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Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s saber-rattling remarks, he won’t deploy atomic weapons, says security expert Dennis Blair.

Banner with headshot of Adm. Dennis Blair plus text "Peace, War and Defense curriculum / College of Arts and Sciences"

After Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would use “all available means” to defend illegally annexed territory in eastern Ukraine, President Joseph Biden expressed concern that the risk of atomic war is at its highest since the days of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The possibility of an escalation into nuclear war was one of many topics addressed in an Oct. 19 talk by retired Admiral Dennis Blair on “Contemporary Wars and America’s Strategic Position in the World.” The talk was the fourth in the Humanities in Action Lecture Series sponsored by Carolina Public Humanities and the General Alumni Association.

Blair, a 34-year Navy veteran who was President Barack Obama’s first director of national intelligence, is the University’s first Knott Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Practice in the peace, war and defense curriculum in the College of Arts and Sciences.

In his wide-ranging talk about current conflicts, Blair spoke of security concerns in North Korea and Iran, where authoritarian leaders already possess nuclear weapons or are close to possessing them, as well as the instability of governments in Myanmar, Venezuela and Haiti. Closer to home, Blair said he was worried about “civil relations in this country” and the “increasing politicization of the armed forces.”

Here’s what he had to say about the situation in Ukraine and the possibility of nuclear war.

How likely is Putin to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine and why or why not?

President Putin famously told us he might have to use nuclear weapons and said, “I’m not bluffing.” But if you have to say, “I’m not bluffing,” then you’re probably bluffing. I don’t think there’s a real danger there. I cannot conceive a scenario in which the Russians can actually use a nuclear weapon in a way that would advance their geopolitical objectives.

How would — or would — the United States respond to Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons?

At a minimum, the United States would give much more direct military assistance to Ukraine, probably advisers coming into the country and providing much more assistance to Ukraine, including weapons that could be used to strike within Russia. There would be much more diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia from all countries and probably some American nonnuclear strikes on some Russian forces that are accessible, like their navy in Crimea. There would be consideration of a retaliatory nuclear shot on a Russian military installation in order to try to stop the use of further nuclear weapons. Those are the sorts of things that would be considered and wargamed in that situation.

How close are we to a “nuclear Armageddon”?

I don’t think that war is going to break out tomorrow, much less nuclear war, with big-scale operations by the United States against Russian forces or territory.

There has been some nuclear saber-rattling by Putin and talk of using tactical nuclear weapons. The bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki were about 15 to 20 kilotons. Tactical nuclear weapons are much smaller weapons, down to 5 kilotons. In general, tactical nuclear weapons are designed to be used by the military in battle. If you see an army coming and you can’t stop them using conventional forces, then you incinerate that army with a 5-kiloton weapon. A strategic weapon is to communicate a larger message, like, “I will threaten to destroy completely the capital of this other country.” Nuclear weapons, whether tactical or strategic, have a very high psychological threshold for use because Hiroshima and Nagasaki were so terrible. This strong reluctance to use nuclear weapons is a good, natural reaction of most people — in Russia, China, everywhere. Everyone knows instinctively that exchanges of nuclear weapons are hard to control and nobody wins.

By Susan Hudson, The Well

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