This week, as Russia’s military forces continued to face setbacks in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin accused the West of “nuclear blackmail” and issued new, thinly veiled nuclear threats, adding, “This is not a bluff.” The potential for a Russian nuclear attack should not be underestimated. The risk is higher than it has been in decades.
If such a catastrophe does happen, what would the United States do?
President Biden was recently asked that question, and his response was cagey. After saying he would not specify the US reaction, he added, “It’ll be consequential. They’ll become more of a pariah in the world than they ever have been. And depending on the extent of what they do will determine what response would occur.”
While it is true that the US response should depend on what Russia does, there is one action the US should rule out: countering a Russia nuclear strike with a US nuclear strike.
That is for a one very simple reason: the only fight with Russia the United States will lose is a nuclear conflict. As the war in Ukraine has shown, Russia’s conventional forces are large but weak and unmotivated. Barring an invasion of Russia itself, there is no conventional conflict with the NATO that Moscow could win.
But if the US responds with a nuclear strike, Russia—given Putin has already broken the 77 year-long nuclear taboo—is more likely to escalate again than to back down. That path leads to a global destruction where we all lose.
In addition, as Biden said, Moscow’s nuclear use would finally isolate Russia and make it a true pariah state. Russian oil exports to China and India, as well as the wavering political support Moscow enjoys from those capitols, would end. International sanctions with real bite would draw widespread support.
But none of that would be true if the US and NATO responded with a nuclear strike of its own. Then it simply becomes a nuclear war, one that either ends much of humanity or—if by some miracle the conflict ends short of that—makes nuclear war forever an element of future conflicts. And that is not a world where anyone should want to live.