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Summary

(Sep 27, 2022) Threats of nuclear retaliation are easily the most complicated political issues. In time historians might decide that Feb 24, 2022 was the launching date of WW3. In this question we talk about one objective: if you personally were the National Security Advisor to President Biden (is there anyone today on the world stage with the ability to convince President Putin to not "stop the war" by nuking two cities?), what would you advise Joe Biden to SAY publically—just SAY, not actually do anything. Here I am putting forward an ultra-hawkish position that's beyond total war (ten eyes for an eye, and someone else's eye at that). What's better when the risks are enormous? To be vague or to be specific?

President Putin's warnings

Let’s assume that when President Putin said

"In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us." [boldface added]

it was indeed not a bluff. Let's assume that he is progressing beyond words and has moved into planning. Let’s further assume that President Putin is selecting the location of the first nuclear detonation, on Ukrainian territory.

He would not want to bomb any city he plans to seize. How could he? He would subsequently have to erect a barrier to stop contaminated material, let alone people who have been exposed to radiation, from moving into the rest of Russia.

Hence his only option is to bomb (whether “tactically” or “strategically”) a location deep inside western Ukrainian territory.

Ironically, he had denied that Ukraine is a nation, and declared that Ukrainian and Russians are two brotherly people (with the Ukrainians the lesser ones, of course). Yet by setting up a location he would subsequently not want to become part of Russia, he would effectively be declaring that Ukraine is a separate nation. He himself would need to set up a barrier.

If he moves further past words and it appears his future as leader of Russia is in question, it would be prudent for the world to assume that he would indeed dare detonate a nuclear weapon.

President Biden's responses

President Biden has responded swiftly on both occasions when the words of President Putin indicated thinking of a nuclear attack. On the first occasion he wrote:

"Let me be clear: Any use of nuclear weapons in this conflict on any scale would be completely unacceptable to us as well as the rest of the world and would entail severe consequences." [boldface added]

On the second occasion, during his September 2022 speech at the United Nations, he switched from the term "severe" to "consequential". It's not clear whether these two terms mean different things in political jargon.

On neither occasion was President Biden specific.

Why is being non specific more suitable than sending a specific threat, when the desired result is to convince an adversary to absolutely not think of taking this most contemptuous of actions?

What is the advantage, for instance, of President Biden not being exceedingly specific. He could declare, for example, that following a nuclear attack, of any kind, within a 100-km radius of Kyiv, the United States would detonate ten simultaneous nuclear weapons an equal distance from Moscow—to tell the Russians that even if they stop 90% of incoming attacks, they'll still suffer.

This also would be a bluff, in the sense that doing so would be as remote as a bomb near Kyiv in the first place.

Why are vague promises of responses better than specific ones?

I appreciate that pre-announcing specific responses would tie the hands of the United States. President Putin could then do something just sufficiently different for the specificity of the response to no longer apply. But there must be more compelling reasons why being specific is a disadvantage. What are they?

Related: The White House press secretary

The U.S. is not completely shying away from uttering the "nuclear" word, but the word did not come directly from President Biden. It came from his spokesperson. It would appear certain that such utterances could not possibly be made off-the-cuff. She must have been fully authorized to use these terms. She said, and that by itself is as alarming as anything the world has known since the Bay of Pigs:

We obviously take these threats very seriously,” she said, “but we have not seen any reason to adjust our own nuclear posture at this time. [boldface added]

These words say a lot. Critically, they indicate:

  1. the U.S. considers itself a party to the conflict—rather than a mere "weapons provider"—once a nuclear attack is contemplated, and
  2. the nuclear posture of the U.S. would be modified, which is as close to saying that a nuclear attack would be met with a nuclear attack as we’ve heard yet in this conflict.

