Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Is it time to take Putin's nuclear threats more seriously?

Vladimir Putin seen on screen with NATO double exposure logo displayed on Mobile, on 26 March 2023,  in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo Illustration by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Vladimir Putin seen on screen with NATO double exposure logo displayed on Mobile, on 26 March 2023, in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo Illustration by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Russia has warned repeatedly that it could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines says the odds are low.

“From the IC perspective, it’s very unlikely is our current assessment,” Avril Haines says.

Most observers think that’s bluster. But one former defense attaché to Moscow takes what he’s hearing very seriously.

“Almost everybody is on record with a quote says, ‘Oh, well, you know, I take Putin seriously. I think these nuclear threats seriously, but … it’s not likely to happen,'” Kevin Ryan says.

Ryan thinks if the Ukrainian counteroffensive sees major territorial gains, the possibility of a Russian nuclear strike becomes very real.

“It’s clear that President Putin will use nuclear weapons, because he will not allow himself to be seen as a loser in this war,” Kevin Ryan says. “What does that mean? Numbers wise, it’s clearly over 50%. I think it’s much higher than that.”

Today, On Point: Taking Russia’s nuclear threats more seriously.


Kevin Ryan, retired brigadier general. Senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Founder of the Elbe Group. Author of the article “Why Putin Will Use Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine.”

Michael McFaul, director at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He was ambassador to Moscow from 2012 to 2014. Director for Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council from 2009-2012. Author of “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia.

Also Featured

Dima Adamsky, expert on Russian strategic thinking. Professor at Reichman University in Israel. Author of Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy. Author of the article Russia’s New Nuclear Normal.

Dmitri Trenin, researcher at the Center for International Security.


Part I

CHAKRABARTI: Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, February of last year, Russian officials have repeatedly issued one particularly chilling warning to NATO and the nations that have been aiding Ukraine. They have said Russia’s use of nuclear weapons is not off the table. Pundits on Russian TV talk up using tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield or strategic nuclear weapons against the U.S. or Britain, Ukraine’s biggest suppliers of weaponry. And in a speech last September, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, “I am not bluffing.”

PUTIN (Translation): Our country, too, has different weapons of destruction. In some cases, they are more modern than those of NATO. If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, then to defend Russia and our people, we shall, of course, use all means at our disposal. I am not bluffing.

CHAKRABARTI: But by and large, U.S. national security officials have said it’s probably just that, a bluff. Their analysis is that the probability Russia would turn to nuclear weapons is very low. Here, for example, is an exchange just last month in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Maine Senator Angus King questions Defense Intelligence Agency director lieutenant general Scott Berrier and director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.

ANGUS KING: What’s the analysis of the likelihood of Putin using nuclear weapons? What would trigger it and how likely is it?

SCOTT BERRIER: Senator, there are a number of scenarios that we’ve thought through, and I’d be happy to discuss those in a closed session.

KING: Well, I think in an open session, though, can you tell me that whether you think there is some likelihood or possibility of nuclear weapons being used?

BERRIER: I think, you know, in the nature of conflict, there’s always that possibility. Right now, I would say we think it’s unlikely.

KING: Unlikely is good. I’d rather hear not happen, but we can discuss this further in a closed session.

AVRIL HAINES: Can I also say?

KING: Yes. Go ahead.

HAINES: I think from the IC perspective, it’s very unlikely, is our current assessment.

CHAKRABARTI: The IC being shorthand for the intelligence community. There are some in the national security community, however, who believe the chances of Russia using a nuclear weapon are significantly higher than very unlikely. Kevin Ryan is a retired brigadier general. He was a Soviet and Russian expert throughout his 29 years in the Army. He also served as defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 2001 to 2003.

He’s now a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. And founder of a very interesting group called The Elbe Group. It’s a small group of U.S. and Russian senior retired military intelligence veterans. And retired brigadier general Ryan recently wrote a paper titled “Why Putin Will Use Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine.” And he joins us now. Mr. Ryan, welcome to On Point.

