This Is a Uniquely Perilous Moment

Smaller-scale tactical nuclear weapons could bring the great powers into a brutal, deadly, and unprecedented conflict.

An illustration of a Ionizing radiation symbol with a black-and-white photo of Vladimir Putin in the center.
The Atlantic

About the author: David French is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of its newsletter The Third Rail. French is also a senior editor at The Dispatch.

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To understand the perils of the present, it is necessary to understand the perils of the past, a distant past that few Americans remember well. In the early days of the Cold War, NATO allies faced a daunting strategic challenge. The Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies possessed an overwhelming advantage in conventional weaponry. They had more men, more tanks, and more planes—and they were massed in proximity to NATO’s borders.

There was a real fear that if the Soviet Union decided to attack the West, it could pulverize NATO’s defenses in days, and that once it penetrated NATO’s front lines, nothing could stop it from sweeping all the way to the Atlantic coast.

The United States, meanwhile, possessed one major advantage: superior nuclear forces. But this was more an advantage in theory than one that could actually be put to use. It was easy to say that American forces would nuke Russian cities if the Soviets attacked Europe; it would have been much less easy to do so. Would an American president really initiate a global thermonuclear exchange (which could annihilate entire American cities) to keep Paris from falling into enemy hands?

This is the unthinkable version of nuclear war that dominated millions of people’s fears during the Cold War. This is the nuclear war of The Day After, the 1983 ABC television movie that depicted a catastrophic nuclear exchange. An estimated 100 million Americans watched, and I still remember the hushed hallways in my high school the morning after it aired.

But there was also a thinkable version of nuclear war, one that relied on a kind of nuclear weapon that could perhaps deter the Soviets (and, if deterrence failed, smash their invading armies) without triggering a global thermonuclear exchange. The common term for these armaments is tactical nuclear weapons.

It’s precisely this kind of weapon that raises unique and profound concerns now, as Russia attacks Ukraine, and as NATO allies consider the limits of their support for Ukrainian resistance. Vladimir Putin is using a threat that NATO used to deter the Soviets to now deter NATO. Even worse, we have reason to believe that Putin may actually deploy such weapons, with the goal of not merely ending but also winning the war.

There are many definitions for tactical nuclear weapons, but as a general rule the term refers to low-yield, short-range weapons that are designed for use against military targets, such as enemy airfields or columns of enemy forces. Tactical nukes can be mounted in simple gravity bombs, on rockets, or even in artillery shells.

In theory, NATO could have used tactical nuclear weapons to blunt a Soviet attack without threatening or attacking Soviet cities. Why escalate to city-busting strikes when you could destroy Soviet forces in place?

But the ramifications of using tactical nuclear weapons still rightly frightened American’s military planners. Even without diving into the immense amount of scholarship and war-gaming around the use of tactical nukes, the problems they could create are still obvious. Wouldn’t the Soviets view the incineration of their forces in the field as an existential threat? If tactical nuclear weapons were mainly viewed as defensive, wouldn’t the allies be deploying them on their own soil? And the Soviets could (and did) build and equip their military with them as well. If used, tactical nuclear weapons could quickly inflict such immense casualties and damage that they could trigger the exact strategic attacks they were designed to avoid.

From an American perspective, tactical nuclear weapons became less important as we closed the conventional-military gap with Russia. By the end of the Cold War, the balance of power had shifted decisively. NATO possessed overwhelming conventional strength. Russia was the inferior conventional power, as it remains today.

But it’s not inferior throughout its force. Today, Russia is the power that holds a dramatic advantage in tactical nuclear weapons. According to a 2021 Congressional Research Service report, Russia possesses close to 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons. The U.S. stores roughly 100 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. As we gained the conventional advantage, we essentially gave up on our tactical nuclear force. Russia did not.

Moreover, there is considerable evidence that use of those tactical nuclear weapons is part of contemporary Russian-military planning. Russia has reportedly adopted a military strategy known as “escalate to de-escalate” or “escalate to terminate.”

In a March 2014 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Nikolai N. Sokov, a former Soviet and then later Russian arms-control negotiator who is now a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, described Russia’s current military doctrine as open to using tactical nuclear weapons to inflict “tailored damage,” which is defined as “damage [that is] subjectively unacceptable to the opponent [and] exceeds the benefits the aggressor expects to gain as a result of the use of military force.”

