Nuclear Experts On Chances Of Russia Using Atomic Weapons In Ukraine

We asked top experts about the chances that an increasingly desperate Russia could use nuclear weapons to change its losing hand in Ukraine.

byTyler Rogoway|
Possibility of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons in ukraine


The specter of nuclear war has loomed larger over the conflict in Ukraine in recent days. Russia's recent announcement of a partial mobilization was paired with direct nuclear threats from President Vladimir Putin and Deputy Chairman of the country's Security Council Dmitry Medvedev. Now combined with continued losses on the battlefield and the sudden illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories in the country's east and south, there appears to be a change in messaging and level of concern from the U.S. government and its NATO allies.

The possibility of Russia releasing the nuclear genie from its bottle after nearly 80 years is clearly being taken more seriously as is the potential for rapid escalation that could come as a result. And the stakes could not be any higher. A nuclear exchange is mankind's problem, not just one of nations, and even a very limited use of a tactical nuclear weapon would change the course of human history. We wrote a recent primer on this rapidly developing issue that you can read here for full background.

So, what are the chances that Russia uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

To bring clarity to this extremely challenging and pressing question, The War Zone reached out to the smartest people we know that live and breathe the nuclear weapons issue on a daily basis for their unfiltered opinion. Our participating subject matter experts are:

Ankit PandaExpert on nuclear policy, Asia, missiles, & space. Stanton Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Author of ‘Kim Jong Un and the Bomb.’

Michael KofmanDirector, Russia Studies at CNA. Senior Adjunct Fellow, CNAS.

We sent this impressive group the same questions independently so that their responses could be as direct and unfiltered as possible. Here they are in full.

Do you see the current circumstances in Ukraine as drastically increasing the chances of Russia using a nuclear weapon, especially in terms of attempting to freeze the conflict under a so-called 'escalate to deescalate' action?

Hans Kristensen:

Probably not “dramatically,” but since the war is going bad for Russia and the rhetoric is intensifying, it indicates a greater willingness to rattle the nuclear sword explicitly in the Ukraine context. In February, nuclear threats were used generically to signal to NATO not to get directly involved. Now nuclear threats are explicitly mentioned against Ukraine. This is not an "escalate-to-deescalate” scenario as described in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review because Russia is not under attack from NATO and the survival of the Russian state is not at stake. It does not fit Russia’s declaratory policy, but Dmitry Medvedev’s statement earlier today [September 28] sounds like an attempt to link the two nonetheless.

Russia is deterred from attacking NATO directly but if the Kremlin believes – as Medvedev suggested today – that it doesn’t have to fear a NATO response, then it could potentially lower the nuclear threshold. But there are other factors too – what will Russia gain from nuclear use and what will it lose more - that influence the decision. Despite the saber-rattling and brinkmanship, the Russians – certainly the military - know full well the consequences to Russia from a greater war with NATO.

Ankit Panda:

The risk of nuclear use by Russia increased over the pre-war baseline after the start of the war in February. Since then, I don’t assess a significant shift in the risks of nuclear use provided that the basic thresholds of no direct NATO operational involvement in Ukraine and no direct Russian strikes on NATO hold. Russia’s battlefield setbacks, however, probably marginally increase the risk of nuclear use, but I’d still suggest, in subjective terms, that the risk remains low. The logic of “escalate-to-deescalate” isn’t a formal component of Russian military doctrine, but Putin has shown himself willing to maneuver as he’d like to accomplish political objectives.

Stephen Schwartz:

Desperate people in control of nuclear weapons (especially those committed to always appearing strong) is never a good combination. I think the biggest risk at the moment is if/when Putin declares that his sham referenda show overwhelming support for annexing large parts of eastern Ukraine, and then he annexes that territory and warns that any further military attacks there will be considered attacks on Russia itself, risking a nuclear response to defend Russian territory. By doing so, he may create a dangerous commitment trap, compelling him to respond (even if he was only bluffing) in order to avoid appearing weak and further undermining his already weak military position with Ukraine and NATO, as well as at home. And if he wasn’t bluffing, well…

Michael Kofman:

No, Russian thinking on nuclear weapons is probably much closer to 'escalate to not lose' under certain conditions, rather than escalating to maintain gains. It's worth noting that Russia hasn't used nuclear weapons even after suffering significant casualties and defeats in Ukraine, so the criteria are clearly beyond such battlefield losses. This is just one person's opinion, but rather than a tactical defeat, it may be tied to the loss of cohesion and control over the forces in theater, leading to a collapse of the military, or a significant loss of territory within that context, such that Russia is unable to recover it.

If a nuclear weapon was detonated, even just to display a willingness to use nuclear weapons, killing nobody and resulting in little radiological consequences, what do you see the world community doing in response? What about NATO? What would happen right after?

