Putin at the podium describing the terms of his constitutional authority to use nuclear weapons.

If Putin Goes Nuclear, How Should the United States Respond?

These are perilous moments in the conflict in Ukraine. In response to the Ukrainian military’s stunning gains in recent weeks, Putin is escalating. He has enacted a military mobilization within Russia and is once again threatening the use of nuclear weapons.

How seriously should we take these nuclear threats? In what scenarios and circumstances might Putin actually use a nuclear weapon. And how should the Biden administration and NATO respond if, indeed, Putin goes nuclear? We put these questions and more to Jon Wolfsthal a longtime nuclear policy professional and aid to then Vice President Joe Biden who currently serves as senior advisor to Global Zero and as a board member for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity 

What Nuclear Threats Has Putin Made?

Jon Wolfsthal [00:00:00] Is he backed into a corner? Is he feeling personally threatened? Is the Russian territory at risk? Those are the sort of signals that would raise the indicators, but I don’t think we’re going to know in advance if he decides to go nuclear.

Excerpted News Reports [00:01:01] “In a grand ceremony at the Kremlin today, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, signed papers to formally but illegally annex four regions in Ukraine.”  “In an address in Moscow on Wednesday, Vladimir Putin declared that Russia would use all weapons systems available to us to defend the country.” “The US president warned that the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, is not joking when he talks about using nuclear weapons following losses on the battlefield in Ukraine.”.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:46] Can you describe the kinds of nuclear threats that Putin has been issuing thus far? What has he been threatening? What has he been saying? Sort of situate this moment for us.

Jon Wolfsthal [00:02:55] So I think we have to keep this in context that since even before the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February, Putin has taken a number of steps to make clear to the United States and to NATO to remind us that he has nuclear weapons, that Russian official policy is to consider using them first if the Russian state the territorial integrity or the supreme national interest of Russia is put at stake, and then more recently in the context of annexing illegally these four Ukrainian territories, he made clear that once they become Russian territory that the threat to use all means at his disposal to defend them, including nuclear weapons, is on the table. In essence, trying to use his nuclear weapons as part of the land snatch that he has been pursuing.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:50] So the idea is that these newly acquired territories by annexation are now Russian territories. Thus, he has the right to use nuclear weapons to defend this newly acquired Russian territory.

Jon Wolfsthal [00:04:05] That’s at least the impression he wants to convey. There’s a very strong argument that he doesn’t have the right to use nuclear weapons on or about Ukrainian territory under the UN charter. There are laws of war that require both proportionality and discretion in the use of force, and so many would argue that any threat to use nuclear weapons first in this context would be fundamentally illegal under international law. But one thing that Putin has done for decades is try to effectively weaponize risk, and there’s a long debate in nuclear policy circles about whether deterrence requires leaving something to chance and how useful it is to be ambiguous about when and if you might use nuclear weapons. But in this case, Putin is clearly signaling that he believes this territory that he has illegally annexed is now Russian, and to state that if that territory is attacked, he reserves the right to use nuclear weapons, something designed to try to blunt support for Ukraine taking back this territory.

Is a Russian nuclear attack likely to happen soon?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:10] So amidst Russia’s annexation of parts of Ukraine most recently and amidst Putin’s nuclear threats, Jake Sullivan, the U.S. National Security Advisor, said the U.S. does not believe a Russian nuclear strike is, quote, imminent. What signs would you be looking for to suggest that indeed a Russian nuclear use in some way is, in fact, imminent?

