How US Would Respond if Putin Attacked First
The war in Ukraine has put the United States and Russia's relationship on a collision course for the first time since the end of the Cold War. But as US support for Ukraine ramps up, and American weapons take a deadly toll on Russian troops- what would happen if Russia decided to retaliate directly against the US at last? To explore the question we'd have to look at several hypothetical scenarios, each with varying degrees of realism. When the war first started and western support for Ukraine ramped up, Russia used what credibility it still had at the time to warn against continued supply of weapons to Ukraine. Russia boldly announced that any NATO shipment into Ukraine would be a valid target of war, and it would seek out and destroy any NATO vehicles entering Ukraine. NATO immediately responded with the equivalent of “fudge around and find out”, by stating that any attack against NATO personnel inside or outside of Ukraine would be viewed as grounds for invoking Article 5. But most people believed that Russia would have nothing to target, as NATO deliveries were likely being picked up by Ukrainian personnel in neighboring Poland and then trucked across the border.
This wouldn't put any NATO personnel in danger unless Russia made the incredibly suicidal move of attacking Poland directly. Yet not only were NATO personnel involved in delivering the supplies across the Ukraine border, recently leaked US intelligence shows that American and British military personnel were actually inside of Ukraine and have been for most of the war. The leaked documents don't give much more information than that, but it's clear: American and British soldiers have been working inside Ukraine and against Russia. It's likely that these personnel are technical experts, assisting Ukrainian forces behind the front lines with a variety of logistical and equipment issues. However, it's also all but a certainty that there's a large number of intelligence personnel present in Ukraine and working alongside Ukrainian leaders.
The real question is if any western troops have partaken in direct military action against Russia, and what would happen if Russia struck back against them. The Ukraine war has been defined by the use of the drone as a mainstay of ongoing combat. Not only do both sides use drones regularly against the other, but we have seen the use of pretty sophisticated combat drones both in the sky and at sea. The famous drone attack against the Russian black sea fleet in Sevastapol in October of 2022 was the first mass suicide naval drone attack in history, and inflicted significant damage on Russian ships. However, in March of 2023, Ukraine struck again, and this time with a more advanced drone.
Ukraine has proven itself to be an extremely resourceful country, but there is serious question about who exactly is piloting these suicide drones, and many doubt that it's Ukrainians behind the controls. Bringing these drones to bear against the Russian black sea fleet would require either advanced AI to allow them to navigate to their targets by themselves and then designate their own targets, or over the horizon communications capabilities of the type that Ukraine may not have the ability to field. However, western military powers certainly have those capabilities, and the appearance of even more advanced drone models begs the question of who is behind the driver's seat. The Ukraine war does offer a significant opportunity for a western military to test advanced new equipment in a live fire environment with practically no risk to itself, and if there's one nation specifically interested in naval drones- it's the United States. Not only does the US Navy have a massive drone program, but it plans to grow the size of its fleet by approximately a quarter, with most of those being in the form of unmanned surface and subsurface platforms. If there's anyone with the motivation to test out new technologies in a real battle environment, it's the United States- but what if Russia strikes back? We've known since the start of the war that the US and its NATO allies have been conducting surveillance and reconnaisance flights along the Black Sea with very sensitive intelligence gathering platforms.
All this data has been fed straight to Ukraine, who has use it- and other classified intelligence sources provided by the West- to target Russian forces with extreme precision. Russia has found this to be a massive thorn in its side, that it can do nothing about, and in March Russia took out its frustrations on a US surveillance drone. Originally the pilot appeared to try to force the drone down by dumping fuel all over it, but then on a follow on close pass, accidentally collided with the drone causing its prop to bend and the drone to stall out and crash in the ocean. Russia might not stop at downing drones though. NATO regularly flies AWACS and Rivet Joint aircraft over the Black Sea in international air space. Both platforms scoop up vast amounts of intelligence which is fed directly to Ukrainian forces, denying Russia the element of surprise either in the air or on the ground.
Rivet Joints can even listen in on enemy communications hundreds of miles away, and use synthetic aperture radar to track entire enemy units. This makes them priority targets for a vengeful Russia to shoot out of the sky, as both aircraft are largely helpless against an enemy fighter. A US response to the downing of one of its special mission aircraft is likely to be proportional. Despite being able to absolutely womp Russia back into the 1700s, the US still has a lot to lose by simply going to war with Russia. Plus, it's generally a bad idea to go to full scale war with a nuclear power.
Thus, the US would likely seek a proportional response against Russia. In 1988, a US missile frigate strayed into a naval mine placed by Iran in the Persian Gulf. The US had previously warned both Iran and Iraq to cease their attacks against civilian oil tankers in the region, and the near sinking of the USS Samuel B. Roberts was the final straw. After confirming that the mines belonged to Iran, the United States launched what it considered a “proportional” response, and ended up sinking 1 frigate, 1 gunboat, 3 speedboats, crippling a second frigate, damaging one fighter aircraft, and destroying 2 oil platforms used by Iranian troops for reconnaissance and area security. In the Black Sea, the United States would likely seek a similar “proportional” response by directly attacking Russian Black Sea naval assets.