Hans Kristensen:

The international response to Russian nuclear use in Ukraine would likely be forceful and overwhelmingly condemning. Breaking the nuclear taboo after 77 years would be a monumental political, social, and military event. It would likely lead to even greater isolation of Russia, and Putin’s last remaining friends abandoning him. NATO’s options would likely be complicated. It is by no means certain that the alliance would agree to scale up military involvement in Ukraine. Many would, but one could easily imagine Turkey, Hungary, and Italy would use the event to increase calls for a negotiated settlement of the war. Putin appears to already have declared an energy war on the West, which will likely lead to energy and money hardness in the winter months and weaken public support for continuing to support Ukraine. Since Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the alliance presumably can’t just attack Russian forces in Ukraine (certainly Russian territory) without declaring war on Russia. If it did, we would have a direct military conflict between Russia and NATO – the very scenario Biden and other Western leaders have said they don't want because of the much greater consequences. Declaring war would likely be blocked by Turkey, Hungary, and Italy. That could potentially leave the United States or a coalition of the willing to react militarily anyway and gamble that Russia would be deterred from escalating further.

Ankit Panda:

I think this is the hardest case for a response, in many ways: the nuclear taboo would have been broken and the first atmospheric nuclear detonation in anger since Nagasaki would have taken place. But given that the effects would be limited (radiologically and in terms of damage to humans), I’d see the upper-end of a response by NATO and the west to probably consist of conventional strikes against the Russian unit that delivered the weapon combined with various other political-economic measures to continue to punish Moscow. As a practical matter, because this is a tough case, it would be best for the West to maintain ambiguity about the precise nature of its response while clearly communicating that there would be serious consequences for breaching this threshold.

Stephen Schwartz:

I don’t know because, thankfully, we have never reached that crisis point in the 77 years nuclear weapons have been around. It is very difficult to imagine NATO or the United States or Russia backing down after that (not least because doing so would call into question the very essence of nuclear deterrence). So, again, even if no one really wanted to use nuclear weapons and everyone understood such use would likely be militarily and politically catastrophic, they might nevertheless find themselves unable to ratchet down tensions out of fear that doing so would lead to equally bad or worse consequences.

People forget that nuclear deterrence isn’t just about possessing nuclear weapons but also being perceived by one's adversaries as being both ready and willing to use them under extreme circumstances. That we have not yet witnessed the third use of a nuclear weapon in war is, I believe, in spite of our unwarranted faith in the magical power of nuclear deterrence, not because of it.

The 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis is in one month. Everyone understands that that crisis ended peacefully and chalks it up to deterrence “working," but far too few people appreciate how incredibly close we came to accidental nuclear war multiple times during those tense 13 days because human beings and the deadly technologies we rely upon are inherently fallible. Sheer luck played a pivotal role in the ultimately peaceful outcome, not plans or posturing or psychology.

Do we dare tempt fate twice?

Michael Kofman:

I don't know and it depends. Demonstrative employment can yield different scenarios.

What about if a number of military or even civilian targets were hit with nuclear weapons in Ukraine? How does that change the calculus over just the display of use?

Hans Kristensen:

Beyond a demonstration use of a nuclear weapon (perhaps over the Black Sea), Russia could potentially decide to use a few nuclear weapons to weaken the Ukraine counteroffensive, halt the momentum, and use the pause to get a military advantage. But that would likely be a short-term gain as the Ukrainians would likely soon regroup and resume the push. Russian nuclear use presumably would only postpone the inevitable defeat – unless Putin continued to use nuclear weapons.

Prior to the U.S. Gulf War, the Pentagon studied the use of nuclear weapons against Hussein’s army in the desert and found it would have required the use of quite a number of weapons to have a decisive effect. Putin could then potentially decide to use a public terror campaign and level Kyiv and one or more cities to break the Ukrainian's will to fight. He has already demonstrated that he does not care much for civilians in Ukraine. And his conventional bombing of eastern cities so far has caused so much destruction that a tactical nuclear weapon almost seems like more of the same.

Ankit Panda:

The use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear Ukraine to accomplish military objectives seems unlikely to me; Russia’s lower-yield nuclear weapons would have difficulties providing serious military benefit against distributed Ukrainian infantry units and sparse mechanized units. The primary effect would be to shock and terrorize the Ukrainians, but this could easily have the effect of reinforcing Ukraine’s will to fight in an existential struggle. Putin has little to gain here, I think. Responding to this would present NATO with similar challenges to the scenario above, but I suspect the response would be the same (as would my prescription on signaling).

Stephen Schwartz:

I have to believe it would, but in what direction I don’t know. Thankfully, no one on Earth has any experience fighting an actual nuclear war. Will calmer heads prevail or will the complex mechanisms we’ve relied on for three-quarters of a century instead propel us even closer to doomsday?

