Ukraine War, March 15, 2023: How will NATO respond when and if Putin uses a nuclear weapon in Ukraine?

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To see a list of previous articles, enter “Ukraine” in the Search Box on the upper right, and you will see a list in chronological order.

To understand the broad context within which current developments in Ukraine should be considered,see

“Ukraine War, October 26, 2022: The context for analysis of current developments; The “dirty bomb” as a Russian propaganda distraction from current war crimes,” The Trenchant Observer, October 26, 2022.


1) “Putin nennt Krieg in der Ukraine überlebenswichtig für Russland
Stand:,” Die Welt, March 15, 2023;

2) “Putin calls war in Ukraine vital for Russia, Die Welt,
Status, March 15, 2023;

The translation of the title if this article by Die Welt is incorrect and misleading. A more accurate translation of the title would be “Putin calls war in Ukraine vital for Russia’s survival,” which in fact is the Google translation. Or, in other words, “an existential necessity for the survival of Russia”. This wording has particular significance in terms of Russian nuclear doctrine.

3) Hamish de Breton-Gordon and Bob Seely, “Putin is preparing for a nuclear showdown – we must be ready; As his forces collapse in Ukraine, the Russian leader may face the most important decision of the century. We must work to reduce the threat,” The Telegraph, March 15, 2023 (11:01 am);

4) Walter Russell Meade, “What if Putin Uses a Nuclear Weapon in Ukraine?; If Putin chooses the path of Khrushchev, President Biden needs to stand like JFK,” Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2022 (5:40 p.m. EDT);

5) Vazha Tavberidze, “Former NATO Commander Says Western Fears Of Nuclear War Are Preventing A Proper Response To Putin,” RadioFreeEurope / RadioLiberty (RFE/RL), April 7, 2022 (10:23 GMT);

6) “Ukraine War, September 27, 2022: The response of the U.S. and NATO to Putin’s nuclear threats,” The Trenchant Observer, September 27, 2022;

7) “Ukraine War, October 6, 2022: Are Putin’s nuclear threats working? Will Biden blink?” The Trenchant Observer, October 6, 2022;

8) Caitlin Doornbos, “US still can’t say if Russia meant to bring down drone over Black Sea,” New York Post, March 15, 2023 (@7:00 pm ET);

9) Andrea Rizzi, “La debilidad del Kremlin agrava el riesgo nuclear en la guerra de Ucrania; Muchos expertos siguen viendo muy improbable un ataque, pero un contexto militar y político que desestabiliza a Putin plantea incógnitas inquietantes,” El,País, el 21 de septiembre 2022 (23:40 EDT);

10) Andrea Rizzi, “The weakness of the Kremlin aggravates the nuclear risk in the Ukraine war; Many experts continue to see an attack as very unlikely, but a military and political context that destabilizes Putin raises disturbing unknowns,” El Pais, September 21, 2022 (23:40 EDT).


Yesterday a Russian jet intercepted a U.S. surveillance drone over the Black Sea, intentionally dumped gasoline on it, and hit it in a manner that caused it to crash. The U.S. response, expressed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after a telephone conversation with his Russian counterpart, was to chide the Russian pilot for his dangerous and “unprofessional” conduct, and to say the U.S. was not certain whether the collision that caused the downing of the drone was “intentional” or not.

This is like walking down a street at night when a thug bumps into you, hard, and saying you don’t know if the contact was intentional or not.

No one seems to have thought of the possibility that Putin was probing to see what level of aggression would not produce a strong response, and whether the meek response of the U.S. was sufficient to regain “initiative” in the conflict with Russia over Ukraine.

Vazha Tavberidze quotes General Breedlove as offering a persuasive and unvarnished picture of how Putin with his nuclear threats has had the initiative in the war and in the conflict with NATO countries and other military supporters of Ukraine, and what military experts call “escalation dominance”. In fact, the U.S. and NATO are always reacting to escalations by Putin, when and if they react at all.

The recent contact between a Russian military jet and an American military drone serves as a useful reminder of the fact that during the course of the Ukraine war we may come to a point where Putin in fact uses a nuclear weapon.

We may have to decide either to provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs–free of any restrictions or “red lines” not imposed by international law– with the attendant risk that Putin might use a nuclear weapon, or watch Ukraine lose the war.

Putin might use a nuclear weapon. But even if he does, that will not inevitably lead to nuclear “Armageddon” as President Biden so greatly fears.

How would President Biden and NATO react to Putin’s use of a nuclear weapon?

We have analyzed the basic weakness of Biden in any nuclear confrontation with Putin and even called for the formation of a “Nuclear Decisions Advisory Group” to bolster our weak-kneed president in any nuclear confrontation with Putin. Such an advisory group might include seasoned national security officials like former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

The significance of Putin’s statements is to be found in the detailed wording of Russian nuclear doctrine.Putin’s recent statement places the war in Ukraine squarely within existing Russian nuclear doctrine.

Whether his statements are factually accurate is another matter.

Russian nuclear doctrine provides that nuclear weapons should only be used in the case of nuclear or related attack, or in a case of “aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the State is threatened.”

–Andrea Rizzi, El País, el 22 de septiembre 2023

Putin is a poorly-trained lawyer who never practiced law, apparently. He has aa definite fondness for articulating policies as if they were legal–however many facts he has to make up in order for his case to fit the law in his own mind.

That may provide NATO and the U.S. a tool that can be used to slow him down. The U.S. and other countries should definitely be asking him, all the time, for the legal justifications for his actions.

The Trenchant Observer


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About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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