Jon Wolfsthal [00:05:40] The signs that I would look for, quite frankly, are very different than the signs that somebody like National Security Adviser Sullivan or President Biden will be looking for. To be honest, on the outside of government, it’s going to be extremely difficult, even with the growing open-source intelligence and verification tools that people are using to detect whether or not a nuclear strike is imminent. There was a report just this week that some special trains that were somehow affiliated with the military units that are responsible for managing nuclear weapons in Russia were moving towards Ukraine. I think there’s a great danger in trying to pretend that we have the sort of access or insight or intelligence capabilities that are available to the US government. The reality remains that Putin can order the launch of a nuclear weapon within minutes and that can come from a variety of military units: that could come from battlefield units; he could use strategic missiles based deep inside Russia; he could use strategic bomber-based weapons. So, we’re not sure we actually would be able to detect on the outside what he’s doing. On the inside, obviously, there are a number of things they’d be looking for. U.S. intelligence has been, in some cases, exquisite in terms of detecting what Putin is going to do before he does it, suggesting that we have sources very close to the Russian president or inside his military, and clearly, the Ukrainians have demonstrated that they’re able to detect real time military units on the move in Ukraine and around Ukraine. So, there are a number of different signals, but I quiet, frankly, don’t expect there to be what we would consider a timely warning. What we’re really looking at is the strategic picture. Is there any scenario through which Putin believes that a nuclear weapons use by him would somehow help? You know, is he backed into a corner? Is he feeling personally threatened? Is the Russian territory at risk? Those are the sort of signals that would raise the indicators, but I don’t think we’re going to know in advance if he decides to go nuclear.

Will other countries receive a warning or notice that Putin is about to go nuclear?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:39] That’s interesting, because throughout this crisis in Ukraine, the U.S. intelligence, as you said, has been remarkably spot on, or at least the divulging of the intelligence by top U.S. officials like Anthony Blinken, like President Biden, has signaled what Putin is going to do before he does it. Whether or not it’s the invasion, whether or not, it’s using false flag operations. Are you suggesting that we might not get that sort of dynamic this time around?

Jon Wolfsthal [00:08:11] It’s entirely possible that President Putin could order the use of a nuclear weapon and we wouldn’t know it in advance. I’m not ruling it out but let’s just say, for example, President Putin says, you know what, I want to signal the United States because the use of a nuclear weapon is an extreme. The buildup to using a nuclear weapon would be an opportunity for Putin to try to influence and deter US and NATO action, which is what he’s trying to do. And so, there’s very little value for him going straight from where he is today to say using a nuclear weapon without warning, but he could put nuclear units on alert. He had hinted at this back in February, saying he was going to increase the operational readiness of his nuclear forces. His minister of defense and chief of defense looked at each other, not knowing what he even meant, because it’s not language that means anything in the Russian system. But we could see him move mobile units into the field. We could see him order the movement of battlefield nuclear weapons that are generally kept in central storage inside Russia and move them out to frontline units. That’s something the United States likely would detect and then I think there would be a very strong debate about one is what we’re seeing real, and then two, is that something that the United States should go public with? Or is that something that we should use to message Putin directly in an effort to deter him? Up until now, President Biden and his administration have tried very, very hard not to throw fuel on the fire of escalation and so not to challenge Putin mano a mano in sort of the Trump style, but simply send the message very clearly that he shouldn’t consider using these weapons; he will end up on the losing end of any escalation, and as President Biden said, don’t. But there will be a strong debate about how to use that sort of information if we get it.

What is Putin’s nuclear weapon strategy?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:01] So if Putin were to go nuclear, what are some of the more likely scenarios of that escalation? Like what kinds of nuclear weapons may he use? Where might use them and how might they be used?

Jon Wolfsthal [00:10:16] Sure. So, if I can be shameless for a second, I wrote about this in a substack piece recently.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:22] Well, that’s why I’m interviewing you, Jon. Everyone, subscribe to Boom, Boom, Boom.

Jon Wolfsthal [00:10:27] So, you know, I laid out four basic scenarios and there could be variations on these but the four things I worry about in a nuclear scenario are either a demonstration strike: Putin using a nuclear weapon, say, over the Black Sea, using nuclear weapons in some sort of battlefield or tactical sense against, say, a Ukrainian military concentration in and around Kherson or on the battlefield where Russian troops are being forced to retreat. The third would be a more strategic use in Ukraine to either decapitate the leadership, to use a nuclear weapon in Kiev, or to decimate the Ukrainian state, to kill as many people and demoralize the Ukrainians as possible. And then the fourth would be the use of a nuclear weapon against the United States or NATO territory in an effort to prevent the West from supporting Ukraine and to divide Europe. And those are four very different types of scenarios. I don’t think anybody can tell you what types of scenarios are more likely than others. The fact that we’re having this conversation suggests that the risk of any of them is already far too high and beyond what we normally see. I tend to look at the attack on NATO as the least likely because Putin knows very clearly that that would not only change the nature of conflict but would lead the United States to retaliate in a significant way, whether that’s nuclear or not would be a debate. So, the ones I worry about the most are, quite frankly, the battlefield use, the demonstration use or the use against a major city in Ukraine.

