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PUTIN’S NUCLEAR GAMBLE (How Did That Work Out For Khrushchev?)

Putin Reacts to Europe’s Threat of Force in Ukraine

By Strategy Central – May 7, 2024


The New York Times reports that Russia plans to conduct military drills involving tactical nuclear weapons near Ukraine, a move heightening tensions with NATO countries. These exercises respond to Western leaders hinting at more direct involvement in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Tactical nuclear weapons, which are designed for battlefield use with smaller warheads compared to strategic nuclear weapons targeting cities, are the focus of these drills. President Vladimir Putin has directed these exercises to enhance the readiness of Russia's nonstrategic nuclear forces, emphasizing the importance of maintaining Russia's territorial integrity and sovereignty in response to perceived threats from Western officials.[1]

The drills are intended as a strong message to the West, following provocative statements such as a refusal by French President Emmanuel Macron to exclude sending ground troops to Ukraine and a remark by Britain’s top diplomat allowing Ukraine to use British weapons for strikes inside Russia. Such statements represent a significant escalation and have necessitated what Russia views as essential defensive measures.

According to Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russian nuclear forces, while Russia has previously conducted similar exercises, they were rarely publicized. This public announcement serves as a clear signal of Russia’s capabilities and readiness to deploy nuclear weapons if deemed necessary. However, the practicality of using such weapons in the Ukrainian conflict is questionable. The exercises aim to practice deploying these weapons currently stored away from their delivery systems.[2]

Russia's planned military drills with tactical nuclear weapons are a strategic maneuver intended to deter further Western involvement in Ukraine by showcasing its nuclear capabilities. The exercise underscores the Kremlin's readiness to use its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against perceived threats, reinforcing its stance on maintaining sovereignty and territorial integrity amidst escalating tensions with the West.

Nuclear tensions between a U.S.-led NATO and a Russian leader have been absent on the global stage since the end of the Cold War.  Putin’s threat of tactical-level nukes being trained on Ukraine’s border is likely only signaling the West to back away.  However, it is a serious provocation, especially in light of the nuclear tensions of the past. While tactical nukes are not very useful in Ukraine, their use is almost unthinkable.  The unthinkable is Putin’s specialty as he expects no one will call his bluff.  That has not always worked out for the Russians.  A quick examination of the Cuban Missile Crisis helps frame the strategic use of nuclear weapons.


The Cuban Missile Crisis, a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1962 over the presence of missile bases in Cuba, remains one of the most significant episodes of the Cold War. Both sides characterized The crisis by miscalculations, miscommunications, and misunderstandings, illustrating the fragility of peace in the nuclear age.

The crisis began when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided to place nuclear missiles in Cuba to deter any future invasion attempt by the United States and to address the imbalance of power evident in American missiles in Turkey and Italy. This decision was influenced by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by the U.S. in 1961, which encouraged Khrushchev's belief that the U.S. was determined to overthrow the Castro regime.[3]The Soviet Union secretly shipped nuclear missiles to Cuba, which were discovered by American reconnaissance flights in October 1962.[4]

From the U.S. perspective, the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba was a direct threat to national security, lying just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. President John F. Kennedy and his advisors debated various responses, ultimately deciding on a naval blockade of Cuba to prevent further missiles from arriving while demanding the removal of the missiles already there. This decision was fraught with the risk of escalation into a full-scale nuclear war if either side misjudged the other's intentions or overreacted to military movements.[5]

The Soviet response was characterized by a series of blunders and poor judgment. One significant oversight was the assumption that the missiles could be easily concealed under the sparse Cuban palm trees. This plan fell apart when aerial photos taken by U-2 spy planes clearly showed the missile sites. This miscalculation, among others, highlighted the inadequacies in Soviet planning and the underestimation of American surveillance capabilities.

