Cover: Building U.S. Responses to Russia's Threats to Use Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons

Building U.S. Responses to Russia's Threats to Use Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons

A Game Theoretic Analysis of Brinkmanship

Published Oct 5, 2023

by Krista Langeland, Anthony Vassalo, Clint Reach, Christopher Dictus, Gabrielle Tarini

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Research Questions

  1. How does game theory elucidate the strategic interactions of actors and inform U.S. decisionmaking in the Russia-Ukraine conflict?
  2. How do such variables as perceptions, preferred outcomes, and willingness to escalate factor into U.S. decisionmaking?
  3. What are the limitations of using game theory in this context?

Russia launched its war against Ukraine in early 2022, expecting a rapid victory. Ukrainian resistance in the ensuing months not only dispelled any notion of that outcome but has raised the possibility that Ukraine might win the war. Russian President Vladimir Putin has staked everything on this invasion, and he is unlikely to accept defeat without exhausting significant resources at his disposal. This dynamic between Ukrainian momentum and Russia's desperation has raised concerns that Russia might resort to nuclear escalation to turn the tide of the war. Given this reality, U.S. policymakers and planners must consider appropriate responses.

In this report, the authors attempt to identify such responses and levers using a game theory approach to the situation. They do so by first providing an overview of Russia's nuclear doctrine and capabilities, considering its discourse on nuclear escalation and declaratory policies relevant to the possible use of nonstrategic nuclear weapons (NSNWs). They then look at Russia's nuclear escalation through the lens of game theory, examining which potential levers for shifting decisionmaking and outcomes exist in the game. Finally, they assess how a particularly relevant historical example, the Kargil War, sheds light on possible U.S. responses for avoiding escalation without conceding to adversary demands.

Key Findings

  • Emphasizing the high stakes for the United States in the conflict could deter Russia but presents a significant challenge for policymakers because Russia likely believes that the United States would seek to avoid nuclear conflict at all costs.
  • Messaging to Russia that the costs of using NSNWs in Ukraine would be higher for Russia than for the United States could deter Russia, but this message requires careful calibration—it must be severe enough to impose significant costs on Russia but also be perceived as credible.
  • The United States could message that it expects Russia to back down if facing further escalation.
  • Persuading Russia that forgoing escalation is preferrable to the outcome should it escalate requires developing options short of escalation that are acceptable to Russia.
  • Uncertainties and misunderstandings inevitably arise when relying on assumptions of other actors' perceptions in decisionmaking.


  • The United States should establish that they have high stakes in this conflict.
  • The United Sates should communicate asymmetrically higher costs to Russia should it go to conflict.
  • The United States should identify calibrated responses that avoid escalation.
  • The United States should engage in efforts to persuade Russia that “backing down” provides an outcome that is preferrable to escalation and conflict.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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