KEVIN RYAN: Thank you very much, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: So, first of all, help us decipher a little bit of what we heard in that exchange in the Senate Armed Services Committee. Because publicly we heard Berrier and Haines saying the possibility, their analysis of the possibility of Russia using a nuclear weapon is unlikely, or very unlikely. But I also heard lieutenant general Berrier say he would discuss things further in closed session. And Avril Haines also mentioned, I think, another time in that exchange that the current situation in Ukraine may force Vladimir Putin to use asymmetric options. So how do you decipher what’s really going on there?

RYAN: So it is very difficult to see through the fog of what’s going on. There are a lot of very good analysts or experts who I respect very much, including General Berrier and Haines. And they say that these threats are serious. Which I agree with. But then they say they’re unlikely, which means to me that they’re not urgent, that they’re not something that will rise to the top of the inbox for governments and elected officials and even military leaders.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So is it possible at all, though, that in order to not panic the public, they would be saying unlikely in an open session of a Senate committee hearing, but perhaps communicating something different?

RYAN: So it’s possible in one or two instances that somebody might take a tact like that. And I don’t discount that. But over the broad time of comments and assessments that are made public, they’re all, most of them are saying, unlikely. So I think they believe that they’re unlikely.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And here has been consistency in that —

RYAN: I think so.

CHAKRABARTI: Ever since February of last year. But we’re now in June of 2023. Right? It’s basically a year and a half later since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. And in your paper, you write, “The evidence is strong that the problem is urgent.” And you argue that Putin will use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, in the war in Ukraine. And that “people need not wonder about Putin’s nuclear use, red lines or how to avoid crossing them.” And that “he is not waiting for a misstep by the West.”

RYAN: Yeah, there’s a lot to unpack there. But let me get to what I think is the heart of the matter here. That for Putin, he needs to hold on to the land that he’s taken already from Ukraine. He might have had other goals at the beginning of this war. Those goals now have evolved. I think he’s okay with keeping what he’s taken and also Crimea, what he had before. If he loses those things, though, his regime is at risk and he could be kicked out, he could be thrown out.

And for him, this would be intolerable. This is why CIA Director Burns, as I said a couple of times, Putin cannot afford to lose. He will not lose. So if he’s in that position where he’s losing, if Ukraine has success in its counteroffensive and breaks the land bridge, etc., then he needs to escalate the war. That’s a very fundamental military response. You have to escalate in order to meet the success that your enemy is having. If he cannot escalate conventionally, he only has one tool left: the nuke.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So you anticipated my next question. Is that escalation can involve other things.

RYAN: Yes. It can. Absolutely.

CHAKRABARTI: Before the most powerful weapon ever developed.

RYAN: Absolutely. And he’s escalated from the first of this war, where he tried to take over Ukraine with a lightning attack and maybe the assassination or capture of Zelenskyy, etc. That didn’t work. He went to plan B, that involved a lot of damage and destruction. If you want to see escalation, look at Bakhmut. But even so, the Ukrainians have fought back. So, and if they have success now, by definition, that means he’s not able to escalate conventionally to get and keep what he wants.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, as I read your paper, there’s many messages that ring very loudly here. And one of them is that it’s never wise to hold on to static presumptions. Right? In a changing scenario. So the presumptions that we may have had in February of 2022 don’t necessarily hold now. So tell me a little bit more about what you are seeing, maybe tactically, that’s going on on the ground that has led you to feel this greater urgency. And let’s start off with, you know, what we’re just seeing recently, within the past couple of weeks, in terms of Russia’s deployment of nuclear weapons outside of Russia.

RYAN: Sure. Why would you need to deploy tactical nuclear weapons into Belarus? That’s the big question. Putin hasn’t really given a satisfactory answer why he would do that. He may be just trying to set up a situation which he can use later as leverage and negotiations with the West. “Well, I might be willing to remove these, if you did some other things yourself.”

But Russia in general doesn’t waste money. They’re not a rich country. And they wouldn’t go through all of this hubbub with their nuclear weapons, moving them to Belarus, if there wasn’t a strategic reason for it. I don’t know the exact reason, but it certainly puts a greater threat for their use on the table. In January, President Putin assigned three new military leaders to run his what he calls “special military operation.” He also calls it a war now.

