U.S. officials have voiced concerns about Putin’s threats. Speaking recently at Georgia Tech University, CIA director William Burns raised the possibility of tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons in response to setbacks in Ukraine. For those of us who dealt with issues of national security during the Cold War, this has the feeling of déjà vu all over again.
Although any such threat must be taken seriously, the likelihood of Putin using nuclear weapons seems low. To understand why, it is useful to look at the history of nuclear policy and strategy.
During the Cold War, nuclear weapons policy and strategy suffused every aspect of national security, including nonnuclear strategy. For instance, the United States rejected military options during the Vietnam War out of concern that escalation might lead to a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union or China.
Nuclear weapons also shaped overall defense policy and force structure.