Nato’s response to a nuclear attack by Putin in Ukraine

What would Nato’s response to a nuclear attack by Putin in Ukraine look like?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly reminded the international community of his stockpile of nuclear weapons and made threats . “Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states. Moreover, it has a certain advantage in several cutting-edge weapons. In this context, there should be no doubt for anyone that any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences should it directly attack our country.”

What if Putin actually launched a nuke in Ukraine? What is Nato’s likely response?

Why would Vladimir Putin use nuclear weapons?

Vladimir Putin has become increasingly frustrated by the lack of value of Russia’s nuclear stockpile. Under the theory of mutually assured destruction, the only way to win a nuclear exchange is to not get into one. Therefore his expensive weapons are just sitting and collecting dust.

Finding this unacceptable, Mr. Putin has used the threat of nuclear attacks to prevent Nato allies from directly entering the Ukraine war, and to prevent attacks on Russia itself. For its part, Nato does not want the war in Ukraine to spill over member countries. This has not prevented the US from supplying a record amount of ever increasingly effective modern arms.

Conventional weapons such as Javelins, Himars, Switchblade drones and Stingers have shifted the balance of power towards Ukraine and sent the Russians on retreat. Putin holds no illusions about the West’s leadership in technology and admits, “…they have considerable financial, scientific, technological, and military capabilities.” Putin has been scrambling to counter the West’s technological advantages on the battlefield.

We must not assume that Putin will be pushed back to the pre-2022 or pre-2014 boundaries before attempting some new form of brutal, inhumane response.

Among the most dangerous and feared of these is the use of tactical, or battlefield, nuclear bombs. Tactical nuclear warheads vary in strength from 0.1 to the 50 kiloton range. By comparison, the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki packed a walloping 15 and 21 kilotons respectively.

Russia has about 2,000 of these tactical nuclear weapons. You can bet that these are burning a hole in his pocket. And the temptation to use them must be increasing proportionally as Ukraine advances.

Russia's stockpile of nuclear warheads.

How would nuclear warheads be delivered?

Russia has strategic nuclear weapons deployed on submarines, aircraft missiles and those that can be launched from fixed sites (ICBMs). Low yield, or tactical, nuclear warheads could be launched from aircraft either loaded on air to surface missiles, or on gravity bombs. They can also be launched by conventional land based missile systems.

Tactical nuclear warheads need to be moved from storage facilities to the front and onto delivery mechanisms. These storage areas are inside of Russia, and some are within 25 miles of Ukraine.

The most likely choice for delivery would be the Iskander missile system. The Iskander is capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear weapons, and has been used in the war to deadly effect.

Iskander M missile system
Iskander M missile system

The US and its allies would have advance warning by satellite imagery if these weapons were to betransported to the front.

Why hasn’t Putin used nuclear weapons already?

If and when Putin uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine, he will no longer have the leverage of his threats. Following a nuclear attack, he will be out of control. Nato will most certainly strike back.

The only thing preventing Putin from using nuclear weapons is that he does not yet believe it will be to his advantage to do so. Considerations he might well be mulling over are:

  • Ukraine’s forces are dispersed along a long battle line. It’s questionable as to the effectiveness of a nuclear missile strike, unless a city center were to be targeted.
  • Radioactivity would be released onto the land that he plans to occupy, which might be more than inconvenient.
  • China, India and Pakistan might waver in their support of Russia.
  • Nato will respond in a devastating manner, making the costs high.
  • It will make it easier for the U.S. and its allies to establish secondary sanctions. Secondary sanctions can be imposed on foreign banks, corporations, individuals and nations that do business with Russia. For example, China, India and Pakistan and their banks.

When might Putin use nuclear weapons?

Putin has been clear that if Russia is attacked directly, or an existential threat to Russia is made, he will respond with all manner of weapons, including nuclear warheads.

Now that Russia has announced the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions, any Ukrainian advance into those areas can be interpreted as an attack on Russia itself. This is a thin justification that Putin has engineered by brutally shipping out millions of Ukrainian families to Russia, and conducting sham referendums.

This justification, however, would be well received in Russia.

Ukrainian forces advance southward

With reports of the Russian army in retreat, the time is getting closer to when Putin may be desperate enough to use tactical nuclear weapons. What happens when or if he launches them?

The U.S.’s response to the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine

The U.S.’s current policy is deliberate ambiguity. This means that we will make clear that our response to the use of nuclear weapons will be devastating and swift. However, the U.S. will not state what the response actually will be.

The U.S. response will be dependent on many factors, including:

  • How many nuclear weapons were used, and what was the yield?
  • How many casualties resulted?
  • What were the targets? Civilian or military?
  • Where and how were the weapons launched?

The minimum expectations of Russia will be that the U.S. and its allies will:

  • Eliminate the delivery system(s) (aircraft, naval vessel, truck mounted) and those like it near the theater of war. This would be designed to prevent further strikes.
  • Strike all or a portion of Russian military targets supporting nuclear delivery systems in and around Ukraine. This would include naval targets in the Black Sea, in Ukraine itself and possibly within Russia (if the strike came from within Russia).
  • An in kind response, matching the yield of the nuclear weapon in kilotons of conventional weaponry.

In addition to the above steps, the U.S. and its allies may decide to all or part of the following with conventional weapon attacks:

  • Destroy all or part of Russia’s black sea fleet, especially those vessels capable of transporting or delivering nuclear weapons.
  • Strike all or a portion of Russian personnel on the ground in Ukraine.
  • Close the airspace over Ukraine. Eliminate Russian anti-aircraft weapons including those on Russian soil.
  • Destroy the nuclear weapons storage areas where tactical, low yield warheads are kept in Russia.
  • Enact secondary sanctions which would punish countries that do business with Russia and close them off from the global economy. That would include China, India, Pakistan and others.


I believe that the U.S. response to the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine would be proportional, devastating and specifically designed to *not* climb up the nuclear escalation ladder.

According to experts quoted in a recent article in the Atlantic, war games conducted in 2019 that begin with Russia invading Ukraine, do not result in a happy ending.


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Kahn's nuclear escalation ladder
Kahn’s Escalation Ladder

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I want to help the world to discuss the most critical issues of our time with civility, respect and lead to a new understanding.

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