And they are the chief of the general staff. That’s like the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley’s counterpart, Gerasimov. There’s the head of the ground forces, Salyukov. And the head of the aerospace forces, the Air Force, Surovikin. What’s important about these guys is that they are the three officers who control the use of tactical nuclear weapons once they are authorized. And they’re on the ground there.

So he has the three most loyal officers in position to use tactical nuclear weapons. There’s really no other reason for these three people to have been selected to run this special military operation. In fact, it’s kind of counterproductive. And against military, I’ll say doctrine or tradition, to have your chief of the general staff out there running field operations in war.

CHAKRABARTI: Uh huh. I see what you mean. Okay. Now, just to give folks a little bit more context, it was just, what, last week where Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko talked about receiving the tactical nuclear weapons from Russia. Claiming that some of them were three times as powerful as what the United States used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And what’s fascinating, fascinating’s not the right word. But perhaps more chilling, is that if memory serves, this is the first time that Russia has ever moved nuclear weapons outside of Russia, even prior to the Soviet Union, the fall of the Soviet Union.

RYAN: It is the first time since the end of the Cold War.

CHAKRABARTI: Since the end of the Cold War. Okay.

RYAN: But this is a good example you’re getting to here. Why did they have nuclear weapons outside the boundary of the Soviet Union in the Cold War? They had them in Warsaw Pact countries. We know they had them in East Germany. They had them in Berlin. I remember at the end of the Cold War, it was a few months after the Russians began evacuating their ammo sites there.

The Russian commander came to the American commander, said, “Hey, could you guys lend us some Geiger counters? We need to do some checks in our ammo sites.” The clear implication was that they had radioactive material in those ammo sites. So they were ready to use nuclear weapons. Both sides were ready to use tactical nuclear weapons during the Cold War. But there’s no doubt that the Russians think about them as a bigger bullet.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we’re speaking with Kevin Ryan. He’s a retired brigadier general who served in the Army for almost three decades. And during that time, he was a Soviet and Russia expert. He also served as former defense attaché to Moscow from 2001 to 2003, and recently wrote a paper titled “Why Putin Will Use Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine.” And brigadier general, I wonder if we could actually just take a step back and get some more historical context here, which you point out in the paper. You actually see Russia as having relied more on nuclear weapons as a possible weapon, even prior to the Ukrainian invasion. Tell me about that.

RYAN: Right. Well, historically, at least during the Cold War, Russia’s military power rested on two pillars, its conventional forces, which it could use to bully and frighten both neighbors and satellite countries. And its nuclear forces, which it could use to keep the United States and the West from attacking Russia, or escalating any conflict that Russia might start. Since the end of the Cold War, the conventional military has been under great pressure.

They had very little money. They were months in arrears for pay during the ’90s. That the conventional force fell apart, basically. And so they only had one pillar left to lean on, and that was the nuclear one. And they leaned on it. They said, well, there’s an old joke about the two officers. And the American says, “You know, my nuclear weapons cost all this money, and they sit in a silo, and I don’t use them at all.” And the Russian officer says, “I use mine every day.”

And what he meant was that they’re leaning on those to guarantee their security. Russia reformed its conventional force. They thought they might have a new conventional force. They were successful in Crimea in 2014. They had success in Syria. They figured that they had rebuilt this Soviet conventional force to some degree, but the first year of war in Ukraine says that they haven’t. So that’s why you hear these continued references and threats for a nuclear attack, because that’s what they’re leaning on. That’s the only thing that scares American military leaders right now.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So there’s that historical context. You talked about the change that Putin did in military leadership around nuclear weapons. And what we’re seeing on the ground in terms of like the positioning of some of these Russian weapons. But I come back to that sentence at the beginning of your paper about Putin is not waiting for a trigger. But you also said that right now what’s happening in Ukraine could, in a sense, serve as, if not the trigger, then the thing that pushes Russia to finally using that nuclear option. And that’s the Ukrainian counteroffensive that’s going on.

RYAN: Right. And I apologize if that’s confusing. But what I mean is that Putin has certain policy, doctrinal legal barriers or obstacles or decision gates that he has to get through in order to, if he wants to do it, quote-unquote, legally. And in conjunction with his own constitution, he has things that he has to do to show his own people at home, “I was right to use a tactical nuclear weapon,” if he’s going to use one. What I mean is that he has basically laid that entire argument out for his people.

