WASHINGTON (AP) — Russia’s attack on Ukraine and its veiled threat to use nuclear weapons has policymakers, past and present, thinking the unthinkable: How should the West respond to a nuclear bomb blast on Russia’s battlefield?
The default US policy answer, some architects of the post-Cold War nuclear order say, is discipline and self-control. That could require increased sanctions and isolation for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Rose Gottemoeller, NATO’s deputy secretary general from 2016 to 2019.
But no one can rely on a calm mind to win at such times, and real life rarely goes according to plan. World leaders will be angry, offended, afraid. Miscommunication and confusion can run rampant. Hackers can add to the mess. Demands would be great for harsh retaliation – the kind that could be made with a nuclear-charged missile capable of traveling faster than the speed of sound.
When military and civilian officials and experts have a Russian-US war game. nuclear tensions in the past, tabletop exercises sometimes ending with nuclear missiles crossing continents and oceans, striking European and North American capitals, killing millions within hours, said Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis. Groups.
“And, you know, right away, you’ve just had a global thermonuclear war,” Oliker said.
This is a scenario that officials want to avoid, even if Russia targets Ukraine with a nuclear bomb.
Gottemoeller, a chief US nuclear negotiator with Russia for the Obama administration, said the outline President Joe Biden had given so far of his nuclear policy remained with the previous administration’s policy of using atomic weapons only in “extreme circumstances.”
“And a demonstration of Russia’s nuclear use, or – as horrific as that – of nuclear use in Ukraine, I don’t think will go up to that level” to demand a US nuclear response, said Gottemoeller, who is now a lecturer. at Stanford University.
For former Senator Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat who spent nearly a quarter of a century in Congress helping shape global nuclear policy, the option of Western nuclear use must remain on the table.
“That’s a longstanding doctrine of mutual destruction,” said Nunn, now a strategic adviser to the security organization the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which he co-founded.
“If President Putin uses nuclear weapons, or other countries use nuclear weapons first, not in response to a nuclear attack, not in response to an existential threat to their own country … the world is at high risk of nuclear war, and nuclear exchange,” he said. Nunn.
For US officials and world leaders, discussions about how to respond to a limited nuclear strike are no longer theoretical. In the first hours and days of the Russian invasion, Putin referred to Russia’s nuclear arsenal. He warned Western countries to stay away from conflict, saying he was putting his nuclear forces on high alert.
Any country that interferes with Russia’s invasion will face consequences “as you have never seen, in your history,” Putin said.
How to respond to any use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons by Russia is one of the issues Biden and other Western leaders discussed when they met in Europe in late March. Three NATO members – the United States, Britain and France – possess nuclear weapons.
One overarching concern is that by using some nuclear weapons as tactical weapons for use in combat, Russia could break nearly eight decades of global taboos against the use of nuclear weapons against other nations. Even relatively small tactical nuclear weapons are close to the power of the atomic bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in World War II.
Gottemoeller and Nunn praised Biden’s restraint in the face of Putin’s implicit nuclear warning at the start of the war. Biden has made no known steps to raise the US nuclear alert status. The US also postponed the launch of the routine Minuteman III test last month to avoid escalating tensions.
But in the short and long term, the world appears more at risk of nuclear conflict as a result of Putin’s reckless invasion and nuclear threat, according to arms control experts and negotiators.
The revealed weakness of the Russian invasion in its conventional military might might make Putin feel more compelled in the future to threaten the use of nuclear as his best weapon against the much more powerful United States and NATO.
While Gottemoeller argues that Ukraine’s surrender of Soviet nuclear arsenals in 1994 opened the door to three decades of international integration and growth, he says some governments may take a different lesson from Russia’s nuclear invasion of non-nuclear Ukraine – that they need nuclear bombs as a problem. life sustainability.
Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute, said the nuclear danger was increasing.
“And we can figure out which pathways will cause that risk to increase even further. And of course direct conflict with Russia from forces based in NATO countries is one path to nuclear war,” Lewis said.
Gottemoeller took heart when Putin grumbled publicly late last month about “cancel culture.” That shows he is vulnerable to worldwide condemnation of the Ukraine invasion, and even worse if he violates post-World War II taboos on nuclear strikes, he said.
Detonating a nuclear bomb in a country that Putin wants to control, which is next door to his, would not be rational, Nunn said. But he said Putin’s announcement of increased nuclear vigilance was also not.
As a young congressional aide during the Cuban missile crisis, Nunn watched US officers and pilots in Europe waiting for orders to launch nuclear weapons at the Soviet Union. The current danger is not as great as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba increased the threat of nuclear war with the United States, he said.
But the risk of a deliberate nuclear escalation is now high enough to make a ceasefire in Ukraine important, Nunn said. Modern threats from cyberattacks add to the risk of misfired launches. And it’s not clear how vulnerable US and, especially, Russian systems are to such hacking attempts, he said.
Putin “has been very reckless in his rattling sword with nuclear weapons,” Nunn said. “And that I think has made everything even more dangerous, including mistakes.”