Bottom Line: Even the use of a "small" tactical nuclear weapon would mean crossing the nuclear threshold. Why wouldn't you assume that the other side would respond in kind?
A RAND wargame several years ago on a potential Russian offensive into the Baltics brought talk of a “new Cold War” into sharp focus. The game made clear that NATO would struggle to prevent Russian forces from occupying the Baltics if it relied on the conventional forces now available.
These wargames have great value in demonstrating tactical and operational reality, which then informs broader strategic thinking. In this case, however, the headlines generated by the game have obscured more about the NATO-Russian relationship than they have revealed. In short, the NATO deterrent promise has never revolved around a commitment to defeat Soviet/Russian forces on NATO’s borders. Instead, NATO has backed its political commitment with the threat to broaden any conflict beyond the war that the Soviets wanted to fight. Today, as in 1949, NATO offers deterrence through the promise of escalation.
The Early Years