He has done that so that they already know, and they would say today, “Oh, well, of course, you know, the Ukrainians have been attacking our country. The country’s sovereignty and existence is at risk.” All these things Putin has talked about. At the same time, he’s not going to use a nuclear weapon if he can keep what he’s got. Because he has control of the regime. He has control of 20% of Ukraine. It’s something, he can build on that. If he loses that, then his position as the leader is at risk. And he could be overthrown, taken out, whatever you want to call it. He desperately doesn’t want to end up like Saddam and Gadhafi ended up. And that could very well happen to him if his country suffered a catastrophic defeat.

CHAKRABARTI: That there would be an overthrow in Russia of Putin if he suffers a defeat in Ukraine?

RYAN: Right. Exactly. You know, it’s a little bit odd, but in some ways, Putin is more reliant on public approval than of the United States president. The president has to be really popular once every four years, and in between, he can do whatever he thinks is right. And nobody’s going to come knocking at his door to tell him to get out of the office. If Putin’s popularity drops below 40%, 50%, 30%, somewhere in that region, and the people start marching in the streets, then his own inner circle will come for him and say, “We can’t tolerate this, so you’ve got to leave.” That would be the best situation for him. Or, “We will make you leave.”

CHAKRABARTI: Huh. Okay. I want to come back to that thought in just a minute. But let’s focus for a second on the Ukrainians. Right? Because if your analysis plays out, it puts the Ukrainians in a terrible Catch-22, right? Because of course, they want to regain their national territory. They want their counter-offensive to be successful. But you’re saying that if it is, it could be the very thing that pushes Putin to attack Ukraine with a tactical nuclear weapon.

RYAN: Right. It’s not a situation anybody wants, but you’ve described it perfectly. So the question is, “What should the United States’ position be?” Should we be forcing Ukraine to settle for peace at any cost here? Do we want to go back to 1939 and 1938, before World War II? When we saw our choice is war. Get into this war or allow things to happen. Maybe one more thing happening isn’t going to be the big problem. Maybe we can get by.

I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that the U.S. policy is to support Ukraine. And I agree with that policy. And so if a nuclear weapon is highly likely, in such a situation where Ukraine is successful, then the question shouldn’t be, “Well, how do we change that goal?” The question should be, “What do we do knowing that a nuclear weapon might be used, or will be used or has been used yesterday?” That might be the best way to think about it.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, isn’t one possibility of what do we do is to strengthen every tool we have, every deterrence tool that we have? Right? And I mean, one of them would be, I mean, to put it in a very rudimentary form, just make it an impossible choice for Putin. And I think that was the presumption back in February of last year, that the response from NATO and the West would be so overwhelming, so devastating to Russia or Putin himself specifically, that I remember, the language was, “He’s not suicidal. So he wouldn’t do that.”

RYAN: Yeah, well, listen, I don’t disagree with the United States government about its policy toward Ukraine. But that policy says, “We will not use a nuclear weapon to defend Ukraine. And we will not have American soldiers killing Russian soldiers.” Because that would be, as Biden says, World War III. So if you take those two things off the table, then all of your quote-unquote catastrophic responses are things that, excuse me, will not move President Putin.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, about NATO, they’ve said recently, and I guess also repeatedly, that one of the reasons why Ukraine would not qualify for a NATO response under Article 5 is because it’s not a NATO member nation. But I am seeing, though, that there’s some, let’s call it a little more vague language. That if Putin used a tactical nuclear weapon and, you know, the radiation cloud from that drifted into Finland now or some other NATO member state, that that might be enough to trigger Article 5.

RYAN: Yeah, well, the Article 5 thing is more like a guideline, as they say. You know, we used NATO’s power to help stop the Serbian attacks in Kosovo, the humanitarian crisis there. NATO forces have deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. So NATO can do more than what’s in Article 5, or it can do less. You know, it can also turn a blind eye to something going on if it chooses to do that.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So we’re going to hear from another voice here in just a minute or two. But, brigadier general Ryan, I wanted to ask you about sort of where the sources for your analysis are coming from. Because as I mentioned earlier, you’re the founder of a group called the Elbe Group, and it’s a small group of U.S. and Russian senior retired military and intelligence veterans. So, tell us a little bit about that.