Imagine if Russia were to use low-yield nuclear weapons to destroy key air bases throughout Europe or attack an aircraft-carrier task force. How could NATO expect to operate a no-fly zone if its principal air bases are a smoldering ruin or one or more aircraft carriers is at the bottom of the Atlantic? Or imagine if Russia were to use low-yield nuclear weapons to destroy specific army bases, catastrophically damaging NATO’s ground-based striking power.

To put it another way, Vladimir Putin’s 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons make him the first opponent that NATO allies have faced since the end of the Cold War who has the raw military capability to destroy a substantial portion of NATO forces in the field.

Putin, Sokov argues, is borrowing from the 1960s-era American policy I described above. It’s a doctrine that enables a weaker power to deter a stronger power. It is not the strategy of an ascendant conventional military. Indeed, Russia’s struggles and losses in the first two weeks of its conflict with Ukraine serve only to underscore Russia’s conventional vulnerability. Those same struggles may very well make Russia more likely to pull the nuclear trigger. It is now painfully clear that its military is in no shape to wrest control of the skies or the ground from a motivated NATO force.

Indeed, ideas about the use of nuclear weapons as an equalizing force against a superior conventional foe are hardly limited to Russia. Surveying the wreck of Saddam Hussein’s immense army after the Gulf War, Krishnaswamy Sundarji, a former chief of staff of the Indian army, famously said, “One principal lesson of the Gulf War is that, if a state intends to fight the United States, it should avoid doing so until and unless it possesses nuclear weapons.”

But would Putin pull the trigger, really?

As Sokov notes, “The efficacy of threatening tailored damage assumes an asymmetry in a conflict’s stakes.” In plain English, this means that while we might want to intervene, the outcome of the conflict simply matters more to Russia than it does to NATO.

And remember, if we’re comparing the relative meaning of the conflict to the competing powers, Putin has argued that Ukraine is functionally part of Russia itself. In his February 21 speech outlining his alleged justifications for invading Ukraine, Putin argued, “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.” He would be using nuclear weapons to defend gains in a land that he calls his own.

Ukraine is not part of Russia. The Ukrainians are demonstrating that reality each and every day that they offer courageous resistance to Russian invasion, but a superior historical and moral position is irrelevant if it doesn’t convince the man who has his finger on the nuclear button.

Russian-military doctrine and capabilities are directly relevant to American domestic debate. Although Americans are overwhelmingly united in opposition to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, there’s a division between those who want to make sure that American forces do not engage Russians and those who are willing to risk direct military engagement. On Tuesday, a group of 27 “foreign policy heavyweights” published an open letter calling for a “limited no-fly zone” over Ukraine, “starting with protection for humanitarian corridors.”

In a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted late last week, a startling 74 percent of Americans supported a no-fly zone over Ukraine, though it’s questionable whether respondents understood that imposing a no-fly zone would require direct military confrontation with Russian forces, and that direct military intervention—even a limited intervention—increases the possibility of a nuclear strike.

Those who support American military intervention in Ukraine are in essence asking that NATO call Russia’s bluff. They don’t believe that Putin would nuke American forces in the field. And perhaps they’re right. Would he really risk Moscow and St. Petersburg to preserve his hold on Kyiv? We just don’t know.

But I’m afraid this argument insufficiently addresses the logic of tactical nuclear warfare. If he deploys tactical nuclear weapons, Putin would be calling our bluff. Given our limited tactical nuclear arsenal, would we escalate to the use of strategic weapons in response? Would we risk Washington and New York to dislodge Putin from Ukraine?

Given Putin’s expansive tactical nuclear arsenal—and given the very live debate over his willingness to deploy that arsenal to block NATO intervention and (theoretically) force an end to the war before a truly apocalyptic escalation—the Biden administration’s strategic choices since the invasion make a great deal of sense.

The administration is trying to walk a difficult path: providing Ukraine with enough military aid (and punishing Russia with sufficiently severe economic sanctions) to affect the battlefield and degrade Russia’s ability to wage a prolonged war without crossing the red lines that could trigger a dramatic Russian response. Walking that path is even more difficult because we don’t know exactly where those red lines are. Putin himself may not have even fixed the lines yet in his mind.

Since the dawn of modern warfare, the world’s most powerful countries have inflicted terrible destruction on the nations they conquer. But nuclear weapons raise the stakes higher still. It’s vitally important that Americans understand the true nature of Putin’s forces, and the doctrines that might dictate their use.

It’s one thing to confront a potential nuclear conflict when both sides know they’ll lose. Mutual assured destruction kept the peace even during the darkest days of the Cold War. It’s another thing entirely to confront a potential nuclear conflict when one side believes it can win. That’s the most dangerous confrontation of all, and we may be close to that now.