This is a troubling question that has no easy answer. What would President Joe Biden do, if Russia used nukes in the Ukraine war?
A dozen or more former and current government officials were briefed on this issue. NBC News was also told by several outside experts that there wasn't a plan and little consensus about the U.S. response to a destructive act of war that could wipe out a Ukrainian city, kill tens, thousands, and create a nuclear cloud over NATO countries in Western Europe.
This isn’t a new concept for the Biden administration. The Obama administration actually conducted a war simulation of Russian nuclear weapon use in the Baltics. There were fundamental differences about how to respond.
U.S. intelligence officers claim they have not seen any indications that Russian President Vladimir Putin would use so-called battlefield nuclear weapons. However, several Russian military doctrines published since 2000 include the possibility of using nuclear weapons to respond to a conventional threat to a region war. Military experts also claim that Russia's smallest weapons have a greater explosive power than the bombs dropped upon Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
American officials told NBC News that the U.S. is sending ever-sophisticated weapons to Ukraine to destroy invading Russian troops. They also said that the Biden administration had been for months thinking about what Putin could do. And war-gaming scenarios involving Russia using an atomic weapon against Ukraine.
Last month, CIA Director William Burns stated that there is no evidence of Russian plans to deploy or use tactical nuclear weapons. He said that "given the type of saber-rattling we've heard... from the Russian leadership," we shouldn't be taking lightly these possibilities.
NBC News spoke to a few outside experts and a couple of former officials. Current officials refused to speak on record due to the sensitive nature of the planning.
As one U.S. official who was regularly briefed on U.S. government discussions stated, it's safe to say that the American response would depend on the Russians' use of a nuclear weapon.
Un protest shot above the Black Sea Strike on Ukrainian troops in remote areas? Oder, you can go further and launch a provocative scenario like a bombing attack on a NATO member or a massive blow to a Ukrainian city.
Officials and experts from outside say that the United States has a range of options. They can either stay the course and increase sanctions on Ukraine while strengthening an international coalition against Russia, or launch a conventional military strike on Russian forces in Ukraine and Russia. The U.S. would have no obligation to respond if a NATO country were hit.
NBC News was told by some military and intelligence officers that they don't believe the U.S. will retaliate militarily if Russia uses a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine. Others suggested that Biden would need to use some conventional force, possibly attacking Russian troops in Ukraine, or the Russian military unit which launched the nuclear weapon. This could have serious consequences, as Russian military leaders may be killed.
"If Russia uses a nuclear weapon, I expect (the president to) say that we're now in a new position, and the U.S.will directly enter the war on Russia to stop this government which has not only violated so many international laws, violated human rights, but also violated the nuclear taboo," Evelyn Farkas, the former head of the Pentagon for Russia, is now the executive director at the McCain Institute. "Putin is expected to sign the order for the change of the regime."
Two U.S. officials were briefed on this issue and did not agree. One said, "Unless they use it on NATO, we're probably going not to respond militarily."
This thinking would mean that Biden wouldn't want to risk an increase into a full-scale nuke war, which could lead to the destruction and devastation of American cities. Experts believe that if Putin went nuclear, most countries around the globe, including those who are on the fence, would quickly oppose Russia and isolate Russia.
Joseph Cirincione (a distinguished fellow at Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and nuclear expert) said that "the whole world would cease".
NBC News has been told by American and Western national security officials that there is no evidence that Russia has taken tactical nuclear weapons from its storage facilities. According to intelligence officials, Putin would only consider nuclear weapons if his regime is in grave danger.
Two U.S. officials cited American intelligence assessments to say that some within Putin's inner circle encouraged him test a nuclear weapon in an act of strength in moments when his conventional forces are struggling in Ukraine. According to the officials, there is concern that Putin might choose this option if Russia is backed into a corner.
Putin immediately placed Moscow's nuclear forces under high alert after the invasion of Ukraine started on February 24, 2014. He warned that anyone who doubted his intentions would cause "the destruction and terrible consequences for any potential aggressor." However, U.S. officials said to NBC News that they didn't notice any change in their footprints or movements at that time. Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, warned the West not underestimate the high risks of nuclear conflict with Ukraine in April. In recent weeks, Putin supporters have spoken openly on Russian state television about a nuclear conflict with the U.S.
This all happens against the background of a Russian nuke doctrine that has developed in ways Western officials find disturbing. Russia stated in 1993 that it would only use nuclear weapons if the existence of the country is threatened. Scholars who have studied it reveal that Russia has published versions since 2000 that state that Russia can use nuclear weapons to counter any weapons of mass destruction used against Russia or its allies.
This doctrine also allows for nuclear weapons to be used "in response to large scale aggression using conventional weapons, in situations critical to national security of Russia Federation," experts have said. It means that Russia is willing not to use nuclear weapons to win a conventional war.