RYAN: Well, the meeting on the Elbe at the end of World War II was the inspiration for this group. You know, hands across the water against a fascist Germany, finding common ground between the two countries. When we started meeting in 2010, our biggest issue was preventing some sort of terrorist or non-state nuclear attack. We covered a lot of other subjects over the last decade-plus of our meetings. And these people were brought together specifically because they’re not academics, they’re not diplomats. They’re architects of wars.

And Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq and so on. We have the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a former head of the GRU, which is the Russian equivalent. And we would sit, and sometimes there would be heated moments, sometimes finger pointing. But we did it with respect, and we were able to find common ground in a lot of things.

Now, since this war started, the U.S. side and the Russian side have agreed that there won’t be any real discussions until the fighting stops. That’s the way we phrased it. So a cease fire at a minimum, before we would even consider coming back to the table. But in the span of a decade, working with these senior FSB, CIA, DIA, GRU and military officers, you begin to get insight into how they think, how they interpret things that are going on. Can I give you one more example?


RYAN: The former DIA chief sitting next to the former GRU chief watching reports about what was unfolding in Crimea and in the Donbas back in 2014. And looking at a TV report, side by side, could not agree on what they were seeing. So this is the kind of the mismatch you have between the two leaderships, the two elites, if you will, the security and intelligence elites. They see things drastically different, really, even though they’re looking at the exact same thing at the same time.

CHAKRABARTI: What was the nature of their disagreement?

RYAN: Well, from the from the U.S. side, we said, “Okay, this is a Russian invasion of Ukraine.” And from the Russian side, they said, “No, no, no, this is an overthrow of the Ukrainian government by neo-Nazis, and we’re going in to protect the Russian speaking people of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.” So, you know, did they have any bit of truth to them? In a way, there were neo-Nazis involved in the Maidan, but they weren’t the reason. And certainly, there were Russian speaking people who felt, you know, downtrodden under the Ukraine regime. But that’s not any reason for Russia to do a full-scale invasion.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Well, Kevin Ryan, hold on here for just a second, because I’d like to bring in ambassador Michael McFaul into the conversation. He’s currently director at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He was the U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 2012 to 2014 and author of “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia.” Ambassador McFaul, welcome back to the show.

MICHAEL McFAUL: Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So I think one of the key things that brigadier general Ryan has said here is that conditions now are simply just different from what they were in February of 2022. But given that, do you still maintain your belief that Vladimir Putin would not use nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

McFAUL: Well, the first thing I think we all need to say is, “I don’t know.” The general doesn’t know. Bill Burns, the head of the CIA, doesn’t know. Avril Haines, the head of DNI doesn’t know. And that’s part of the problem in dealing with Vladimir Putin. We do not have good intelligence about the way he thinks. The way he talks about these things is one thing. The way he thinks about them is another. And I think we should just all humbly admit that we’re all guessing here. And I deal with the Biden administration top officials very often. I can report to you they’re guessing, too. They have said on record what their guesses are.

The intelligence people, which it’s a very low probability event. That’s the way the intelligence community likes to talk. Right? Low probability. Medium probability. High probability. When I was in the government, I used to think, “Why is there only three options? Why isn’t this not on a scale?” But that’s the way they talk. The job of the policymakers is, even if it’s a low probability, say, 1%, the job of President Biden and Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor, Secretary of State Blinken, is to reduce that from 1%, to .9%, .8%, .7%.

Because, of course, it would be a catastrophic event if Mr. Putin chose to use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine. And so far, we’re just talking about that scenario, a scenario vis-a-vis us, I think, is even a much lower probability event. My own reading of Putin, you know, I’ve known him since 1991. I’ve written many books about him. I dealt with him for five years. I continue to watch what he says very closely. And what his aides say, and what his generals say. I still think it’s, I agree with the United States intelligence community. I think it’s a very low probability event. And if you listen to what they say, they say, “We will use,” including just a few days ago, “We will use nuclear weapons if our country is at risk, if there’s an existential threat to the Russian Federation.”

