The 12th Main Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defense operates a dozen central storage facilities for nuclear weapons. Known as “Object S” sites and scattered across the Russian Federation, they contain thousands of nuclear warheads and hydrogen bombs with a wide variety of explosive yields. For the past three months, President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have been ominously threatening to use nuclear weapons in the war against Ukraine. According to Pavel Podvig, the director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project and a former research fellow at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, now based in Geneva, the long-range ballistic missiles deployed on land and on submarines are Russia’s only nuclear weapons available for immediate use. If Putin decides to attack Ukraine with shorter-range, “tactical” nuclear weapons, they will have to be removed from an Object S site—such as Belgorod-22, just 25 miles from the Ukrainian border—and transported to military bases. It will take hours for the weapons to be made combat-ready, for warheads to be mated with cruise missiles or ballistic missiles, for hydrogen bombs to be loaded on planes. The United States will most likely observe the movement of these weapons in real time: by means of satellite surveillance, cameras hidden beside the road, local agents with binoculars. And that will raise a question of existential importance: What should the United States do?
President Joe Biden has made clear that any use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine would be “completely unacceptable” and “entail severe consequences.” But his administration has remained publicly ambiguous about what those consequences would be. That ambiguity is the correct policy. Nevertheless, there must also be open discussion and debate outside the administration about what is really at stake. During the past month, I’ve spoken with many national-security experts and former government officials about the likelihood of Russia using nuclear weapons against Ukraine, the probable targets, and the proper American response. Although they disagreed on some issues, I heard the same point again and again: The risk of nuclear war is greater today than at any other time since the Cuban missile crisis. And the decisions that would have to be made after a Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine are unprecedented. In 1945, when the United States destroyed two Japanese cities with atomic bombs, it was the world’s sole nuclear power. Nine countries now possess nuclear weapons, others may soon obtain them, and the potential for things going terribly wrong has vastly increased. [Continue reading…]