Michael Kofman:

I suspect there will be a response from the U.S. and several nations, what form it will take place depends on the context. These are ultimately political decisions, and no matter what leaders say, they themselves may not know what they will do until the moment arrives.

(Source: Michael Kofman, Anya Fink, Jeffrey Edmonds, “Russian Strategy for Escalation Management: Evolution of Key Concepts,” CNA paper, April 2020.

What about the possible use of chemical weapons? Do you see Russia escalating there first, if at all?

Hans Kristensen:

That’s another option that seems more credible than nuclear use. Chemical weapons would be an escalation but not as taboo as nuclear weapons. Putin would still have other options (to nuclear use). Others have already used them in warfare (Iraq and Syria) and Ukrainian front-line forces are probably not well equipped to protect themselves from chemical weapons. But it would be complicated for Russian forces to subsequently operate in areas that had been contaminated. And it would likely harden the Ukrainian will to fight.

Ankit Panda:

Yes. We’ve seen from Syria that Russia views chemical weapons as having military utility in urban warfare, in particular. This is a much greater risk in the near-term than nuclear use.

Stephen Schwartz:

Is this possible? I suppose, but only if it is somehow advantageous to Russia. As Russia tries to draft large numbers of fresh recruits (many with little or no experience with chemical weapons), it may find that any use of such weapons would hinder rather than help its attempts to take and hold Ukrainian territory, to say nothing of the worldwide condemnation that would result if it did.

Michael Kofman:

No, not really. They bring little value relative to the political cost of using them. They're also not especially useful for a power with Russia's conventional or nuclear means.

How much warning do you believe Ukraine, the U.S., and NATO intelligence would have before Russia actually detonated a nuclear weapon?

Hans Kristensen:

If the nuclear weapon is a tactical weapon, then I think they would have several days warning. After Putin ordered the military to prepare, the military would have to communicate to the 12th Main Directive to release the warhead from storage, the custodial and security forces needed to transport the warhead to the unit with the launcher, where they would work to install the warhead on the weapon. Then Putin would have to issue the order, which would have to trickle down the chain of command. During all these steps, U.S. intelligence could potentially discover that something was up. One could also imagine that Putin didn’t plan to use nuclear weapons but chose to disclose preparations to increase the coercive effect of the threat to force Ukraine and some Western countries to back down and demand Ukraine enter negotiations. Use of strategic nuclear weapons would probably have less warning time because the ICBMs and SLBMs are already on alert with warheads installed.

Ankit Panda:

We know where Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons are stored and U.S. military intelligence would likely have good indicators if warheads are being removed and mated with delivery systems. The U.S. and NATO would also publicize this – loudly. I expect we’d have warning.

Stephen Schwartz:

Russian nonstrategic or tactical weapons are not believed to be deployed for immediate use on a regular basis but instead are kept in several 'central storage' facilities. Presumably, these are closely monitored by US and NATO intelligence so that we would notice unusual movements of personnel or equipment or materiel out of them. Likewise, we would presumably detect elevated alert levels, and increased security, activity, and communications for any nuclear-capable units that received weapons and/or were making them ready for use.

The amount of warning could vary from days to hours to minutes depending on how closely we’re watching and the stage of deployment (e.g., moving weapons out of central storage would suggest an increased level of readiness but not necessarily for immediate use). Increasing readiness to use strategic nuclear weapons would include increased communications to and from missile and submarine bases. Submarines surging out of port would also be a worrisome indicator. So would the removal of additional bomber-based nuclear weapons from central storage (where most are kept on a day-to-day basis).

Russia, of course, knows this and can use that knowledge to signal its intentions without necessarily making additional overt nuclear threats. On top of all that, one would expect certain senior military personnel and political leaders to, in the most extreme case, relocate to emergency operations centers or bunkers.

Any launch of ballistic missiles would be detected almost instantly by early-warning satellites spotting their exhaust plumes. A few minutes later, ground-based, long-range, early-warning radars in Greenland, Great Britain, and Alaska would confirm the launch and provide an assessment of missile trajectories and the estimated time-to-target. Nuclear weapons delivered by aircraft or cruise missiles, especially within the current theater of war, would not be detected so easily (although unusual movements of aircraft at bases known to house nuclear weapons would not go unnoticed), and even if they were, the warning time would only be measured in tens of minutes, if that.

Michael Kofman:

Russia may actually want to offer plenty of warning in an effort to signal and thereby coerce, i.e. make the act of preparation visible. In general, I suspect that overt preparations might be observed prior to use.

A big thank you to all our experts for taking the time to answer our questions on this incredibly challenging but extremely important topic.

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