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What Would Be NATO’s Response if Putin Uses a Nuclear Weapon?

B.A. Political Science, Member of®

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has often threatened Western nations that he is willing to use the Russian nuclear arsenal in Ukraine. Putin clearly said that the Russian territory cannot be violated by NATO because the conflict could turn into nuclear warfare. Besides, several political science experts think that if Russia is going to lose the war, Putin could use nuclear tactical weapons on the battlefield to make Ukraine surrender. As well, Russian military has been weaker than expected against Ukraine. Kyiv can win the war against the Putin’s regime; thanks to the brave Ukrainian army. Likewise, Ukraine took advantage of the support of NATO. Thus, Putin only threatens to use nuclear weapons to deter NATO from intervening in Ukraine. Nowadays, this is very likely that Ukraine can win the war; thanks to the generous weapon supply and financial support of its Western allies. Consequently, some experts fear that Putin could launch a low-yield nuclear bomb as a desperate attempt to win the war. Even though the latter is very unlikely, Western nations must make sure that such a terrible scenario is avoided at all costs. NATO’s plan to prevent Putin from winning the war is to deploy its armed forces in Ukraine to remove the Russian army from Ukraine. Also, Vladimir Putin risks his grip on power if he loses the war and World leaders should promote the restoration of peace in Eastern Europe.

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                To begin with, Putin wants to rebuild the Russian Empire. He wants to be compared to a modern Tsar. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov told the media at the beginning of the war that President Putin had three advisors: “Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great.” This means that Putin wants to be portrayed as the inheritor of the Russian Empire and the USSR. The Ukrainian War is the first phase of Putin’s dream of rebuilding the Soviet Union. Yet, Putin has been stopped by the strength and will of the brave Ukrainian nation who bravely fights Putin’s armies. Putin wants to go down in history as the one who re-united the former USSR republics. Putin thinks about his legacy. Therefore, the Russian President wants to rebuild the Russian Empire at all costs. He refuses to accept the sovereignty of former USSR republics. This is why Putin wants that Russia gets power back over the former USSR republics.

                Moreover, Putin’s nuclear sable rattling is unacceptable. Still, there is no sign that Russia intends to deploy a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. Nevertheless, Russian President Putin often threatens the Western World that he could use nuclear weapons as the Truman administration did in Japan at the end of World War II. Most military experts think that President Putin will never use any nuclear weapon in Ukraine. However, some people think otherwise like Russian Sociologist Greg Newton who fears that Putin could do the unthinkable and use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. Greg Newton revealed on CBC The National on February 23, 2023, that: “as a last resort, there is no doubt for me that he is prepared to do that once he feels that he runs out of resources because, once again, this is an existential situation for him if he loses, he is dead. This is how he sees this situation” This reveals that Putin might be willing to win this war at all costs. Putin is willing to use all its military resources to win the war including its nuclear weapons. In that event, the United States warned the Putin regime that there would be catastrophic consequences if Moscow deploy nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, told CBC that: ¨My bet is those catastrophic consequences would be a conventional attack from the United States and NATO on Russian military Targets.” This shows that Western nations have plans in place to deal with a Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine. Still, the stakes are high and the risks of an uncontrollable war escalation are real. Nevertheless, Russia risks losing his international partners if it escalates the war. In the event of a nuclear war, China would abandon Russia and Xi Jinping might side with the Western nations. Putin fears losing China’s support; consequently, the use of any nuclear escalation is very unlikely. Still, China thinks that this might be the time for Ukraine and Russia to agree to a peace plan to avoid any further escalation.

