It’s not impossible. Vladimir Putin, facing stalemate or possibly even defeat by a better motivated and well-resourced Ukrainian army, might decide to play the “madman” card.
A small, low-yield tactical nuclear weapon, detonated in a low population rural part of Ukraine. Not a military act, but a political one, to cause panic in the nuclear-phobic West and particularly in western Europe.
The message would be clear: I am willing to go further than you, so give me what I want. Stop helping Ukraine and let me defeat them.
It’s a high-risk strategy, but also a viable one. The panic it will cause in NATO will be very real, and the response not automatic or even obvious. The idea that NATO will automatically respond with a like-for-like nuclear retaliation should not be assumed at all.
A number of factors will have to be considered by the West.
1. How should the West respond? Should the west respond at all?
2. Who should actually carry out the response? Which country?
3. What would a military response target? Where would the West hit?
4. What is the purpose of retaliation, and how does NATO stop it escalating?
The use of a nuclear weapon in anger, even symbolically, is a game changer in human history, and it cannot go without response. The nation that utilizes a weapon of mass destruction in an unprovoked manner needs to be become a global pariah. it is simply not in the interests not just of nations but humanity that nuclear weapon use be normalized. It must be responded too militarily to show Putin that a line has been crossed and the West will not accept that act. Retaliation must be a demonstration to Russia that such an act has a huge cost to Russia.
That does not, however, automatically mean the response must be nuclear. The assumption that fire must be met with fire (literally in this case) is flawed for two reasons. The first is that Russia will have set itself apart from humanity in using the weapon, and a nuclear response would go some way to normalizing that choice.
Secondly, whilst a response by NATO must be proportionate, the West has very considerable conventional options which would allow it to cause “shock and awe” to Russia without nuclear escalation.
There is also the fact that, by crossing the nuclear threshold, Russia has inadvertently given NATO an opportunity. The Kremlin knows that NATO will respond. They’re hoping that the use of such a weapon will cause panic amidst the population of Europe, especially in Germany, and that panic will lead to a collapse in European support for Ukraine. But they also know that NATO may call their bluff.
There is another option. That NATO does not respond like for like, primarily because identifying an appropriate target to utilize a nuclear weapon against is difficult. NATO cannot use a weapon in Ukraine, for obvious reasons. Nor can it strike the Russian homeland, because that would be an act of escalation inviting Russia to respond against the continental US or Europe. A symbolic detonation, off the coast of Russia in some unpopulated area, loses symbolic impact by its caution. It may even communicate weakness.
The other option is a massive conventional attack, by aircraft, cruise missiles and drones, launched from a variety of US, French, British, Polish and other nations to demonstrate allied resolve.
It is the targets that are key.
The first are Russian army assets in Ukraine, with NATO using the outrage of the nuclear attack to inflict direct devastating asset depletion on the invading army within Ukraine in an one-off attack.
The second is attacks, after public warnings, on the various yachts of Putin allies around the world hiding out in their safe ports. destroy their assets in a billion dollar orgy, the price for siding with the Kremlin dictator. If they refuse to leave them, use special forces to sink them slowly.
The final set of attacks should be against all the key security apparatus of the Lukashenko regime in Belarus. Destroy the presidential palace, key army and police barracks, KGB headquarters, state television and radio, and the homes of key regime figures, and communicate this directly to the people of Belarus that now is their chance to rise up. Putin lives in terror of the mob rising up against him, after he witnessed the collapse of the regime in East Germany. Watching his key ally evaporate before his eyes may well force him to withdraw his forces for fear his own regime is under attack.
Then stop, and announce the West has retaliated proportionately against the nuclear strike, and will take no further action unless Russia escalates the situation.
It inflicts a high price on Putin and his allies without the West ceding the high moral ground of nuclear weapon use.
Is it risky? Of course. But less risky that retaliating with nuclear weapons.