What would it mean for humanity if Putin takes nuclear action?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:58] And just to be clear, in any of those three more perhaps likely scenarios, excluding a nuclear first use against the U.S. or a NATO country, the tactical use of a nuclear weapon on the battlefield, the strategic use against a city like Kiev or a demonstration somewhere over the Black Sea would be a monumental moment in human history.

Jon Wolfsthal [00:12:24] I think that’s exactly the right way to think about it. These weapons have only ever been used twice before during World War Two. It hasn’t happened in over 70 years. Those events mark a turning point in human history and the possibility that nuclear weapons would be used again as a weapon of choice in open warfare to pursue aggression to me would be a defining moment. It would turn Vladimir Putin instantly into one of the greatest abhorrent villains in our species’ history and would demand profound changes in both the way the United States and Ukraine are handling the war, but also, I would argue, in terms of the way humanity is approaching these existential threats.

If Putin uses nuclear weapons how might the United States respond?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:07] So imagine, therefore, that this terrible moment happens. There is some sort of use of a nuclear weapon, either demonstration over the Black Sea, something like that on the battlefield or against a major city in Ukraine: what options would remain to the Biden administration at that point? How might the U.S. consider its response?

Jon Wolfsthal [00:13:35] So I try to come at this through as dry and analytical a process as possible, recognizing that should a nuclear weapon to be used, things would be anything but dry and unemotional. They would be extremely fraught. But to me, it really comes down to a very simple yes or no question at the beginning. Does the United States or NATO or Ukraine need for there to be a nuclear response in order for Russia to suffer the punishment necessary to make clear that their use of nuclear weapons has disadvantaged them? Does the United States or NATO need to use a nuclear weapon to ensure that Ukraine wins the war or to inflict enough damage on Russia to ensure that they come out on the losing end?

Is it possible that the United States would use a nuclear weapon in retaliation against Russia?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:21] And just to stop you there, the use by the United States of a nuclear weapon in retaliation is within the realm of plausibility.

Jon Wolfsthal [00:14:32] The US official policy since there have been two nuclear states since 1949 has been that the United States reserves the right to retaliate against nuclear use with nuclear weapons of its own. Ukraine is not a NATO ally nor a treaty ally, and so there’s no obligation for the United States to respond with a nuclear weapon, and I support and have made very strong arguments that a nuclear response is not necessary and in fact, brings on greater risks and dangers, than it brings benefits, particularly because the United States has many other means of responding outside of the nuclear realm but it clearly is within the range of possibility. Once the nuclear taboo is broken, the risks of nuclear weapons being used again by others goes up. We’re sitting here talking about these horrible scenarios, assuming that we’d have perfect knowledge and things would be calm but once nuclear weapons start flying, any time there is a radar blip or a troop movement or a stray piece of data that looks like the prelude to another attack, the risks of escalation of a more rapid response go up. And that’s the cycle that, at least until now, the United States and President Biden have been trying very hard to avoid and to signal to President Putin that regardless of what his war goals are, the use of nuclear weapons will not serve his interests.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:52] So say that a nuclear weapon is used by Russia. One option you’re saying is a nuclear response by the United States. What other options are there on the table at that point?

