For the first time since the days of the Soviet Union, Russia has now moved tactical nuclear weapons beyond its borders into Belarus, a move which further suggests Putin may in fact be inclined to use them.
In many respects, observers have regarded Putin as somewhat of a “rational” actor inclined to preserve himself and his authoritarian rule in Russia.
Therefore, while the world knows Putin never hesitates to “threaten” the use of nuclear weapons, there do appear to be questions as to whether he might actually fire them if backed into a corner.
Putin does appear to have a survival instinct and somewhat of a Machiavellian ability to remain in power, so he quite likely understands that any use of nuclear weapons could quickly lead to his complete demise.
Russia has long had an arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons and is perceived as being willing to aggressively threaten, posture, and intimidate rivals by adding high numbers of heavy and low-yield nuclear weapons.
Some of the atomic bombs delivered to Belarus were three times more powerful than the atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, according to a story in Reuters. The Reuters article also cited ominous warnings from President Biden on Russia’s resolve to use nuclear weapons, saying “It’s real.”
Russia’s “escalate to win” strategy was cited as part of the Pentagon’s rationale for adding lower-yield, tactical nuclear weapons to the U.S. arsenal. While some express concern that the addition of low-yield nuclear weapons to the U.S. arsenal could “lower the threshold” to nuclear war and encourage thinking that there may be a possibility for a “winnable” nuclear weapons exchange.
Pentagon advocates for the new weapons, which include a lower-yield variant of the submarine-launched Trident II D5 missile, explain that the concept is to widen the Pentagon’s deterrence posture for commanders by introducing a wider envelope of possibilities for holding Russia at risk or responding to an attack.
Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress at the time that the idea was to help bring Russia back to the negotiating table when it comes to its violation of the INF Treaty.
U.S. Support in Ukraine Escalating Threats?
The U.S. and NATO have taken measures and consistently been hesitant to ease concerns about possible NATO-Russia escalation.
This was the main reason why NATO did not support a no-fly zone at the beginning of the war. It is also why the Pentagon was reluctant to send MLRS, HIMARS, GMLRS, Tanks, Bradleys, Patriots, and F-16s months ago. Perhaps this hesitation is well-placed, given Putin’s temperament and the possibility that, if sufficiently pressured and facing the end of his rule, he might in fact fire nuclear weapons.
Finally, it makes sense that the Pentagon and NATO do not want to engage in a direct NATO-Russia conflict in the air, however, NATO’s 5th-generation air superiority could arguably win the war quickly for Ukraine, should it be used.
Perhaps the weapons now arriving will ultimately help Ukraine prevail, and it does seem as though much of the Pentagon’s caution and hesitation to avoid WWIII has been well-placed, even if some systems were delayed too long.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.