Skip to main content
Three Questions

Could Russia Really Go Nuclear?

Vladimir Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine, and U.S. officials are taking the threat seriously—while noting that they see no signs that such weapons are being mobilized. We asked Paul Bracken, an expert in nuclear strategy, how this “unthinkable” scenario would play out.

Mobile missile systems in a parade in Moscow

A Russian Yars RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile system during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow in 2015.

AFP via Getty Images

Is there a real possibility that Russia could use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war?

As long as these weapons exist there’s a chance they will be used. But Vladimir Putin’s escalation strategy has been a total disaster. It looks a lot like the failed U.S. strategy in Vietnam. That was to gradually increase the pain on Hanoi by U.S. bombing and other attacks as a way to keep tight control of everything. Problem was, it gave Hanoi time to absorb and react to the attacks, so it had no real impact on North Vietnam other than to kindle condemnation of the United States for war crimes.

Astoundingly, Putin is repeating this slow motion, incremental escalation against Ukraine. It can’t possibly work. Kyiv will never give in. The attacks only elicit more condemnation of Putin, both inside and outside Russia, and more aid to Ukraine from NATO. Even China and India don’t want to be associated with Putin’s war.

What’s the right approach for the U.S. to dissuade Russia from considering the use of nuclear weapons?

“Behind the scenes the Joint Chiefs of Staff are thinking and planning about responses to Putin if he should use nuclear weapons.”

The declared U.S. approach is to act as if nuclear use is “unthinkable,” and not get drawn into intricate discussions that would only spook the European allies. But let me assure you, behind the scenes the Joint Chiefs of Staff are thinking and planning about responses to Putin if he should use nuclear weapons. In other words, there’s a big difference between declaratory and real U.S. strategy.

Actually, management students should think about this distinction. What’s the official declared corporate strategy, and what’s a company’s real strategy? These can sometimes be very different from each other.

What are the consequences for the world if tactical nuclear weapons are used on the battlefield?

Russia would be condemned by nearly everyone, and extreme U.S. economic and military actions would be taken. For example, the world would refuse to honor any Russian passport, and Russian overseas bank accounts would be frozen. There would be attacks on the Russian Navy, and major cyber strikes on their power grid and pipelines. The CIA would try to foment revolt in ethnic sub-regions of Russia, and to unwind Moscow’s alliance with Central Asia countries.

It would get really dangerous, far more than anything we’ve seen before. Putin, if he wasn’t assassinated, could raise the stakes with a limited nuclear missile strike on Europe. Here, we’re really on the doorstep of the unthinkable.

Department: Three Questions