Update (Sep 26, 2022)

Following the previous deterrence lingo coming from the White House

  1. Severe consequences” (President Biden, in a NYTimes op-ed; May 31, 2022)
  2. Consequential” (President Biden, at the United Nations; Sep 2022)
  3. the nuclear posture of the U.S. would be modified”—[if merely Russia's nuclear posture is updated, rather than an actual detonation] (White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre; Sep 2022)

we now have two more ambiguous terms:

  1. Catastrophic consequences” (National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan; Sep 2022)
  2. Consequences would be horrific.” (Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken; Sep 2022)

but we are still left wondering what stops a madman in Moscow from subduing the Ukrainians and hoping to end the war by one or a series of nuclear detonations, other than that he would be contaminating Poland, Russia, and the Baltic countries for several generations.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – JJJ
    Commented Sep 27, 2022 at 9:21
  • The first thing many people fail to realize with Nuclear Weapons is that they are the best defense to nuclear weapons. One nuke does not destroy the world. But it's the fact that there is more than one nuke that keeps people from using them.
    – hszmv
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 12:36
  • Actually, has Putin specified anywhere that Russia intends on using only tactical weapons and only against Ukrainian targets? It seems that several recent questions are taking for granted that Russia does not see the US and allies as a part of the conflict and therefore not as potential targets.
    – Morisco
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 13:23
  • @RogerVadim 1/3 That's because no one is worried about Putin thinking about detonating bombs over Salt Lake City, UT, or even over Washington, DC. He knows, as the rest of the world knows, that doing so would most likely mean the near-end of the human race and most species on the planet, following the sequence of subsequent retaliations.
    – Sam7919
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 14:24
  • @RogerVadim 2/3 Everyone is worried about him wondering whether he might get away with detonating "a couple" of nukes over western Ukraine. "If Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the proud Japanese Empire to finally surrender, might nuking Ukraine do the same to the (equally proud) Ukrainians?" may well be his thinking.
    – Sam7919
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 14:24

5 Answers 5

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There is no reason to be that specific.

Not being specific forces Russia to confront more possibilities, keeps the US from being painted as warmongers by Russia ("see! they threatened us!") and keeps options open. Adding to Russian planning uncertainty is the notion that any nuclear use will not be tolerated.

A tactical nuke in Ukraine might be more fruitfully followed up by isolating Russia on the world stage than your ten simultaneous nuclear weapons an equal distance from Moscow.

Put it this way. If Russia nukes, there is every reason to believe they will become a true pariah, far above where they are at. Furthermore, from studies during the Vietnam war, there is ample doubt that doing this would work out, militarily.

If we follow your suggestion, there is a very high likelihood that the world would end in nuclear war. Bad for the West, bad for Russia. Also very bad for Ukraine. And it is also not very credible as it would be a bad match for say a limited Russian strike outside civilian centers.

And being too specific about what would trigger what, as in the Kiev example given, allows Russia to "game" by staying just short of the publicly-announced limits.

The US and the West should instead, privately, tell China that they will uncouple entirely if China does not confront Russia if they nuke, at any level. Ditto India (which probably needs less telling).

In addition, Reuters writes that the Biden people were more specific in what they would do using, private, diplomatic, channels to Russia.

(NATO should also very definitely liaise with Zelensky and appraise Ukraine of what they would actually do if it happened.)

This is the right way, don't make it into a public pissing context that escalates into a war of who talks toughest and especially not about nuclear weapon use. Don't make it into something Putin can package to his people as NATO gunning for them with nukes.

In March, the US postponed a scheduled ICBM test to very clearly uncouple their nuclear forces from directly weighing on the crisis. Don't talk nukes, let Putin run his mouth and don't react to his threats until he does something. Don't be this guy.

Best to consider any nuclear use is unacceptable - and that includes air bursts or underground intimidation tests - and leave lots of ambiguity about what the reaction would be. This has served the world well for all the Cold War and has a long, reasoned, framework backing it.

FWIW I don't see the question on who has how many tactical nukes as very relevant to the issue. By the time either side "runs out" of their tac nukes, the strategic ones will most likely be on their way. Tactical nuclear weapons always had a slightly bizarre, wishful, justification for existence during the Cold War: "they're just short of actually using real nukes". It's not entirely demonstrably incorrect to think that way when you shoot off 2 or 3, it gets downright silly to assume this is still true by the time 200 or 300 have been used. They offer some flexibility in escalation, true, but they remain nukes.

from Union of Concerned Scientists

Bottomline: there is no universal definition of tactical nuclear weapons. Indeed, then-US secretary of defense James Mattis declared in 2018 “I don’t think there’s any such thing as a ‘tactical nuclear weapon.’ Any nuclear weapon used at any time is a strategic game changer.”

