The Buzz

Can America Prevent Russia from Using Low-Yield Nukes?

Putin’s remarkably militant nuclear superweapons speech to the Russia Duma on March 1, 2018, should be a wake-up call regarding the need to create a more effective deterrent to counter Putin’s irresponsible policies. Make no mistake about the intended target of this speech. As Maxim Trudolyubov, a senior fellow with the Kennan Institute, observed, “…Interestingly, both state-run [Russian] news media and independent outlets agreed that the speech was mainly targeted at Washington.”[42] Putin first staked out a claim to the former Soviet states because “…Russia, which was known as the Soviet Union or Soviet Russia abroad” had lost them with the demise of the Soviet Union.[43] Then, he alternated between portraying Russia as a victim (making ridiculous claims about U.S. missile defense and the failure of the West to “listen” to Russia) and making extreme forms of standard Russian nuclear threats – nuclear superweapons and an “immediate” nuclear launch after a supposed Western attack. Pavel Felgenhauer summed up the message as, “Russia is not aggressive, according to Putin, but it demands what it believes it is due—otherwise, its doomsday nuclear superweapons are ready.”[44]

Putin does not want Russia to be listened to. He wants its imperialism and aggression accepted at the point of his nuclear superweapons. After declaring to the West, “So listen now,” Putin went into a speech which, as a noted British Russia expert Roger McDermott observed, “…offered a vision of the Russian Armed Forces more akin to a parody of Dr. Strangelove.”[45]

Derek Williams and Adam B. Lowther attribute Russian confidence that Russia can start a nuclear conflict, control it and win it to the fact that, “…Vladimir Putin believes the United States lacks the will and the weapons to respond not only to limited nuclear war but the cohesive use of nuclear deterrence for political gain.”[46] We need nuclear deterrent programs that would convince Putin that his theory of victory is foolhardy and if he tries aggression it will be resisted and defeated and that Russian nuclear weapons first use will not assure his victory. We must assure that any U.S. President has the broadest possible range of credible nuclear options to convince any potential aggressor to desist from attacking us or our allies with nuclear or WMD weapons.

Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions.  He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.


[1] Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review, (Washington D.C., US, Department of Defense, February 2018), pp. XI-XII, available at

[2] “Remarks by Secretary Carter to troops at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota,” (Washington D.C., U.S. department of Defense, Sept. 26, 2016), available at Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/957408/remarks-by-secretary-carter-to-troops-at-kirtland-afb-new-mexico.