The Pentagon is not moving into the realm of provocative rhetoric in response to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s move to put his nuclear forces on “high alert.” Rather, the Pentagon is choosing not to engage in posturing and verbal escalation, perhaps given the incredible risks of nuclear warfare.
While many are now raising questions about Putin’s state of mind given his destabilizing actions, there are a number of underlying factors to consider when it comes to the possibility of a nuclear attack. By most available estimations, Putin is not suicidal or delusional. Therefore, he is undoubtedly aware of the paradox of strategic deterrence, meaning that he is certain to be quickly annihilated by Western nuclear weapons should he launch a nuclear attack. While being cautious not to make any alarming or dramatic statements, senior Pentagon officials simply expressed confidence in the United States’ nuclear triad, which is tasked with preventing nuclear war. “On the nuke posture ... we continue to review and monitor and analyze this as best we can, and I would just tell you that we've seen nothing at this time that would give us any less comfort or confidence in our own strategic deterrence posture. I think that's as far as I can go on that,” a senior Pentagon official said.
While the official did not detail specifics for understandable security reasons, he may have been referring to key elements of the nuclear triad, including the Navy’s nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines. Navy submarines armed with Trident II D5 nuclear missiles quietly and secretly patrol strategically vital areas of the world to ensure a catastrophic second strike possibility in the event that the United States is subject to a nuclear weapons attack. Any attacker is therefore confronted with the clear reality that a nuclear attack against the United States would likely lead to the complete and total destruction of the attacker.
Knowing this, would Putin risk having his country completely destroyed in a massive nuclear counterattack? It seems unlikely, which is why many believe Putin’s decision to put his nuclear forces on high alert may simply be “saber-rattling.” This of course is not to suggest that Putin’s threats are not being taken seriously by the United States. Military analyst and retired Lt. Col. Scott Rutter said he would not be surprised if these situations were being war-gamed by all sides of the conflict.
“There is likely wargaming of those particular situations on both sides, on the Russian side, and on the NATO side. Ukraine is also likely looking at this. The bottom line is it's not out of the question that [Putin] would use a tactical nuke in order to seize off a choke point if there were some additional threats that he feels against his forces. But right now, I think it's more of him saber-rattling … and causing a stir. Right now, he's having challenges in movement and bringing this attack collectively together,” Rutter told the National Interest.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.