Source Responsible Statecraft
WASHINGTON, U.S.--Vladimir Putin would not detonate a nuclear weapon if he were winning his war in Ukraine. Using nuclear weapons is a loser’s move. It is an act of desperation.
Which is exactly why the nuclear risks grow as Putin searches for ways to regain momentum in his stalled offensive.
Putin might — as all major Russian military exercises practice and as Russian military doctrine details — use a nuclear weapon first “in response to a large-scale aggression utilizing conventional weapons in situations critical to the national security of the Russian Federation.” The national security of Russia is not threatened by the failure of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. But Putin’s security is.
Russia is now using dual-capable weapons in Ukraine, including the Iskander ballistic missile and, most recently, the hypervelocity Kinzhal cruise missile, that are delivering conventional explosives on cities but could also be fitted with nuclear warheads.
Exploding a nuclear bomb would break a 77-year taboo against using these weapons. There hasn’t even been a mushroom cloud in tests since China exploded the last above-ground nuclear test in 1980 (the United States stopped atmospheric tests in 1962).
“The nuclear taboo is the single most important accomplishment of the nuclear age,” writes Brown University professor Nina Tannenwald, “It is the primary obligation of leaders today to make sure nuclear weapons are never used again.”
Unfortunately, as evidenced in a New York Times article this week, many experts are engaging in cavalier armchair strategies that normalize, or could even encourage, a nuclear war should Putin break this taboo.
Miller has long championed nuclear use, advocating for developing new, “more usable” nuclear weapons like the low-yield warhead now included as one of the launch options on U.S. nuclear-armed submarines, previously reserved exclusively as a strategic deterrent but now part of the nuclear war-fighting arsenal integrated into conventional war planning over the past decade.
These nuclear war advocates have lost touch with the reality of nuclear war. Even the smallest conceivable nuclear blast would be many times more powerful than the largest conventional bomb.
By comparison, a B-52 bomber carries a total of 70,000 pounds of ordnance. The bomber typically carries conventional bombs weighing at most 1,000 pounds. The W76 warhead is equal to 10,000 of these.
One of largest conventional explosions ever experienced is the massive ammonia-nitrate blast at a Beirut warehouse in 2020 that experts estimate equaled 200 to 300 tons of explosive force.
The destructive power of nuclear weapons is so horrific that using even a “small” nuclear weapon would still be the largest single combat explosion since the end of World War II. This is true of the W76 (one-third the size of the Hiroshima bomb) as well as the lowest setting for the B61 (1/50th the size of the Hiroshima bomb).
“There is way too much loose talk about using nuclear weapons,” Tannenwald told me. “We need more discussion of the dangers of breaking the nuclear taboo.”
Any use, anywhere, for any reason not only encourages the use of these weapons by other nations, but it carries the very real risk of escalation into a global thermonuclear war.
What do we do to lower the risks? “Assemble the elders,” says Tannenwald, meaning that we need experienced, senior leaders to reinforce the barriers to any nuclear use.
Having senior validators speak publicly and clearly about the dangers could encourage President Joe Biden to declare that the United States and NATO have no intention of using a nuclear weapon first in this conflict, as former White House official Jon Wolfsthal recommends, thereby strengthening the norm against use.
In the longer term, we must change our attitude toward these weapons, understanding that nuclear weapons are not our greatest strength but our greatest weakness. “The U.S. nuclear arsenal does nothing for us in this conflict.
We need a chorus of wiser voices to silence the cries of the nuclear warriors and calm journalistic nuclear voyeurism. Former officials could have their statements join calls from anti-nuclear activists, advocates for restraint, and all those who understand that any nuclear use is unnecessary, immoral, and unacceptable. We must hold this line.