Would Vladimir Putin Use Nuclear Weapons?

As Russia’s situation deteriorates on the battlefield, concerns grow about the possibility that Vladimir Putin might try to change the situation with a battlefield nuclear weapon. The war is so far confined to Ukraine, which makes it highly unlikely that Putin would reach out with strategic nuclear weapons to begin World War III. That’s all I’ll say about that.

Early on in Russia’s war, Putin was quick to remind the world that Russia possesses nuclear weapons. That brought on a spate of commentary about a nuclear umbrella for war and the circumstances in which Russia might use those weapons. The conclusion was that Russia might use battlefield nuclear weapons to stave off a defeat, but not before.

General mobilization of the Russian population would allow Putin to increase military numbers. But it would be an admission that the war is going badly. In the same way, the use of a nuclear weapon would be an admission that the war is going badly. Putin seems to be firmly resisting the first. The admission of failure might be enough to prevent the second.

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Nuclear Information at Mar-a-Lago

Ah, here’s some of the “nuclear information” found at Mar-a-Lago that some of us have been speculating about.

A document describing a foreign government’s military defenses, including its nuclear capabilities, was found by FBI agents who searched former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residenceand private club last month, according to people familiar with the matter

[The reporter’s sources] did not identify the foreign government in question, say where at Mar-a-Lago the document was found or offer additional details 

Because the subpoena did not specify documents under the RD system of classification (with one exception below), speculation has been that the “nuclear information” had to do with another government’s nuclear capabilities. There are two possibilities as to the government: friendly or not. Or we might include some governments, like Israel, as balanced somewhere in between.

In any of these cases, it’s possible that human sources were involved, and revealing them would pose the greatest danger.

Most nuclear countries’ capabilities are reasonably well known, so that is not a gigantic liability. Still if the country in question is friendly, it may not want full details shared indiscriminately or may not even want the United States to know everything. Presumably, as part of the damage repair, the friendly country has been notified.

The possibilities are Britain, France, Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea, if the defenses are active. If they are hypothesized, Iran might be on the list.

And there might be more.

The subpoena, issued to Trump’s custodian of records, then listed more than two dozen sub-classifications of documents, including “S/FRD,” an acronym for “Formerly Restricted Data,” which is reserved for information that relates primarily to the military use of nuclear weapons. Despite the “formerly” in the title, the term does not mean the information is no longer classified.

S/FRD would most likely apply to US nuclear weapons. I still think Trump took the “biscuit,” the card with the nuclear codes, because it is such a cool souvenir.

Alex Wellerstein explains S/FRD in this thread.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Time For Some Debunking

From South China Morning Post, attributed to Twitter

Looks like nuclear misinformation is flaring up again in the news stream. I can’t debunk it all – much of it contains too little fact for that. But I can say why I think some of these things are improbable.

The big story is in the South China Morning Post: Chinese scientists plan ‘disposable’ nuclear reactor for long-range torpedo.

Let me say that the idea of a disposable nuclear reactor, even with quote marks, strikes me as improbable.

The Chinese researchers are proposing a mini version of the Russian Poseidon unmanned submarine – the world’s first known underwater drone powered by nuclear energy.

Ah, okay! Vaporware!

We have not yet seen a prototype of the fearsome Poseidon, touted by Vladimir Putin as being able to cause a radioactive tidal wave along the entire US East Coast. Nor any signs of its development. I have long been dubious of this and the nuclear-powered Burevestnik cruise missile, which was at least tested and killed a number of its developers.

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Nuclear Weapons And Russia’s War On Ukraine

Would Russia use nuclear weapons in Ukraine? A number of people have approached this question boldly in recent days and have boldly asserted that we don’t know. I join in that conclusion, but it’s always interesting to work through the argument.

Over the past year, I’ve been reading Fred Kaplan’s The Wizards of Armageddon closely. It’s a history of the development of nuclear strategy. A great many of the recent articles have reproduced that development in short form. That’s because, I would argue, there’s not much to nuclear strategy. Clausewitz tells us that it’s easy for war to run out of control. When the weapons of war are potentially world-ending, it is essential that war not run out of control. That limits actions and responses.

The deterrence properties of those weapons have been working in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Part of the reason NATO has not joined the war directly is that its entry would move everything too much closer to a nuclear exchange. Similarly, Russia has not attacked NATO members. Nuclear deterrence limits the geographic scope of the war.

Russia’s stated threshold for nuclear weapons use is “an existential threat to the country.” Given Putin’s rhetoric about the reasons for making war on Ukraine, it is hard to know what he considers an existential threat to Russia. Although he has claimed that Ukraine’s sovereignty poses an existential threat to Russia, he allowed his military to back off from a general conquest of Ukraine when it looked like that would not work. There is evidently some flexibility in Putin’s understanding of that phrase.

What happens if the war starts going very badly for Putin? If it looks, say, like Russian ammunition is running out and Ukrainian troops are pushing Russian troops toward the border? Might Putin consider using a nuclear weapon to change the course of the war?

This article gives a bit of the historical background on nuclear strategy and lays out the options clearly, although leaning toward the military ones. Let’s say Russia drops a small nuclear weapon on, say, the Zaporizhzhye nuclear plant. What are NATO’s response options? I say NATO because they’re the ones with nuclear weapons, not Ukraine.