Well, I hear that as good news. Because they are not under an existential threat. NATO is not going to invade Russia. This is not Libya and Iraq. I’m sorry, general. But we invaded those countries. We have no plans to invade Russia. And therefore, when I hear him say, “We’re going to use these to protect the homeland.” I think that means that he’s not going to use them in Ukraine. And then the second thing I would say, I just listened to your conversation, and it’s important to also underscore that we’re guessing about domestic politics in Russia. We don’t know what will happen there.

It’s hard to know what preferences are. It’s hard to do polling in countries, autocracies. But again, this is a subject I’ve been following for many decades. And I just don’t see the scenario under which, you know, let’s say they do lose, and they break the land bridge and they’re losing the war.

It’s very hard for me to understand how we go from that to Putin being overthrown. And let’s think about that. Who would go on the streets to protest losing the war? But most people in Russia are agnostic to this war and polling, although it’s all flawed, but the polling we have show that if Putin tomorrow night got on TV and said, “We won the war, it’s over.” The vast majority of Russians would support him.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: We’re joined today by retired brigadier general Kevin Ryan and ambassador Michael McFaul. And, Ambassador McFaul, you had said before the break that your analysis is that Russia would not use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine unless it felt that Russia itself were under attack.

Now, I just want to dig into that a little bit more. And then brigadier general Ryan we’ll get your response. Because we have a little bit of tape here, Ambassador McFaul, of Dmitri Trenin, who, as you know, is a prominent Russian scholar. He’s currently a fellow at the Center for International Security in Moscow. And just last year, he gave an interview to a Russian think-tank where he argues that the U.S. is breaking protocol established between Washington and Moscow that was established after the Cuban-Missile crisis.

DMITRI TRENIN: This Ukraine war has demonstrated to at least part of the Russian community, and I’m part of that part, that what we thought as a guarantee, that the Russian vital interests will not be violated by the United States. Was not exactly what we thought it was. Essentially, you have a situation which the other nuclear superpower has set a goal that it never set during the Cold War. And that is inflicting a strategic defeat on Russia, the other nuclear superpower.

CHAKRABARTI: Trenin also said that he sees the United States as slowly escalating the conflict in Ukraine by providing more weaponry from shoulder-fired missiles in the beginning to Patriot batteries and tanks and F-16 fighter jets. And Trenin said that sometimes things that are started cannot be stopped.

TRENIN: What appears to me the U.S. strategy in this war is that of a gradual escalation. So this salami tactic is extremely dangerous. These things are often run not according to somebody’s plan. But as an action-reaction dynamic. And my conclusion is that the trajectory of the current conflict is leading us directly to a kinetic collision between Russian and NATO forces. And ultimately to an exchange between America and Russia. And this fills me with as much worry as you can imagine, because it could lead to nuclear annihilation.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Ambassador McFaul, there, what I take from those two clips is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be the fear of the violation of Russia’s, you know, sovereignty or physical integrity. But the fear of strategic defeat, as Trenin says, that could be enough to provide the trigger for the use of a nuclear weapon. Your thoughts on that?

McFAUL: Well, again, I want to underscore, we’re all guessing here. Dmitri, I’ve known Dmitri for 30 years. We used to work together in Moscow. He used to run the Carnegie Center. He’s guessing, too. We’re all guessing. We don’t know. And I think that’s really important for everybody to humbly admit, that we don’t know the dynamics that he’s talking about. That said, when I listen to him speak, he’s very close to the Kremlin. He’s, you know, representing their views on purpose.

I think there’s a very concrete military objective that Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, who speaks about this a lot, the former president. Dmitri Trenin, just now. They are trying to deter the United States from providing more sophisticated military weapons. And you know what? They’re succeeding. I think we need to understand that. It’s a very concrete military objective. It’s not something about the future. It’s threatening, “We might use nuclear weapons. So you better not send F-16s. You better not send attack guns, these long-range missile systems.” And it’s succeeding.

