Russia’s war against Ukraine has raised new fears of nuclear war. Though the thought of a nuclear war is new to many Americans, the Russian nuclear threat has been building for years. Strategists in the Trump administration believed it was imperative to correct the Russian view that threatening to use a nuclear weapon, including a low-yield weapon, against the West would work. The sense of urgency and national imperative was reflected in U.S. policy documents, the budget, and weapons deployments. Trump himself reportedly warned Putin, “If you want to have an arms race, we can do that, but I’ll win.” The Biden administration’s actions point in the other direction — they seem to confirm the Russian view that threatening to use such nuclear weapons against us works. Barring a sharp and immediate change in the Biden administration’s approach, we should expect Russia’s nuclear threats to continue and should not count on them being a bluff.
On Sunday Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said on CNN that he believes that the Russians could employ a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. That fits with the comments of CIA Director William Burns, who a few days prior said that the U.S. cannot “take lightly” the chance that Russia would use tactical nuclear weapons. Soon after Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine, citing NATO actions to side with Ukraine, Putin announced that he had ordered his military to put its nuclear weapons on “special alert.” And now that Sweden and Finland are taking another hard look at a bid for NATO membership, Russia responded by signaling more nuclear-weapons deployments.
Russia has long wielded its nuclear weapons coercively, threatening to employ them against Poland and other NATO nations, in response to perfectly reasonable actions, including deployment of defensive systems meant only to intercept incoming missiles. Missile defenses are perceived as threatening by nations that want a free shot at the defender, and Moscow is telling on itself when it protests. In a recent interview, Marek Magierowski, the Polish ambassador to the United States, expressed just how fed up Poland is with Russia’s nuclear threats.
Strategists inside the Trump administration were very concerned about Russia’s threats. Russia’s large arsenal of theater nuclear weapons, none of which are constrained by treaty, dramatically outnumber U.S. theater nuclear weapons. Strategists assessed that Russia was giving nuclear weapons a more prominent role in its military strategy and that it was lowering the “nuclear threshold” — a threshold that no nation has crossed since the United States did to end World War II. To the Trump-administration strategists, it was clear that what was necessary, in part, was to adapt the U.S. nuclear deterrent to convince Russia that it was wrong to believe that threatening to launch a nuclear weapon, however low the yield, would intimidate the United States or that we and NATO would simply surrender and let them take through their naked aggression what they wanted. The aim for those strategists was to bolster the credibility of our deterrent by convincing Russia that nuclear use in theater would not be worth the cost.
The Trump administration did this in several ways. One, by accurately and publicly outlining the Russian nuclear threat. The first step in solving a problem is by having a clear-eyed view of it and then facing it. That was necessary to get NATO on the same page and to devise a strategy and operations to deter Russian aggression. According to Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense at the time, “no European allies objected to the inclusion of the supplemental capabilities.” Many welcomed them. The second step was to fully commit resources to the entire U.S. nuclear enterprise, which has many outdated systems and technologies from the Cold War era. To be a serious nuclear power, we must demonstrate our commitment to a flexible and modern U.S. deterrent. Third, strategists added supplements to the U.S. deterrent, with the expressed purpose to convince the Russians to raise the nuclear threshold. The Nuclear Posture Review of 2018 stated:
To be clear, this is not intended to, nor does it enable, “nuclear war-fighting.” Expanding flexible U.S. nuclear options now, to include low-yield options, is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression. It will raise the nuclear threshold and help ensure that potential adversaries perceive no possible advantage in limited nuclear escalation, making nuclear employment less likely.
The adaptations included enhancing the United States’ ability to forward-deploy nuclear bombers and be dual-capable (i.e., able to deploy nuclear and conventional weapons) around the world, including those capabilities based in Europe. In November 2021, the National Nuclear Security Administration announced progress in the follow-through of enhancing the B61 nuclear gravity bomb, which the U.S. deploys from NATO bases. The second adaptation was to modify existing submarine-launched ballistic-missile (SLBM) warheads to provide another low-yield option that could promptly penetrate complex air defenses. The Trump administration moved fast, modified a small number, and sent them out to sea, where they are today. The third significant supplement was to restore a modern nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N). Unlike the SLBM, this would require some more time and resources and the next administration’s support. This brings us to the Biden approach and the current Russian war in Europe.
Biden began his term saying he wants to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons” in U.S. strategy. This impulse is having the effect on the budget as well as on Biden-administration responses to Moscow’s nuclear threats. Rather than taking the previous administration’s approach by demonstrating resolve and commitment to the credibility of our own deterrent, Biden‘s actions are sending the message that he is intimidated by Russia’s threats.
For example, the Biden budget zeroed out SLCM-N, the program that the Trump administration had deemed necessary to meet a deterrent requirement to raise the nuclear threshold that analysts had feared the Russians were lowering. When Representative Doug Lamborn (R., Colo.) pressed the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, General Tod Wolters, about Biden’s decision to zero it out, the general said that he agrees with Admiral Chas Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, who supports the SLCM-N. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he continues to support it as well. To be clear: Biden’s top military commanders with special expertise in the area oppose the president’s decision to eliminate that program.
The cancellation of the SLCM-N came on the heels of a dismal record of U.S. nuclear-deterrence-signaling in the face of Russian nuclear-saber-rattling. When Russia coincided its large-scale strategic military exercise with its invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration balked and opted to not go through with its long-planned unarmed ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) test even though the U.S. had already notified Russia about it, per treaty requirements. At the time Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said it was to “demonstrate that we are a responsible nuclear power.” When Senator Tom Cotton asked Admiral Richard about the decision, the admiral reiterated his support to test the U.S. capability. The admiral was quick to emphasize that the test was postponed and not canceled, except that the Biden administration then went on to cancel the next scheduled test. Putin responded to Biden’s two canceled ICBM tests by testing his own ICBM.
As Russia’s brutal war drags on, the risk of Russian nuclear employment goes up. The Biden administration is of course right to want Russia to end this war and not to escalate, especially not to use nuclear weapons. But wanting is not enough. The Biden administration must make a rapid and obvious course correction and seek to convince Russia that the U.S. and NATO are not intimidated by their nuclear threats, that we have a proportional response on the ready, and that we are willing to employ it in defense of our vital interests. The grave implications of failing to do so cannot be overstated.
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