Despite the high tensions, nuclear war was averted due to cautious diplomacy and back-channel communications. Kennedy and Khrushchev engaged in a tense negotiation, with Khrushchev eventually agreeing to dismantle the missile sites in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba and a secret agreement to remove American missiles from Turkey. These negotiations underscored the importance of direct communication between leaders and the ability to compromise, which proved crucial in de-escalating the crisis.

The Cuban Missile Crisis taught several critical lessons for modern strategists. It underscored the dangers of misinterpretation and the high stakes of nuclear brinkmanship. The crisis highlighted the need for clear and reliable communication channels between potential adversaries, particularly in times of crisis. Additionally, it demonstrated the importance of understanding the adversary's perceptions and fears, as misjudgments in this area can lead to catastrophic decisions.[6]

The Crisis serves as a stark reminder of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and the thin line between peace and catastrophic conflict. It illustrates the need for careful and informed decision-making, a thorough understanding of the geopolitical landscape, and the importance of diplomacy over military action. Modern strategists should learn from this episode the value of restraint, the importance of effective communication, and the need for ongoing dialogue to prevent similar crises in the future.

Despite errors in judgment and the risk of escalation, Kennedy and Khrushchev came to the best solution for their nations and humanity. How can nuclear war be avoided?  Today, we can say the same healthy fear of using nuclear weapons must be embraced. So, what is the United States strategy for this new lower-level Russian brinksmanship?



The United States is actively pursuing negotiations to address and reduce disparities in tactical nuclear weapons stockpiles with Russia, as outlined in a detailed annual report. The U.S. approach, shaped by the extension of the New START Treaty until 2026, is multifaceted, aiming to manage all types of nuclear weapons, including strategic and nonstrategic (tactical) ones. This strategy emphasizes the U.S. readiness to negotiate a new arms control framework post-New START while maintaining a robust nuclear deterrent to dissuade Russian use of nuclear weapons in any conflict scenario. The U.S. efforts include enhancing its tactical capabilities as a deterrent, evidenced by investments in dual-capable aircraft and advanced nuclear warheads.[7]

Russia's position and activities present significant challenges to these negotiations. Russia maintains a substantial number of tactical nuclear weapons, estimated between 1,000 and 2,000 warheads, which are seen as a critical component of its military strategy. These include newer systems not covered under previous treaties like the INF Treaty, which Russia has been accused of violating. Notably, Russia's tactical nuclear capabilities have been highlighted by recent actions such as the deployment of nuclear-capable missile systems to Belarus, which the U.S. views as destabilizing and a potential violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).[8]

Furthermore, Russia has set preconditions for any arms control talks, demanding the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear capabilities from Europe and the cessation of related NATO training, conditions the U.S. and its allies find unacceptable. Moreover, Russia links its willingness to engage in arms control negotiations to the U.S. stance on Ukraine, complicating efforts to separate nuclear negotiations from geopolitical conflicts.

The ongoing situation demonstrates the stark contrast in how both nations view the role and regulation of tactical nuclear weapons. While the U.S. pushes for comprehensive arms control measures that include tactical nuclear weapons, Russia leverages its tactical nuclear arsenal as a strategic advantage. It shows reluctance to enter into binding agreements that could reduce this advantage. The current geopolitical tensions surrounding Ukraine further exacerbate the difficulty of achieving meaningful progress in arms control discussions. Thus, the negotiation landscape remains complex, with significant challenges to attaining mutual agreement on the future of tactical nuclear weapons.[9]

Has the U.S. State Department approached the problem with the best strategy? We could ask nuclear deterrence experts, but in this case, we asked StratBot. The answer reflects much of the expert’s written advice and the State Department’s actions. 


To counter the Russian proposal of deploying nuclear capabilities in the context of Ukraine, a multifaceted strategic approach is essential. This strategy should encompass:

  • Diplomatic Engagement: Engaging Russia through diplomatic channels to emphasize the global ramifications of using nuclear capabilities, leveraging international treaties and norms against nuclear proliferation.

