Even if NATO resorts to tactical nuclear weapons, it still can’t save the Baltic States from a Russian invasion.
One reason? The Warsaw Pact—the Eastern European satellites of the Soviet empire—can’t be held hostage anymore.
That’s the conclusion of a wargame by the RAND Corporation. In RAND’s view, NATO’s nukes are not a deterrent to Russia because Europe would have far more to lose from a tactical nuclear exchange than Russia.
“The biggest takeaway from the wargame exercise is that NATO lacks escalation dominance, and Russia has the benefit of it,” the study found. “In contemplating war in the Baltic states, once nuclear attacks commence, NATO would have much stronger military incentives to terminate nuclear operations, if not all of its operations, than Russia would.”
Indeed, the NATO players grappled with the utility of using nukes in the first place. “In our wargame exercise, NATO commanders knew that they would be rapidly overwhelmed by the Russian forces and considered early first use of NSNW [non-strategic nuclear weapons] to prevent that outcome,” noted the report. “But, the commanders wondered, what would NATO target?”
Russian forces would likely conduct a well-dispersed, fast-moving advance into the Baltic States, which would mean NATO tactical nuclear weapons wouldn’t hit concentrated troop formations, but would instead land on the civilian populations the alliance is supposed to be defending. Or, they could attack Russian units forming up in Russia, which would risk a strategic nuclear exchange. The NATO players ultimately chose to send a signal to Russia by dropping five tactical nukes on a Russian mobile air defense missile battery just inside the Latvian border.
Unfortunately, the wargame estimated that the most likely Russian response would be a tit-for-tat that dropped tactical nuclear weapons on five NATO airbases. “NATO’s infrastructure is vulnerable, and damage to it caused by even limited numbers of nuclear attacks can substantially degrade NATO’s military capabilities; meanwhile, Russia is able to withstand comparable levels of nuclear strikes against its forces.”