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – JJJ
    Commented Sep 28, 2022 at 7:01
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Being vague leaves options.

When a politician makes very specific "if [trigger condition], then [reaction]" threats, like for example "If we see a single soldier of your army on the eastern bank of that river, we will launch a strategic nuke aimed directly at your seat of government", and that trigger condition actually occurs, then the politician is left with two options:

  • Do exactly as they said. Even if the situation has slightly changed making a different course of action the wiser option.
  • Do something else and look like a liar/bluffer/weakling

But by remaining vague when describing their red lines and how they intend to react when they are crossed, the politician keeps their options open. They can still choose between all the levels of reaction available to them without losing their credibility.

See also: Why do politicians refuse to answer hypothetical questions?

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It's best to think about this issue in terms of nuclear deterrence. Putin made his original statements to deter Ukraine and Western nations from taking certain kinds of actions. Biden's response signaled that he heard that message, but was only willing to tolerate Russian activities within certain limits. The messaging was vague because each side was trying to deter an indefinite range of actions by the other side, not because they were trying to obscure specific actions. We can paraphrase the entire exchange as:

  • Putin: Don't infringe on our territory, or else...
  • Biden: Don't 'or else' us, or else...

This is, in fact, a common para-verbal way for nations to negotiate limits when normal diplomatic communication is strained or absent. One needs to read between the lines a bit, but none of this is meant to be direct threat. It's the way countries in conflict make requests of each other without losing militaristic face.

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[Putin:] In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country [...] we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us

[..] Hence his only option is to bomb (whether “tactically” or “strategically”) a location deep inside western Ukrainian territory.

First note that Putin didn't say anything too explicit either like "surrender or we'll nuke Lviv" or even "stop attacking our newly annexed regions or we'll nuke Lviv" (or some other location of consequence in Western Ukraine). So, any (more) concrete answer to what Putin said would entail going through a (possibly long) list of what-ifs.

An explanation from the Biden administration along those lines (via one of those CNN live feeds in which it's hard to link to individual posts):

“[..] that would include additional enhanced sanctions, including sanctions on entities and companies outside of Russia that are supporting the Russian war machine or supporting these fake referenda or Russia's efforts," [Jake] Sullivan said.

“We want to lay down the principle that there will be catastrophic consequences, but not engage in a game of rhetorical tit for tat. So, the Russians understand where we are, we understand where we are, we are planning for every contingency, and we will do what is necessary to deter Russia from taking this step. And if they do, we will respond decisively,” Sullivan said.

Publicly going through one or more what-ifs that Russia hasn't publicly talked about (like your scenario of them nuking some place in Western Ukraine) could easily be ridiculed by the Kremlin as in "we never said that", etc. For example, just last month (August) news was that:

Russia has "no need" to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, its defence minister said on Tuesday, calling speculation that Moscow might deploy nukes "absolute lies".


Also possibly somewhat relevant in re to the concrete announcements of this administration, who is on the team and where they (allegedly) stood on a wargame, according to The Atlantic:

During the summer of 2016, members of President Barack Obama’s national-security team secretly staged a war game in which Russia invades a NATO country in the Baltics and then uses a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon against NATO forces to end the conflict on favorable terms. As described by Fred Kaplan in The Bomb (2020), two groups of Obama officials reached widely divergent conclusions about what the United States should do. The National Security Council’s so-called Principals Committee—including Cabinet officers and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—decided that the United States had no choice but to retaliate with nuclear weapons. Any other type of response, the committee argued, would show a lack of resolve, damage American credibility, and weaken the NATO alliance. Choosing a suitable nuclear target proved difficult, however. Hitting Russia’s invading force would kill innocent civilians in a NATO country. Striking targets inside Russia might escalate the conflict to an all-out nuclear war. In the end, the NSC Principals Committee recommended a nuclear attack on Belarus—a nation that had played no role whatsoever in the invasion of the NATO ally but had the misfortune of being a Russian ally.