Nevertheless, there are some historical precedents on military strategies relying on the deployment of a nuclear weapon on the battlefield; however, none of these military strategies has ever been executed, except in Japan by the Truman administration during World War 2. Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that its main rival, the United States, has often thought about the use of tactical nuclear weapons in warfare. In 1969, a very drunk President Nixon ordered a nuclear strike on North Korea after the Kim Il Sung administration struck a U.S. spy plane near the hermit kingdom. U.S. State Secretary Henry Kissinger succeeded to cancel the order because Nixon was drunk and he was unable to discharge the duty of President. Moreover, Nixon believed in the madman theory which means that any provocation upon the U.S. could bring an unpredictable response from the Nixon administration. In the late 2010s, President Trump applied this political theory during his presidency by sometimes threatening allies and enemies for various reasons, but with no rationale behind the threats. In Europe, Russian President Putin sometimes acts by threatening his neighbours with nuclear weapons or by making irrational statements. As a result, China does not feel comfortable with these actors who appear to be irrational in the international arena. Beijing knows that Russia and the U.S. are rational actors regarding nuclear weapons, but Xi Jinping considers that China deserves to be at parity with these two superpowers. Even though, Xi Jinping does not support the Ukrainian War, the Chinese leader wants to take advantage that the Western world and Russia weaken itself through the international trade and financial sanctions triggered by the Russian-Ukrainian War.

                Moreover, there have been fears of irrational actors getting nuclear weapons. The USSR feared that Chinese President Mao could wage nuclear war because the Chinese communist leader has shown very little care about human life devoting themselves to the Chinese military. In the beginning, the Soviet Union thought that Mao was a rational and sane actor, but soon the USSR was concerned about the sanity of the Chinese communist leader. For instance, the Soviet Union helped China to develop its nuclear weapons in the 1950s. China was seen by the USSR as a good ally and Moscow did not mind the share this new technology. However, the Soviet Union stopped contributing to China’s development of its nuclear arsenal in 1959. Soviet Union President Khrushchev was concerned about Mao’s sanity. The Soviet Leader heard Mao saying: “We have so many people. We can afford to lose a few. What difference does it make?” Besides, Soviet leader Khrushchev did not get along very well with Mao; as a result, their relationships deteriorated and China never fully developed its nuclear weapon capacity. Even if, the CCP government made several nuclear warheads and delivery systems, China could not afford to develop a nuclear system like the Soviet Union or to the United States. Nowadays, China later turned into a nation promoting World peace. The Chinese people have never been interested in international warfare and it rather focus on the importance of World stability and peace. Therefore, China worries that Russia could escalate the Ukrainian-Russian conflict to nuclear warfare. As a result, Xi Jinping visited Putin at the end of May 2023 to make it obvious to Putin that he should not deploy nuclear weapons in Ukraine. China strongly condemns any nuclear blackmail or warfare.

Finally, the modern world has become very unstable on the global stage. Even though, the Mutual Assured Destruction policies have prevented several wars to occur between superpowers. Armed forces of two nuclear superpowers could fight against each other on the battlefield in Ukraine if Putin uses nukes on the battlefield. As a result, this military and foreign affairs policy makes the World a very dangerous place. Everyone assumes that Vladimir Putin is a rational actor and that he would never use nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine. Besides, everyone assumes that Putin knows that if he uses a nuclear weapon, this could be the end of his regime. Still, there is some risks associated with nuclear deterrent that shows nations should get rid of these weapons because some insane leaders could one day use them. The World has never been closer to nuclear warfare with the war in Ukraine. Though, Putin could lose his power if he does not win the Ukraine-Russian War because Russia greatly invested in the war and that Russia does not want to be humiliated. Western nations are ready to intervene in Ukraine if Russia deploys the nuclear weapon in Eastern Europe. In the event of a nuclear strike, NATO forces will push back Putin’s army in Russia. Vladimir Putin could have no choice than to give up his project to defeat Ukraine. Nevertheless, there is a risk of nuclear warfare if NATO and Russia fight against each other. No one really knows how would react Putin if NATO directly intervenes in Ukraine. Thus, NATO must find a way to make sure Ukraine wins and Russia does not use the nuclear weapon, this is one of the greatest challenges Western nations have ever face for centuries. NATO expects that harsh economic sanctions on Russia will discourage Putin to continue to wage war in Eastern Europe. Hopefully, these economic sanctions will work in the long run to avoid a direct war between several nuclear superpowers.


May 8, 2023



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Yannick B. Vallée
By Yannick B. Vallee

Yannick B. Vallee is a political scientist who recently graduated from Bishop’s University (Quebec, Canada) in the BA program of political science. He also has a college degree of Business Administration with a specialization in marketing. Nowadays,  he specializes in American, Canadian... (Read next)

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