So that, I think, is the central reason why you hear these kinds of threats. The other thing I think is really important to say, too, though. We are all assuming that there is a, and I’m not a general, I’m not a military expert, but I talk to them oftentimes. And I talk to people in Kyiv every single day. There’s an assumption in this discussion, which I think we need to challenge. That is if Putin uses a nuclear weapon, A, it’s somehow our fault, which I radically disagree with, somehow this tit for tat, you know, the way Trenin is talking, it’ll be our fault. No, it’ll be Vladimir Putin’s fault.

We didn’t start this war. This is a war of imperialism, annexation. We responded to what they did. But No. 2, let’s play out the horrific, horrible scenario that Putin uses a nuclear weapon inside Ukraine. What happens inside Ukraine? You think the Ukrainians are just going to stop fighting and they’re going to say, “Okay, you know, war is over.” I think it’ll be exactly the opposite response from them. You think President Biden is going to get on TV and say, “Well, now that Mr. Putin’s used a nuclear weapon, we’re going to withdraw our support from the Ukrainian forces.”

There is no way he will make that speech. And if he tried to, politically, it would be suicide. You think Xi Jinping is going to say, “Well, my good friend here, Vladimir Putin, he’s broken a taboo that we’ve had since 1945. But I stand by him.” No way. The dozens of countries in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Asia, who so far have been neutral in this war, they’re going to rally behind Putin because he used a nuclear weapon? I don’t think so.

I just hope Mr. Putin knows all the things I just talked about. That’s the part I don’t know about. But I think we’re making an assumption about the usefulness of a tactical nuclear weapon that I just think, this is not 1945. This is not the end of World War II. This is not a defeated society, like Japan was in their army. This is Ukraine that thinks they’re just in what they’re fighting for. And I have no doubt if he uses a nuclear weapon, they will fight even stronger, even longer to try to defeat this invading army.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, I will note that actually, because you mentioned President Biden, Ambassador McFaul, that just a couple of days ago, after denouncing Russia’s deployment of tactical nukes to Belarus, President Biden also said that he does worry about Putin using tactical nuclear weapons. Quote, “It’s real.” That’s from the president. But brigadier general, you’ve been waiting patiently here. Go ahead and respond to what Ambassador McFaul is saying.

RYAN: So I think the ambassador has a good description of Ukraine’s reaction and even the West’s reaction after a nuclear weapon is used. It will not be as happened at the end of World War II in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The fighting will go on. And for the first time, we will be working and fighting on a nuclear battlefield. Now, is this something that doesn’t have catastrophic effects? No, it does have catastrophic effects.

You know, we trained throughout the Cold War to fight on nuclear battlefields. I was in Germany for eight years learning how to decontaminate, and to move forces and so on, after a nuclear weapon is used. But the thing that I disagree with fundamentally that the ambassador has said is that the nuclear deterrent that Russia has been relying on has been succeeding, and has been working and has been doing what they want. I think that they see, the Russian security elite see that this nuclear deterrent has let them down.

In fact, has not been helping them and not doing what they want. For example, when they look back at the 1990’s and the 2000’s, they see a slow and steady advance by NATO into Eastern Europe. Their nuclear arsenal did nothing to stop that. They had nothing with which to stop it. This is one of their major complaints. In December, before the war started, Putin said, “Well, my demands are that no more NATO expansion, no more NATO forces in bordering countries and go back to 1997.”

Well, none of those things are happening. And yet Russia’s had its invasion of Ukraine. So when they look at, “What has this nuclear arsenal done for us?” I think they have to give it a C minus. It’s really not helped them. And so how do you make this thing more effective? People like Trenin, Karaganov, other Russian pundits and experts are saying, “Look, the way we make this more effective is we use it. We create fear in the West by using it.”

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now, I know we could actually speak in depth about the points that both of you just made. But unfortunately, I’m constrained by the time that we have for this program. And we only have a few minutes left. So there’s two things I’d like to do. One, is I just want to zero in for a minute on, culturally, some trends that we see going on inside of Russia. And then both of you have asked a really important question about, “Okay, well, we don’t exactly know what’s going on in Vladimir Putin’s head.”

But, you know, I think the best thing to do is to ask, “Well, what if it happens? What would we do in response?” So think about those things, Ambassador McFaul and Brigadier General Ryan. But about what’s happening culturally in Russia, some very interesting things. We spoke with Dima Adamsky, who’s a scholar at Israel’s Reichman University and author of “Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy.” And he says that since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year and a half ago, he has seen a huge spike in Russia in talk about using nuclear weapons. And he sees two trends coming together.