Jon Wolfsthal [00:16:07] So a nuclear response by the United States would be at one extreme but there are many, many other options, particularly if there’s no military need for the United States to respond with nuclear weapons. What is necessary and what I think has been signaled to President Putin is that if a nuclear weapon is used, the consequences for Russia and for Putin would be catastrophic, suggesting that the United States would be prepared to change its approach to the conduct of the war beyond simply providing Ukraine with the means to defend itself and reclaim its territory, but I would assume also to expand to other military options, including the US and NATO becoming directly involved in the war in Ukraine, to holding military units, including up to the leadership personally and potentially even physically responsible for the use of these weapons, and also, the United States still has a tremendous ability to cut Russia off from the international financial and economic system with the support of its allies. So, for example, Iran, who has been pursuing a nuclear weapon for many years, was cut off from the international world banking system for many years. Russia is still able to transfer money in and out through its banking system to Switzerland, the United States and elsewhere. If Russia were to be cut off from that system, it wouldn’t be able to sell or trade oil. It wouldn’t be able to gain access to cash reserves and it would quickly cripple the Kremlin and the military machinery there. So, there are lots of ways that you can ensure that the pain inflicted on Putin and Russia are severe enough to make their use of nuclear weapons a loser but there will be also a strong moral and emotional component that will say the only way to punish Putin is to escalate militarily, that the United States or others should look to attack Russia proper. There are great risks associated with that, but I understand that the debate over what it takes to deter and respond to Russia are ongoing. One of the realities is that deterrence is a theory based on what you believe your adversary thinks and cares about, and in order to deter them or to respond appropriately, you have to have a pretty good understanding of what Putin wants and likes and cares about. And that’s proven already to be a fairly imperfect science.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:27] What I find just so profoundly frightening about this moment is that should indeed Putin use a nuclear weapon, you know the politics of DC as well as anyone in terms of how political forces would support escalation in that moment and that escalation, whether it’s a nuclear response or whether it’s a non-nuclear kinetic response of some sort, like the U.S. coming in direct conflict with Russian troops, creates its own potential for escalation all the way up to strategic nuclear exchange between the two countries. And that’s seems to me, while not particularly likely, more likely than it would be the day before Putin used nuclear weapons.

Jon Wolfsthal [00:19:20] I mean, you’re right, Mark. And you know this town as well as I do, that the calls for President Biden to show strength and resolve and to respond to evil with all of the forces at our capability will be deafening, not only because the United States has said for many, many years that it reserves the right to respond to the use of nuclear weapons with nuclear weapons of its own but because of the extreme nature of the political debate in the United States. I, having worked for three years for the president when he was vice president, have profound respect for his understanding of these forces, his ability to understand the course of history and how cool heads at the right time have prevented nuclear disaster from befalling the world, and make no mistake, we have routinely had nuclear crises. It’s not just the Cuban Missile Crisis 60 years ago and today; we’ve had multiple instances where the United States or Russia or North Korea looked like they were preparing to go to use the nuclear option, and it was only because we were able to take a step back and think clearly that we avoided the use of nuclear weapons. If Putin were to go nuclear, yes, there would be very loud, dramatic calls for Biden to respond in the same way, but I also think there would be a very clear understanding in the White House that unless we needed to use a nuclear weapon to achieve the military goal of defeating Russia, there would be a very serious cost for the United States to respond in kind. Not only would we lose the political international high ground to basically call Putin out as an anathema to isolate him, but we would lose the ability to put pressure on China and India to further distance themselves from Russia to economically isolate Moscow, and to put real additional pressure on Putin to end the war on terms that are favorable to Ukraine and arguably to the West.

Can Western officials guess what Putin will do next?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:18] I guess but isn’t the central problem here that if Putin were to use a nuclear weapon, it is because he is backed into a corner. Because Ukraine is winning, he needs some sort of escalation to stop the momentum against Russian forces. If that nuclear attack is responded to by the United States and NATO in even conventional support for Ukraine against Russia, putting Putin on an even deeper backfoot, backing him even deeper into a corner, then he would be even more inspired to lash out with nuclear weapons again.

