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NATO's Nuclear Nightmare over Ukraine
(Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)

NATO's Nuclear Nightmare over Ukraine

Rebeccah L. Heinrichs

While experts and analysts proffer suggestions for how the U.S. should respond to Putin’s intractable assault on Ukraine, like this recent excellent piece by Tom Nichols in RCD or by this Brookings report (not exactly authored by hawks), some still wonder why Moscow’s actions have anything to do with the U.S. in the first place. Part of the blame for this ignorance is willful, derived from a strong desire to keep the U.S. uninvolved in another conflict. And yet for those who have been listening to President Obama or former Secretary of State Clinton during the “reset” days, we’ve been led to believe that Russia is a cooperative partner, one that has many more shared interests with the U.S. than disagreements, let alone any that might lead to war. Indeed, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review declared, “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries, and prospects for military confrontation have declined dramatically.”

Commander of European Command General Breedlove testified before the House Armed Services Committee recently and gave one of the most compelling explanations from a U.S. official as to why Russia’s provocation and aggression is indeed a security crisis for the United States.

No doubt appreciating that the Russians would be listening closely, Breedlove began his testimony with a clear defense of the NATO alliance, underscoring its importance to the U.S. In sum, “Maintaining our strategic Alliance with Europe is vital to maintaining U.S. national security and is not to be taken for granted.” This is the crux. The stronger the NATO alliance is, the more stable Europe is and the less likely the U.S. will be drawn into a catastrophic war, mainly with Russia. Then, he clearly stated the U.S. commitment to NATO’s defense. “Coupled with our visible commitment to maintain capabilities, readiness, responsiveness and our strategic level messaging, our presence demonstrates, to friend and foe alike, our absolute commitment to the sovereignty and security of every Ally.”

But this begs the question, why isn’t what the General laid out working? Russia’s direct aid and support of continued aggression in Ukraine in the middle of a just-agreed ceasefire, once again belie Moscow’s willingness to end the conflict and reach a peaceful settlement. But this is no surprise when one considers Ukraine is not what Russia’s ultimately after. It’s after something much bigger. According to General Breedlove, “Since the beginning of 2014 President Putin’s Russia has abandoned all pretense of participating in a collaborative security process with its neighbors and the international community.” And then, “Russia uses these conflicts to maintain its influence and deny these states’ ability to make their own foreign and security policy choices and chart their own futures.”

Russia’s war with Ukraine is just the tip of the iceberg. What Moscow is really after is the undoing of the NATO alliance, one it has never recognized as legitimate. It sees NATO countries, or those countries who seek to become members of or align themselves with NATO, as part of its sphere of influence, and therefore as a threat to its power and ability to affect and determine the outcomes in the region. And so a growing NATO, either in geography or power, is perceived as a direct threat to Russia. This adversarial stance towards NATO is not mere speculation. In the latest Russian military doctrine released in December of last year, it branded NATO a threat.

As mentioned above, Tom Nichols’ piece “Russia Can’t Beat NATO—but Putin may Try” explains well why the conventional arms of NATO, along with its recent years of war, have kept its war-fighting prowess current and able to dominate Russian conventional war-fighting ability.

But then, in the most critical section of the piece, Nichols teases out why all of this could mean Russia’s employment of nuclear weapons. He writes, “In the end, if Putin orders his forces West, the Russians will lose, and lose badly. At that point, Putin will only have two options: he can sue for peace (something he seems constitutionally incapable of doing) or he can resort to nuclear weapons.”

This is where I take a slight but important difference in analysis with Nichols. While it’s true the Russians haven’t employed nuclear weapons, they are already on the table as a means of coercion. As Dr. Matthew Kroenig of Georgetown University argued in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing recently, “The ongoing conflict in Ukraine is very much a nuclear crisis.” While the U.S. has made great pains to marginalize nuclear weapons in its strategy, over the past two decades Russia has moved nuclear weapons front and center to its national strategy. Not only do Russia’s national leaders, including Putin himself, imply or sometimes explicitly threaten to employ nuclear weapons, the military conducts exercises showing just how it would do it. Russian foreign minister Lavrov, even stated that Russia had the “right” to deploy nuclear weapons in Crimea.

The Russians hold to a theory that by employing “tactical nuclear weapons” that is, ones that will incur limited damage, as opposed to total destruction, the enemy (i.e. NATO), would immediately sue for peace, deeming any further conventional fight not with the cost. Ambassador Robert Joseph explained at a recent conference that, “Russia’s doctrine assumes an asymmetry of interests and a lack of willingness on the part of the enemy to risk nuclear war.” Moscow may calculate that it wants to put an end to NATO more than the alliance, including the U.S., wants to engage in a retaliatory strike. The Russians are surely wrong about this, and that means a quickly escalating catastrophic war. And to be sure, Russia has a great number more of these lower yield battlefield nuclear weapons than what the U.S. has—some estimate as many as ten times as many. This is why the number and type of nuclear weapons the U.S possess matters and matters greatly.

Ambassador Joseph continued, “And Russian deterrence thinking is backed by an expansion of nuclear capabilities across the spectrum – heavy and mobile ICBMs, new SSBNs and SLBMs, upgrading of Bear Hs and Backfire bombers, and of course, the maintenance of vastly superior theater nuclear forces. Just days ago the chief of Russia’s armed forces (General Gerasimov) — pointing to a large-scale military modernization plan through the next 5 years—said that “a strong nuclear arsenal will ensure military superiority over the West.” “

Russian planners have been thinking, calculating and evaluating how to assert itself in the region, and how to use America’s treatment of its nuclear weapons to its advantage. What to do with U.S. nuclear weapons is not a debate relegated to arms control academics and wonky theorists.

The U.S. has failed to adequately modernize its force and President Obama remains determined to take the U.S. levels of strategic nuclear weapons down by another third after satisfying the limits of the New START Treaty; a treaty that did not include any limitations on Russian tactical nuclear weapons, which we are now paying a direct price for.

Aside from the obvious need to modernize the force, including delivery platforms, the U.S. should now make it clear that lower-yield nuclear weapons are very much in play, including by assessing the possibility of deploying strategic bombers to Eastern Europe. (Dr. Kroenig presented such an option in his appearance before the Congressional Committee and his entire testimony is worth considering.)

Even this won’t be enough. In tandem with these deployments President Obama should make unmistakably clear that any nuclear attack against a NATO ally will result in nuclear retaliation. Failing to do this increases the prospects of a nuclear war.

General Breedlove closed with words the current and any future Commander should internalize: “If we do not stand up and take the initiative to set the theater, someone else will. We need credible, enduring capabilities that will assure, deter, and defend while shaping the theater with a coordinated whole of government approach. As long as I have the watch over EUCOM, I will relentlessly pursue a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace.”

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