The West’s possible responses range from military, including nuclear strikes, to economic sanctions against Russia.
Bob Seely, a British MP and expert in Russian nuclear strategy, says the West’s reaction would need to be finely judged as “there is a difference of perception which is important to understand.”
First, while tactical nuclear weapons use is serious in Russia, it may not be met with the same condemnation as it is in the West.
Second, tactical nuclear weapons were seen as a deterrent to Western dominance in very high-tech precision non-nuclear weapons in recent Russian nuclear doctrine; thus, they were part of a usable arsenal.
Third, tactical nuclear weapons could be viewed as weapons to de-escalate a crisis – the so-called escalate to de-escalate theory – in which a nuclear weapon is activated as a warning.
According to William Albergue, Director of Strategy, Technology, and Arms Control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, if they are used, a proportionate military response would be to target an airbase or intelligence hub in Crimea.
Similarly, “a couple of strikes in Russia” plus a larger number in Russian-held areas of Ukraine, he told the Daily Telegraph, would be appropriate.
Of course, the US would not want to “go it alone” and would instead seek military assistance from countries such as the United Kingdom and France, as seen in the 2011 strikes against Libya.
Radars or intelligence and surveillance systems linked to any nuclear strike would most likely be the target of a Western response. Russian early-warning or command and control nodes, such as headquarters, would be equally vulnerable.
These targets would most likely be in Russia rather than Belarus or Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine.
“They would shy away from attacking Russian satellites,” Mr. Alberque says, as the targeting “space-based assets” has been discussed among the permanent five members of the UN Security Council and deemed “off limits”.
Major General (retired) Rupert Jones believes the West could respond in a variety of ways if Putin orders the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
A precision strike against a Russian navy ship, for example, or a targeted campaign against Moscow’s Air Force would be conventional responses, albeit a direct attack by NATO.
Whatever action was taken, the goal must have been to “create uncertainty” about future responses.