Deputy staff members at the NSC played the same war game and came up with a different response. Colin Kahl, who at the time was an adviser to Vice President Biden, argued that retaliating with a nuclear weapon would be a huge mistake, sacrificing the moral high ground. Kahl thought it would be far more effective to respond with a conventional attack and turn world opinion against Russia for violating the nuclear taboo. The others agreed, and Avril Haines, a deputy national security adviser, suggested making T-shirts with the slogan deputies should run the world. Haines is now President Biden’s Director of National Intelligence, and Kahl is the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

But of course, that's just one of the possible scenarios, as the article also discusses:

Several scenarios for how Russia might soon use a nuclear weapon seem possible: (1) a detonation over the Black Sea, causing no casualties but demonstrating a resolve to cross the nuclear threshold and signaling that worse may come, (2) a decapitation strike against the Ukrainian leadership, attempting to kill President Volodymyr Zelensky and his advisers in their underground bunkers, (3) a nuclear assault on a Ukrainian military target, perhaps an air base or a supply depot, that is not intended to harm civilians, and (4) the destruction of a Ukrainian city, causing mass civilian casualties and creating terror to precipitate a swift surrender—the same aims that motivated the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And the administration going over all of those in public just doesn't seem right, assuming they even figured out what to do in all of those, which they might have done but still...

In 2019, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) ran extensive war games on how the United States should respond if Russia invades Ukraine and then uses a nuclear weapon there. DTRA is the only Pentagon agency tasked exclusively with countering and deterring weapons of mass destruction. Although the results of those DTRA war games are classified, one of the participants told me, “There were no happy outcomes.”

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Beyond what the other answers have given, I'd like to point out that the U.S. is heavily dependent on support from the rest of the world in isolating Russia, and being "good guys," especially when it comes to not attacking civilians and not using nuclear weapons are a key (perhaps the key) part of this. Your suggested response to Russian nuclear use ("detonate ten simultaneous nuclear weapons an equal distance from Moscow") would risk a huge loss of this support, to the degree that sanctions and similar efforts might become ineffective.

For various reasons, use of nuclear weapons is considered to be much worse than use of conventional weapons regardless of casualty levels, and any use of them would be crossing a line that most nations could not support. This is not theoretical: the 1945-08-09 Nagasaki bombing (39,000-80,000 killed) is widely considered to be highly morally dubious while the significantly more destructive and deadly 1945-03-09/10 Tokyo bombing (80,000-130,000 killed and far more civilian damage) is, despite being the most destructive bombing raid in human history, generally passed over as a bombing raid not significantly different from many others in World War 2. The reason that killing and making homeless far fewer people in Nagasaki is considered much less acceptable is purely because a nuclear weapon was used.

Thus, it isn't really possible for the U.S. to openly threaten use of nuclear weapons and, for similar reasons, threatening Russian civilian targets would be very risky at best. Conversely, a public guarantee that the U.S. would never use nuclear weapons against Russia (or attack civilian targets) eliminates any possible deterrent effect from the U.S. having the capability to do this. The solution then is to attempt to keep the deterrent effect by not ruling out such actions, but risk loss of support by committing to actions that much of the world community would find unacceptable.

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  • No one is proposing to say "detonate ten nuclear weapons over Moscow". No one is proposing to even say "we threaten to detonate ten nuclear weapons over Moscow if you do not stop the war". The only proposal is to vow to retaliate with nukes if (and only if) Putin initiates the use of nukes in this war—against an opponent who eschewed keeping them after once owning them.
    – Sam7919
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 14:42
  • Re: morality of bombing Tokyo vs Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Maybe so. But this is not about sending warnings to Putin. It is a different question about the immorality of attacking civilians in a war—which is a line that Putin has ALREADY crossed.
    – Sam7919
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 14:42
  • Well, therein lies the rub. The warning, merely the warning, to Putin must be so carefully worded to avoid alienating the existing coalition.
    – Sam7919
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 14:42
  • @Sam You are proposing that; the phrasing there in my answer is a direct quote from your question! And yes, I did mean as a response to using nukes. And while Putin has crossed the "attacking civilians" line, that does not mean the U.S. will not lose support (and in a big way) if it even suggests it would cross the same line. "Well, he did it" is not generally considered a defense for immoral actions.
    – cjs
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 14:47
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    Your comment is as good an answer as any to the question "why is the Biden administration being so vague about retaliation?". There is no "moral room" in 2022 to utter something this unspeakable. We, on the other hand, are no politicians, and can more freely talk about it.
    – Sam7919
    Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 13:30

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