DIMA ADAMSKY: One is further nuclearization of Russian strategic thought. Russian establishment is adjusting the country’s deterrence posture. Basically, doubling down on new doctrines, and establishing organs responsible for nuclear deterrence. What is really interesting and unprecedented is that in parallel, the Russian public appears to have become more comfortable with the idea of using nuclear weapons.

And when you’re looking at this belligerent nuclear rhetoric, official and unofficial, you’re looking at something that appears like an erosion of nuclear taboo.


CHAKRABARTI: You’re hearing an example right now of the rhetoric that Adamsky is talking about. This is Dmitry Kiselyov, who leads the Russian state media group. And he’s a frequent commentator on Russian TV. Last year, he gave a dramatic presentation to Russian viewers about what a Poseidon underwater nuclear drone could do to the British Isles.

And in that tape, he said, “The warhead on it has a yield of up to 100 megatons. The explosion by Britain’s coastline would cause a giant tsunami up to 500 meters high. And such a barrage alone carries extreme doses of radiation. Having passed over the British Isles, it will turn whatever might be left of them into a radioactive desert.” Well, Dima Adamsky says the message from the Russian government and media to the Russian people constantly amplifies one specific claim: that the Ukraine war is a fight for the very survival of Russia.

ADAMSKY: The notion that using nuclear weapons should be the last resort, but not an unthinkable option, it became really routine in the Russian media. And both Putin and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, they embrace the language of martyrdom, purifying sacrifice and repentance, all for the sake of winning this war. By the way, we had an example a couple of months ago of a popular Russian rock singer who produced a hymn to the most advanced Russian intercontinental ballistic missile.


ADAMSKY: One of their final lyrics of their song is “God and these ICBM’s called Sarmat are with us.”

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Russian singer Denis Maidanov in a video released by ParkPatriot.Media, the propaganda arm of the Russian Defense Ministry. And the song about the RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile debuted in December of last year. Including the lyrics “From Mother Russia // Stare far out to the Sarmatushka // On the United States // The only comfort for Sarmats is to disturb NATO’s dreams.”

ADAMSKY: Basically, what I am arguing is that we might be looking at their vicious cycle when militaries embrace of nuclear operations, merges with normalization of nuclear weapons in public consciousness. And this nexus is also making the public tolerate and perhaps even encourage the Kremlin’s conservative nuclear gambits.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, that was Dima Adamsky, professor at Israel’s Reichman University. We’ve only got 2 minutes left, so I’m going to give a minute to each of you gentlemen. And Ambassador McFaul, again, you’re right. We don’t know exactly what’s going on in Putin’s head. The best we can do is guess, but we can also prepare. Right? So what would you recommend, we should — we being NATO and the West should do — if even that tiny possibility of the use of a nuclear weapon actually takes place?

McFAUL: Actually takes place? Or we try to deter it?

CHAKRABARTI: Or deterrent. I prefer a deterrent to take place.

McFAUL: Well, for me, it’s the sooner this war ends, the better. The less likely he’ll use a nuclear weapon. And the fastest way, the way to speed up the process for ending this war is to provide the Ukrainians with more and better weapons to defeat his army on the battlefield. With more and better sanctions, to stop sending Western technology to the making of weapons inside Russia. And to stop, to think that the faster we do that, the more probable this war will end. And to not allow ourselves to be self-deterred by all this rhetoric that Mr. Putin and these rock stars are saying. It’s truly grotesque what you just played. And scary. But we have to help the Ukrainians win. That’s the fastest way this war will end.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Kevin Ryan, you get the last thought here.

RYAN: I think on this, we’re going to agree. I think that the United States has to keep supporting Ukraine. I think we have done a good job of evolving our policy toward Ukraine and the materials that we supply it, from the beginning of the war when we wouldn’t give them even armored vehicles. To today, now, we’ve agreed to give them the airplanes that they’ve been asking for. And our policy will have to evolve going forward. So if a nuke is used, I hope we evolve in the right way.

This article was originally published on

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit