Russian President Vladimir Putin is losing his war. If the Ukrainians continue to liberate areas of their country from his invading army, would he actually use nuclear weapons as he has threatened? If so, how? And what would the U.S. response be?
It is difficult to put percentages on risk. Nor does it really matter. Given the stakes, if the chances are 10 percent or 40 percent, the response would be the same: Minimize the possibility of nuclear use, and prepare responses in advance.
That is what U.S. military and intelligence leaders are doing — and have been doing since the early days of the war. They are studying all the possible use scenarios. U.S. intelligence is closely watching for any sign that a nuclear weapon is being readied.
What would that look like in Ukraine? There are numerous scenarios, with scores of variations, but they fall into a small number of broad scenarios.
Demonstration shot. One option is for Russia to fire a nuclear weapon over an uninhabited area — say, part of the Black Sea — as a demonstration of its seriousness in hopes that the West will back down. Some scientists involved in the Manhattan Project urged just such a demonstration shot as an alternative to bombing Japanese cities at the end of World War II. While no one would be killed and there would not be physical damage, the explosion would stop the world in its tracks. There has not been a nuclear weapon used in combat in 77 years. No one has even seen a nuclear explosion above ground since 1980.
This explosion would not require a nuclear response by the United States. To prevent further escalation, President Biden could call for Russia’s international isolation (China and India, for example, would quickly distance themselves), impose extraordinarily harsh new sanctions and issue warnings of grave consequences should Russia proceed with additional explosions.
As shocking as this would be, Russia would likely reject this option for the same reason U.S. military leaders did in 1945: It is not shocking enough.