On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, the conflict has only escalated with thousands of lives being lost to the violence. The shock of this conflict has reverberated around the world, with many countries still unsure of the best course of action to take. One thing is for certain: as the war continues, the use of nuclear weaponry becomes a bigger possibility. As one of the only superpowers in the world, the United States is faced with their own security concerns about the continued conflict in Ukraine.
First, what has President Putin said about the war and why does it concern the United States? Because the war has continued for so long, President Putin has begun to issue more direct threats against anyone who is considering supporting Ukraine with direct manpower. He has threatened to use “all available means” to defend their annexed territory within Ukraine, and continuously warns the west of potential consequences for support they pledge to provide. Putin has begun casting the West as his enemy, claiming the conflict is a result of the continued tension in Europe since the end of the Cold War. At the beginning of the conflict, top U.S. officials were not worried about Putin escalating enough to use nuclear weapons. However, the increase in attacks and casualties by Ukraine has caused Putin to grow desperate. The desperation, as a result of losing manpower and parts of Ukraine again, may cause unforeseen and dangerous consequences. Desperation is one of the factors in escalation, and greatly increases the risk of one doing something unforeseen and dangerous. As the success of President Putin’s strategy remains elusive, the international community is increasingly anticipating the prospect of nuclear war. Additionally, Russia’s nuclear doctrine states that they will use nuclear weapons after any “aggression against the Russian Federation with conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened.” If Putin does deploy nuclear weapons, they would likely be smaller and start out being used in unpopulated areas as part of a fear tactic.
In response to these growing concerns, the United States has issued several warnings. Most recently, on October 6, 2022, President Biden said: “For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat to the use of nuclear weapons, if in fact things continue down the path they are going.” Additionally, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has said that the United States will respond forcefully to any use of nuclear weapons, even if just a small, tactile one.
Threatening to use nuclear weapons has several consequences for the U.S. First, any use of nuclear weapons by Putin would undermine U.S. power. As one of the only world superpowers, the United States is a longtime champion of the free world and if they fail to deter Putin from using nuclear weapons, the world perception of the United States’ power could be affected. Additionally, if Putin were to use nuclear weapons, the “western” alliances (NATO) could be divided on what action to take, making room for other countries outside of the western alliances to move in and work against U.S. interests abroad. Additionally, the U.S. may become more vulnerable to future attacks if a nuclear war were to happen because they were unable to prevent Putin’s use of nuclear weapons.
There are several steps the United States can do about the possible use of nuclear weapons, by using traditional principles of deterrence. First, the U.S. could continue their use of threats to try and deter President Putin. As of now, the U.S. position seems to be sticking to their threat of “catastrophic consequences.” This threat will only be useful as long as Putin believes the United States will follow through, and that U.S. threats will end up actually hurting Russian interests. Part of successful deterrence means having good credibility - if Putin does use nuclear weapons, the United States will be expected to take some action, otherwise their credibility will go down and any future threats will be empty words.
If Putin does use nuclear weapons, the United States has a few options. One option is to send more weapons to Ukraine, but this is a step many countries have already taken. This action would look weak in the eyes of U.S. allies, especially since the U.S. has already sent billions of dollars worth of weapons to Ukraine. This action would likely not help U.S. interests very much. Another possible option is to pit Putin against the rest of the world in a more forceful way than has already been done. The current sanctions are large, and have dealt a blow to Putin, but if Putin were to use nuclear weapons, it could be an opportunity for the U.S. to convince more states to come into agreement about sanctions, and work together to put in place even more devastating ones. Convincing China and India to put in place sanctions should be the United States’ biggest focus in this case because of their importance to the world economy and their status as powerful states. Finally, the United States could become more directly involved in the conflict by sending in troops. This option would escalate the conflict to an even bigger scale, something that the U.S. does not want to do, but may deem necessary if Russia is to use their nuclear arsenal.
The question remains: what will the end result be of this potential deterrence crisis? The U.S. might successfully de-escalate the situation and the status quo returns to normal. It may end in a compromise, leaving both sides unhappy. However, would a compromise come at the liberty of Ukraine? As of right now, Putin’s threats remain blurry and unclear, making the threat of nuclear weapons use not as likely. Putin knows if he does resort to nuclear weapons, the response from the international community would be immediate and definitely not in his favor.