Jon Wolfsthal [00:21:57] So there are two questions here I want to get to and without going on too long, but I think the first one is we have to be very careful, Mark, because we don’t really know what Putin is trying to do here, right? He has said all kinds of things. He respects the Ukrainian people. He wants to destroy the Ukrainian people. He wants to ‘denazify’ Ukraine. He wants to reintegrate Ukraine into a larger imperial Russia. We don’t know what Putin’s after. We know he doesn’t want Ukraine to join NATO. We know he wants there to be a conflict that prevents Ukraine from being a stronger, more vibrant economic state, and he may already feel, even with the recent losses on the battlefield, that his war is being successful. Ukraine is not joining NATO; Ukraine is part of a conflict that’s going to go on for an extended period of time. He doesn’t really care about the Russians or the Ukrainians that are dying on the battlefield. And so, it’s not clear to me that the crisis that we’re in is an existential crisis for Putin or that he sees it that way. He may be making the argument, look, this is exactly what we wanted. The war is going to plan; yes, there are ebbs and flows, but this still benefits us, and I don’t need to escalate. But nuclear threats definitely are influencing our thinking and so he may want to use those for that as well. The second question is whether or not Putin using a nuclear weapon could be responded to in a way that would prevent him from using nuclear weapons again. And if we argue or if we actually look at Putin using a nuclear weapon, it’s not because he doubts our ability to respond, he knows we have nuclear weapons of our own and he knows that’s a possibility. If Putin does use a nuclear weapon, it’s because he is in an existential crisis. It is because he is losing the war, and that threatens him to a certain extent that he can’t tolerate. And if we continue to pursue the war, as I believe we would, then we would have to accept that Putin might be willing to use a nuclear weapon again. And that is just the reality of having nuclear weapons in the world. Something that I wish we didn’t have and something we need to have been much more focused on trying to eliminate over the past years and need to rededicate ourselves to but now that we’re in this crisis with a nuclear weapon state, welcome to reality, as many in the military like to say. This is the world that we live in, not the one we might want, and Putin does have the ability to use nuclear weapons and he has the ability to use them in multiple ways in Ukraine in a way that may be very difficult for the United States to respond to directly.

How might Biden respond if Putin uses a nuclear weapon?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:25] Having studied these issues for so long inside and outside of government, how would you suggest the Biden administration respond should Putin use a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield or a demonstrative nuclear weapon, or even a strategic weapon against a major city in Ukraine?

Jon Wolfsthal [00:24:48] So when we had these discussions and did planning inside government, when I was in the White House and since I have believed that the United States would need to ensure with its allies that there is a combination of a response, both economic and political, on the one hand, and militarily, to ensure that Putin does not benefit in any way, shape or form from his use of nuclear weapons. I’m convinced that the economic side of that has to be front and center. That using a nuclear weapon in response would actually weaken our ability to respond in that way. So, I think that the punishment economically has to be severe, but I think President Biden and my understanding is his administration as well, have signaled this directly to senior leaders in Moscow, that the military stakes for Russia in Ukraine would go up dramatically. That our ability to target, destroy Russian military units in Ukraine, to disrupt their supply lines, to use both direct kinetic and non-kinetic cyber and space activities to ensure that Russia has less control over the battlefield as a result of its use would come about through the use of nuclear weapons. And the choice is really Russia’s. They can lose this war, or they can lose this war dramatically and much, much more. And if Putin escalates to the use of nuclear weapons, the United States has the ability to impose a cost on Russia and Putin directly that he would find very, very unsatisfying. I think getting into more specifics than that is not necessary. Putin and Russia’s military knows the capabilities the United States can bring to bear, and in this case, it’s clear that deterrence, as it’s been defined for generations, is about both capability to respond and the intention to respond. The capability is there; I think what’s important now is for the United States to signal, as it has its intent to respond effectively should Putin go nuclear. And I think that’s one of the reasons that while the risk is real, it’s lower than it probably could have been with different leadership in the United States or if it had been handled differently by the United States.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:59] So how perilous do you find this moment then?

Jon Wolfsthal [00:27:02] It’s interesting to me, you know, I strangely get paid to think about these issues and have for almost 40 years. And so, I joke with people like, welcome to my reality. We worry about the risk of nuclear war all the time through escalation, through accident, through miscalculation, through a technical snafu or human error. We now have all of those things combined with an active shooting war of aggression and so it does freeze your blood and it does force you to take these things seriously but, you know, there have been a lot of people focused on these issues for many, many years. The hope is now that the world will recognize that these risks are as severe as we have said. And even when the war is over, we’ll try to address some of these systematic challenges a little bit more persistently. But we tend to go through these events in human history, and then we go back to what we were doing before. And we just have to hope that this time we’re gambling, and we end up on the winning end again.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:02] Thank you, Jon. That was very helpful. Sobering but helpful.

Jon Wolfsthal [00:28:05] I’m sorry to have to have the conversation, but glad to have it with you, Mark.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:15] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.