Although U.S. nuclear doctrine appears similar on paper, experts don't believe that an American president would use nuclear weapons in a conventional war. The U.S. has never used nuclear weapons in a region-wide conflict through Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Officials state that the U.S. nuclear arsenal was created to respond to or deter a nuclear attack from an adversary. The U.S. is open to using conventional weapons and nuclear weapons as a response to chemical or biological attacks. It has around 100 nuclear weapons still in NATO countries. These were originally put there to prevent Russian tanks seizing Western Europe.
Officials are still trying to figure out what would have prompted Putin to use a nuke weapon. To ensure that the battlefield gains are not lost? To reverse losses? To prevent a rout
"It is not clear where the red line is. Would that suffice if Ukrainian forces entered Russian territory? Chris Chivvis served as the U.S. national Intelligence officer for Europe from April 2018 to April 2021.
He cited the Russian invasion in Georgia in 2008, the seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. And the interference of the Kremlin in the 2016 U.S. elections.
Jeffrey Lewis, a Middlebury Institute nuclear expert, said that although technology exists to make battlefield nukes smaller than those dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki, Russia doesn't have such small warheads. All its so-called tactical nukes have tremendous explosive power. There is no technology difference between "tactical," and "strategic" nuclear weapons. The difference lies in the goals and the targets. Strategic weapons can be used to target entire cities or military infrastructure. Tactical nukes are used for advantage on the battlefield.
Russia could use it to attack an airbase, military target or city in Ukraine, or to test a nuclear weapon at remote sites. This would be a warning shot to indicate Moscow's readiness to use the ultimate weapon. Former officials have confirmed this. The weapon could be delivered as a bomb or as a missile.
Experts said that although none of these scenarios is likely, the nuclear test could prove to be most appealing for Moscow.
A nuclear weapon test would be a provocative move, something that only North Korea has attempted in the past century.
If a test was conducted above ground, radioactive material could drift into areas populated by Russians or NATO members. This depends on the location and weather conditions. In 1989, the Soviet Union conducted its last nuclear test underground.
Rose Gottemoeller, an ex-deputy secretary general of NATO, is currently at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. She said that Russia could face imminent defeat in Ukraine and a single "demonstration strike" on Ukrainian territory or possibly the Black Sea could be used to "convey their resolve, try to force terror onto the other party, and get the Ukrainians into submission."
Gottemoeller stated that they would try to terrorize the Ukrainians and get them to give up, or even concede defeat.
"Whatever he (Putin did), he would do so in the belief it would ensure his survival, and maybe compel surrender for the Ukrainians."
"Russia has many options it could use either in Ukraine, or anywhere else that would be smaller steps up nuclear escalatory ladder but would still represent a sea shift in world history," Chivvis, now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment think-tank, said.
"I am concerned that people aren't open-minded enough to the possibility that Russia could use nuclear arms in certain scenarios." These are not the most likely but we must consider them when considering this conflict." he stated.
Intentionally, the Biden administration has not stated how it would react to Russia's nuclear attack on Ukraine. This leaves open the possibility that they will retaliate with conventional weapons or other means.
Alexander Vershbow served as the deputy secretary general of NATO between 2012 and 2016, and was ambassador to Russia from 2001 through 2005.
Former U.S. officials stated that Biden would need to consider at least a major, conventional military response in support for Ukraine.
Washington and its NATO allies would be in a difficult position if Russia attacked Ukraine with a tactical nuke weapon. Biden and other Western leaders would need to consider a response that would not trigger a full-blown nuclear war with Russia but still impose a significant cost on Moscow.
Jeffrey Edmonds, a CNA think tank expert on Russia's military, said that there are four possible responses. Only two are plausible: Capitulate, sue for peace, stay the course with sanctions, pressure, mount a conventional strike to punish Russia, and respond with a nuclear bomb on Russia.
He believes that the real choice is between staying the course and taking a conventional approach.
Biden could decide "What we're doing works, we just want to keep going, and we're going for the moral high ground."
Russia will likely become less diplomatically isolated and international sanctions pressure will increase. Edmonds pointed out that Washington would not be able to hear calls for a military response to Russian nuclear weapon use.
Fred Kaplan, author of "The Bomb" about nuclear war planning, writes about a National Security Council wargame during the Obama administration. It simulated a Russian tactical nuke attack on a NATO nation during a Russian invasion in one of the Baltic States. Lower-level officials chose not to use a nuclear weapon and instead continued to fight with conventional forces. However, when the same scenario was presented as Cabinet level officials, they decided the U.S. must respond with a nuke attack and targeted Russian ally Belarus.
Cirincione stated, "I think that's nuts." "There is the belief that there can be limited nuclear exchange. You don't want that box. Once you get into that mindset of nuclear warfighting, it's impossible to control.
Ex-officials said that the Biden administration's record suggests that it will move cautiously in consultation with its European allies and try to avoid plunging humanity into a nuclear disaster.
Although the administration has been criticised for not moving quickly enough to send advanced weapons into Ukraine, White House supporters claim that the administration has concentrated on avoiding any actions that could lead to a conflict between Russia and the U.S.
The U.S. would respond to the attack without launching a nuclear bomb, but Gottemoeller said that it was realistic.