This claim mostly gets brought up my pro-Putin voices in the West whose real interest is a Russian victory in the war. They therefore stoke exaggerated fears of nuclear war to push NATO to stop aiding Ukraine. The bad faith – the manipulation of nuclear anxieties to pursue unrelated ideological goals – is transparent.
Mostly this comes from MAGA rightists, for whom Russia and Hungary are models of ‘post-liberal’ governance, plus some ‘anti-imperial’ leftists for whom US action is ipso facto bad. Both are trying to scare NATO into cutting off aid to Ukraine by threat-inflating a nuclear exchange. In fact, that event is VERY unlikely.
Further, even if Russia did use a nuke in Ukraine, there is no obvious reason for NATO to hit back in-kind. There is only a ‘slide’ toward escalation if both sides do it, and the US won’t counter-nuke, because 1) it does not want to slide toward a wider nuclear exchange, and 2) it has lots of other economic and conventional options to respond.
I cover those options in this essay for 1945.com:
Throughout his war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has obliquely hinted that he might use nuclear weapons. I have argued in these pages that this is unlikely. There is no obvious Ukrainian military or infrastructural target of a size commensurate with a nuclear weapon’s power. Russia would be badly isolated by the rest of the world if it took this step, so any target would need to be worth the huge geopolitical blowback. Ukraine does not appear to have one. Its army is spread out across a thousand-mile front. None of its important infrastructure is so massive that it needs a nuke to disable. Much of the nuke-talk in the West is overwrought.
Nevertheless, it is wise to consider how NATO and the wider world of democracies will and should respond if Putin nonetheless takes this step. If Putin is losing badly in Ukraine and his rule at home is threatened by widespread unrest over the course of the war– a somewhat credible scenario for next year – perhaps he will take this gamble to turn things around. So what will the West do?
We Won’t Counter-Nuke Russia
So long as a Russia nuclear strike was limited to Ukraine, NATO would almost certainly not respond in kind. To do so would risk a further Russian nuclear response and a spiral of nuclear exchanges. The Ukrainians might be so shocked and horrified by the extraordinary damage, that they would demand this. But the West will almost reject that request, just as it rejected Ukrainian demands for a no-fly zone back in March.
But the West also need not escalate like that. NATO is conventionally superior to Russia, and that lead has widened considerably because of Russian losses in Ukraine. If Russia cannot defeat Ukraine, then it is very vulnerable to NATO conventional retaliation. The West will almost certainly start there, if only to prevent nuclear escalation.
Read the rest here.