing and going nuclear offers by my reckoning the best practicable strategy for defeating Putin in Ukraine, bolstering the credibility of American power globally, and placing the burden on Putin to escalate the conflict between NATO and Russia to the nuclear level—a chilling scenario that probably would make even Putin at his most reckless flinch. Petraeus calls for “NATO—a collective—effort that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield of Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea Fleet.”[2] Although not without significant risk of its own, the Petraeus option has the added virtue of requiring no American boots on the ground to achieve it. Making clear to Putin that using nuclear weapons would elicit such a devastating conventional military NATO response best enhances the chances of deterring Putin from doing it in the first place. Anything short of the Petraeus option or some combination of measures Admiral James Stavridis contemplates—among them delivering MiG-29 era fighter aircraft currently in the hands of the Poles or even American F-16s, or an aggressive cyberattack on Russia’s military capabilities—will only invite aggression on multiple fronts.[3]

Whether or not Putin goes nuclear, any outcome of the conflict in Ukraine must at a minimum restore Ukraine’s borders prior to Russia’s invasion on February 24. Otherwise, Putin wins and the United States and Ukraine lose, emboldening Russia, China, and Iran while demoralizing our allies.[4] Although I wish I could say categorically that Putin has fatally underestimated Western strategic clarity and resolve, the jury is still out on that, considering the Biden Administration’s long record of signaling the contrary: spending much less than we need on national defense; prioritizing the White Whale of its Green agenda over the imperatives of traditional geopolitical rivalry, economic prosperity, and energy independence; and refusing to reverse its catastrophic de facto open border policy inimical to national sovereignty and the credibility of our pledges to respond vigilantly to threats thousands of miles from home. Nor do I find reassuring the re-emergence, after decades of hibernation, of a still small but growing and vocal segment of Republican Party eager to abandon America’s vital role as the world’s default power, heedless of the likely consequences. Nothing would give me greater pleasure that to have the Biden Administration, and the weak links of the Western Alliance—Germany and France—prove these concerns groundless. If not, international relations will enter the fast lane of the Autobahn to becoming more dangerous and Hobbesian, especially if Putin’s Russia uses nuclear weapons without serious consequences.


[1] Heritage Foundation, “2023 Index of U.S. Military Strength.”

[2] Putin faces ‘irreversible’ reality in Ukraine invasion despite latest moves: Petraeus,” ABC News (October 2, 2022).

[3] James Stavridis, “What the West Should Do If Putin Uses a Nuclear Weapon,” Time (October 26, 2022).

[4] Josef Joffe, “Putin Must Not Win, But Zelensky Must Not Win Too Much,” Time (December 1, 2022).

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