  • International Coalition Building: Strengthening alliances and forming coalitions with key global players to present a unified stance against the use of nuclear capabilities, thereby isolating Russia on the international stage.

  • Economic Sanctions: To exert financial pressure and deter further escalation, targeted economic sanctions will be implemented against key sectors of the Russian economy and individuals directly involved in the nuclear program.

  • Strategic Communication: Utilizing strategic communication to undermine the narrative supporting nuclear capabilities, highlighting the ethical, humanitarian, and environmental consequences of such actions.

  • Defense Posture Adjustment: Adjusting the defense posture of NATO and allied countries to deter any potential use of nuclear capabilities, including deploying missile defense systems and the readiness of conventional forces.

  • Support for Ukraine: Continue and enhance support for Ukraine with non-nuclear defensive capabilities and intelligence sharing to bolster its resilience and deterrence capabilities.

This comprehensive strategy aims to deter the deployment of nuclear capabilities and maintain international security and stability, respecting the grave implications of nuclear engagement. By adopting these strategies, the United States can mitigate the risks of nuclear escalation and contribute to global stability and security.  



Indeed, this is a better answer than Skynet’s (Terminator) or WOPR’s (War Games) conclusion that humans are a threat and should be eliminated.  However, it seems clear that the State Department is doing precisely what StratBot recommends.  What is the strategy when diplomacy, deterrence, and disarmament fail to achieve the desired results?  StratBot may not be robust enough to lay out the full suite of options for de-escalation. AI will not make the choice. One human in particular must decide a strategy should diplomacy fail: President Biden.

President Biden, like Kennedy, cannot allow Russia to use nuclear threats as a means of geopolitical extortion and intimidation. A good first step towards addressing this issue would be for all NATO members and as many other nations as possible to condemn Russia's actions publicly. This should be followed by positioning strategic military capabilities to counter or defeat Russian nuclear forces. Clear red lines must be established, limiting the US' choices.

The best course of action for President Biden would be to seek support from the EU in pressuring China. China has been providing Russia with critical fiscal and technological support to rebuild its army after two years of heavy losses. Europe is already pulling back its economic ties with China due to Xi’s support of Russia. Further drastic cuts to economic ties might be too much for China to bear. Without China's support, Putin would likely be unable to continue the war successfully. If Putin goes ahead with tactical nuclear training, it will only strengthen the resolve of European nations to resist Putin's expansionist agenda.

StratBot’s and Secretary Blinken’s basic answer is correct. To avoid the dangers of misinterpretation and the high stakes of nuclear brinkmanship, Secretary Blinken must communicate where the United States’ red lines are and the consequences of surpassing them. The Cold War system of having a direct line between the Kremlin and the White House remains vital for the two most powerful nuclear nations. It must be used to ensure clear and reliable communication channels, particularly in times of crisis.  This potentially dangerous moment can be mitigated, and the worst outcome can be avoided. However, Putin is toying with a dangerous game that history has shown may not turn out in his favor.


[1] Anton Troianovski. “Russia to Hold Drills on Tactical Nuclear Weapons in New Tensions With West.” New York Times. May 6, 2024.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sergey Radchenko and Vladislav Zubok. Blundering on the Brink The Secret History and Unlearned Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Foreign Affairs. April 3, 2023

[4] Ibid.

[5] Department of State.  Office of the Historian.  The Cuban Missle Crisis.

[6] Sergey Radchenko and Vladislav Zubok. Blundering on the Brink The Secret History and Unlearned Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Foreign Affairs. April 3, 2023

[7] Department of State. Bureau Of Arms Control, Deterrence, And Stability. Report to the Senate on the Status of Tactical (Nonstrategic) Nuclear Weapons Negotiations Pursuant to Subparagraph (a) (12)(B) of the Senate Resolution of Advice and Consent to Ratification of the New START Treaty. April 16, 2024.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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