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A Russian soldier stands in the street as a strategic nuclear warhead passes in the background.
Devastating power: Russia shows off its strategic arsenal each year on Victory Day in Red Square, Moscow. Oleg Elkov/Alamy Stock Photo

Ukraine war: how the Biden administration is responding to Putin’s threats to go nuclear

Joe Biden has warned that any use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine by Russia could lead to “Armageddon”. Speaking at a Democratic fundraising event in New York on October 6, the US president said the crisis was the closest the world had come to nuclear catastrophe for sixty years.

“We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis,” he said, going on to talk about Putin’s repeated threats to resort to Russia’s nuclear arsenal if he felt Russia was under threat: “We’ve got a guy I know fairly well. He’s not joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons because his military is, you might say, significantly underperforming.”

The possibility of Russia using weapons of mass destruction has hung over the conflict since Russian troops invaded Ukraine in late February. Several times – most recently after Russia annexed four Ukrainian provinces and declared them part of the federation – the Kremlin leadership has dropped heavy hints that they would use “all available means” at their disposal to defend themselves, particularly against any intervention from Nato.

This fits in with a key element of the theory of nuclear deterrence – the use of nuclear weapons as a threat, in this case to deter Nato from getting involved. When Biden declared in March he would not start “world war III” over Ukraine, this was taken as a clear reference to the risk of nuclear war.

But while Russia has been able to deter Nato from intervening, it has been unable to stop western countries from imposing harsh sanctions, supplying advanced weaponry, training the Ukrainian military and providing intelligence. Now, having experienced a series of big setbacks in the field which has led many observers to declare that Russia is losing the war, there have been various signals that it might use low-yield tactical nuclear weapons to turn the conflict back in its favour.

Read more: What are tactical nuclear weapons? An international security expert explains and assesses what they mean for the war in Ukraine

Even as the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was signing the formal annexation of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia into the Russian Federation, Ukrainian troops were forcing their military back in rapid counterattacks in the south and east of the country which have regained significant swaths of territory and captured or killed thousands of Russian troops.

It has been reported recently that Russia has moved a train to the Ukraine border carrying equipment for the 12th main directorate of the Russian ministry of defence, which is responsible for nuclear munitions. Details as to exactly what it carried have yet to emerge. There have also been rumours that Russia plans a nuclear test – although these were dismissed by the Kremlin.

Influential Kremlin leader and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has been highly critical recently of Russia’s conduct of the war, which he believes has not gone far enough, said, “In my personal opinion, more drastic measures should be taken, right up to the declaration of martial law in the border areas and the use of low-yield nuclear weapons,” suggesting that such weapons should be used.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists magazine has laid out several ways in which Russia could use its non-strategic nuclear weapons for demonstration purposes. This would mean not targeting anything and not creating casualties but to coerce Ukraine and/or the west to accept a situation acceptable to Russia or to turn the tide in a particular battlefield situation.

This might mean the use of multiple warheads. Or, most worryingly, as the Bulletin noted, the level of Russian barbarity and willingness to decimate urban areas: “It is also conceivable that they could be used against a city as a form of ultimate coercion.”

War-gaming: a US response

US secretary of defense Lloyd Austin has said that Putin may not be bluffing in his threats to resort to Russia’s nuclear arsenal and revealed that the US had “been war-gaming” its response. “There are no checks on Mr Putin,” he told CNN. “He made the irresponsible decision to invade Ukraine, he could make another decision.”

US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Geneva, Switzerland for a face to face summit in  June 2021.
Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin: the White House has made it clear what the consequences of a Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine would be. Adam Schultz/Geopix/The White House/Alamy Stock PHoto

The official White House line is that Russia risks devastating consequences in response to any use of nuclear weapons. It is generally thought that this would stop short of retaliating with the US nuclear arsenal but with the full use of all the conventional weapons use to strike key targets.

David Petreaus, the former commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, suggested that the US would systematically annihilate all Russian conventional forces in Ukraine and sink the Black Sea fleet.

Russia’s use of nuclear weapons would not necessarily be considered in contravention of Article 5 of the Nato treaty, whereby an attack on one is considered an attack on all and requires collective military defence. But he said that a case could be made that if radiation from use of a nuclear warhead were to spill over into a Nato country, this could be construed as an attack.

“You don’t want to, again, get into a nuclear escalation here. But you have to show that this cannot be accepted in any way,” said Petreaus.

In his conversations with the US and international media, the US national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, has been careful not to spell out exactly what the “catastrophic consequences” of Russia’s use of nuclear weapons might be. But he said the Biden administration had been clear in its dealings with the Kremlin about strength of the US response:

We have communicated to the Russians what the consequences would be, but we’ve been careful in how we talk about this publicly, because from our perspective we want to lay down the principle that there would be catastrophic consequences, but not engage in a game of rhetorical tit for tat.

For now, the US policy remains to downplay the significance of Russia’s threatening rhetoric about nuclear weapons while making it clear of the strength of the consequences. The Biden administration is convinced that this “strategic ambiguity” is the best way to deter Russia from going along the nuclear path. We can only hope that they are right.

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