  • Do not strike back, but proclaim Russian inhumanity in using nuclear weapons
  • Nuclear attack on an equivalent target within Russia
  • Escalate a nuclear attack to a higher-value target
  • Strike with a conventional force

The downsides, respectively, are

  • Russia may take this as having a free hand to attack its neighbors.
  • Could go into a slow-motion tit for tat situation or escalate to more nuclear use.
  • Very likely to escalate.
  • Nuclear escalation possible, but less likely.

The last seems to be the most likely NATO response, although much depends on specifics.

These options add up to everything that is possible in a nuclear war that starts on the battlefield, rather than a transcontinental attack. Even there, the options are similar.

Nuclear strategists have been struggling with the simplicity of this pattern since the first bombs were dropped in 1945. They have not come up with new answers. The edgier among them like to try to game out scenarios involving a few small hits, which involve enormous assumptions as to the fear or good will of the other side. Usually they will lament the American lack of tactical nuclear weapons in contrast to Russia’s two thousand or so. But those “small” weapons might be the size of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki weapons. Too small, and there’s not much difference in destruction from conventional weapons. Larger, and at some point someone is likely to target beyond the battlefield.

The two atom bombs dropped by the US on Japan were the only ones in existence at that time. Nobody could retaliate. But that’s no longer the case. And, just as in any war scenario, much depends on the specifics of the situation and the people involved, perhaps even more so with nuclear weapons. Right now, it looks like we’re a long way from nuclear weapon use.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Will Iran Build A Bomb If The JCPOA Talks Fail?

The JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran nuclear agreement) talks have been staggering for over a year now. I haven’t followed them as closely as I did in 2015. Back then, I followed the technical aspects – how many centrifuges of what kind, what would be inspected to be sure that Iran was following the agreement. The JCPOA is remarkable in its technical detail and verifiability.

This time around, the discussions have been about sanctions and who is going to take action on what, when. Not much I can contribute there. The negotiators have kept things secret, too, another reason I haven’t had much to say. Even when some information leaks, I have to wonder what hasn’t leaked.

I would hate to see the JCPOA fail. It is a force for stability in the Middle East, and, until the US withdrawal by the Trump administration, Iran was complying with it. Israel seems to be itching for an incredibly destructive war if the talks fail, despite the statements of much of Israel’s security establishment that the JCPOA is good for Israel, war is not.

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Nukeporn

I’m finding it hard to write lately because there are so many shockingly bad takes. Twitter provides a continuing flutter of them, like this morning’s wet snowflakes, and points to worse op-eds. It’s mostly the war, but the decisions to declare the pandemic over contribute.

Dan Nexon tweeted last week that all discussions of whether NATO should have embiggened are discussions of priors. So are discussions of possible nuclear weapon use and many other things. Last week we had the no-fly zone. Yesterday got the week off to a masculine start with discussions of impotence and muscularity in US foreign policy. Mainly from old white men, and that’s consistent with my priors as well as theirs.

The question of nuclear weapons, on the battlefield or otherwise, keeps coming up. A number of disappointed (and poorly informed) people keep asking why Russia isn’t deterred from attacking Ukraine but the US is deterred from attacking Russia if nuclear weapons exist, which slides into the mistaken idea that Ukraine once had a full-up nuclear arsenal or (Russian propaganda warning) is building one now. I’ve dealt with that here.

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Could Ukraine Have Retained Soviet Nuclear Weapons?

This issue keeps coming up, now in the New York Times.

“If only Ukraine hadn’t give up its nuclear arsenal, Russia wouldn’t be able to bully it.” No.

There’s no way Ukraine could have kept the Soviet nuclear weapons stationed there when the Soviet Union ended. Some of us say it over and over and over again. I wrote a Twitter thread on it a few weeks ago, but I need a convenient piece to refer to, so here we go.

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The Biggest Bomb

Popular movements in the late 1950s pressed toward the Limited Test-Ban Treaty (LTBT), signed in 1963, which prohibited atmospheric testing. It was preceded by a voluntary test moratorium by the United States and the Soviet Union from 1958 through 1961. At the time, the development of nuclear weapons – and other things like a nuclear-powered airplane – was wild and woolly.

One of the points of competition was the size of explosion that a nuclear weapon could produce. This was a somewhat silly competition, because the amount of damage a bomb could wreak increases with the cube root of its energy. So ten 10-megaton (MT; that’s millions of tons of TNT equivalent) weapons would be much more damaging than one 100-MT weapon. But for some, size does matter.

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Trouble At The Pit Factory

The National Nuclear Security Administration, the part of the Department of Energy that designs and builds nuclear weapons, promised some time back that they would be able to build up to 80 new plutonium pits a year for nuclear weapons by 2030. In June, the administrator admitted that this won’t happen. Maybe by 2035.

The troubles that Los Alamos and Savannah River continue to have in dealing with plutonium suggest that it could be much longer than that, maybe never.

I wrote that up for Foreign Policy. Read the whole thing.

Photo source

Cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns & Money

Chinese Nuclear Silos

[Disclosure: Jeffrey Lewis has been a friend for years, and we have consulted each other on many things. Our political views are similar, but he has a punchier way of expressing them.]

There’s a lot that can be said about the discovery of 120 silos for nuclear missiles and the current state of relations with China, but I don’t have time right now, so a few highlights only.

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