Currently, Russia's Black Sea fleet has been ordered to remain within the safety of Sevastapol, fearful of being sunk by Ukrainian anti-ship missiles. To punish Russia for downing a US manned aircraft, the US would likely target the Black Sea Fleet, with intent to destroy a target of significant value to Russia- but not one that would immediately cause a catastrophic loss of combat power to Russia's war effort in Ukraine, thus prompting an even greater escalation. For America the calculus would be similar to Operation Praying Mantis- punish Russia with an even greater financial loss and deter an escalation by showing that the United States is capable of punching well above Russia's weight class. This would make the Russian Admiral Makarov, a guided missile frigate, as the most likely target of an American retaliation- it would be a far greater financial loss to the Russian military than an AWACS platform, and destroying it would show enough American muscle as to deter an increase in hositilites. To accomplish this, the United States would likely opt for an air attack against the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
A submarine attack would be preferable, but Turkey controls entry into the Black Sea and would be furious to find out a US submarine had entered with intent to attack the Russians directly. It would almost certainly not grant access in the first place, and while it's possible a US submarine could transit the Borporus and Dardanelles Straits undetected, in the words of a former submarine commanding officer, it would be incredibly dangerous to attempt it. Technically an attack on a US AWACS platform would prompt an Article 5 response, but Turkey has seemed to be hesitant to throw itself fully behind NATO in recent years, making it and Hungary the alliance's least reliable partners. So just like we can count out Turkish support for a US submarine transit into the Black Sea, we can likely also do so for launching an air attack off its soil as well. That would leave the US with the option of either using a carrier in the Mediterranean, or flying out of Romania- with Romania likely being amenable to the US launching an attack from its air fields.
The right tool for the job would be the US navy's latest anti-ship missile, the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM. Featuring stealthy materials into its construction and advanced artificial intelligence, the LRASM is basically an airborne suicide ninja with a 1,000 pound warhead. The missile has a dramatically decreased detection range over its Harpoon cousin, and twice the lethality as it packs twice the explosives. Its electronic brain can also utilize radar to guide itself to its target, and visually verify targets before striking them by comparing what its electronic eye sees with an onboard database of known enemy ships. Plus, with an unclassified range of 230 miles (370 km), the LRASM could be fired against Russia's Sevastapol naval base from deep inside friendly territory.
Many analysts however believe that the LRASM has an even greater range than that, as much as 350 miles (560 km). American F-35s, F-18s, and B1s could launch the LRASM from well out of range of Russian air defenses, and the missile could even be fired directly from US ships in the Mediterranean. Even if Russia wanted to strike back, it simply lacks the ability to do so- while some ships in the Black Sea Fleet have the ability to launch Kalibr, Oniks and Zircon anti-ship missiles, Russia's stockpile of precision weapons is running low, and it's been confirmed that Russia has used these missiles in previous attacks against Ukrainian land targets. Russia famously also lacks significant ISR, or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, making it difficult to pinpoint from where exactly stealthy LRASMs have been launched from. In the end, Russia would also simply have to ask itself if it's worth escalating over the loss of a single surface ship.
Meanwhile, the US would not only have come out on top of the exchange, but also done double duty by destroying one of the few remaining surface platforms that Russia can use to launch cruise missiles against Ukraine. But what if Russia decided it wanted to strike at NATO personnel inside of Ukraine, instead of a US aircraft in international airspace? For starters, this would be the smarter option, as it would allow Russia to either point out that these were legitimate military targets inside an active war zone, or simply claim ignorance and state that it was striking what it believed to be Ukrainian personnel. In the former, it would be hard to dispute Russia- by international law the Russian Federation is well within its rights to target western military personnel actively helping Ukraine inside a war zone, even if a state of war doesn't exist between Russia and the origin nation. The key here though is “actively helping”, because there are exceptions to this- if for example, NATO was providing security for a refugee camp or something similar, there would be no justification in attacking them. Claiming ignorance of western personnel's presence would also grant Russia the political cover needed to prevent an escalation, or even retaliation.
The very act of retaliation would basically confirm that the west was kinetically involved in the war, something that pretty much everyone except Poland and the Baltic states don’t want to do. If it was up to them, NATO would have its foot ankle deep in Putin's ass by now. Retaliating against an attack on personnel inside Ukraine would be politically difficult for the United States. It's likely then that instead of taking kinetic action of its own, Ukraine may suddenly find itself the unexpected recipient of some very advanced US weapons tech. Rather than pull the trigger itself, the US would likely outsource the job to Ukraine. One option would be to end the ban on long-range precision weapons for Ukraine, such as the ATACMs.
Ukraine has been begging for this weapon since the war began, but support in US Congress has wavered on actually providing it, and President Biden seems reluctant to hand it over. Initially the concern was over Ukraine using US weapons to strike inside Russia, which seems weird since Russia is allowed to strike Ukraine all it wants. However, recently US defense officials have cited a concern over America's own weapon stockpile as the one of the big reasons for continuing to deny providing the missile system. This is not an invalid concern, as the war in Ukraine has shown the world that protracted modern conflicts eat up weapons at a truly frightful pace. In two decades, approximately 4,000 ATACMs have been built, with a significant number of these provided to overseas customers.
The exact number in the American stockpile is unknown, but given how many munitions have been expended by Russia in Ukraine, it's easy to see why the US may be reluctant to diminish its own stockpile. However, the ATACMs is slated to be replaced by a new missile starting in 2025, which should theoretically open the ATACMs up to being donated to Ukraine. The big ballistic missile may not be the right tool for the job anyways though.
Given its large, unstealthy profile, ATACMs missiles would likely be easy targets for Russian air defenses. This would necessiate their launch in large volleys, which would also mean giving Ukraine even more HIMARS batteries from which to launch the weapon from. The JASSM, or joint air to surface standoff missile, would likely be a better candidate, though it's unknown if a JASSM could be fired by a Ukrainian MIG as the weapon was designed for US-made jets. Much like American engineers figured out a way to jerry-rig the HARM onto a Mig though, a similar work around might be possible- though much like the HARM, a Ukrainian pilot may not be able to use a JASSM to its fullest due to a lack of interface with the weapon. Thus the US may simply decide that in retaliation for an attack against NATO personnel, it'll simply open the floodgates on the F-16, providing Ukraine with the fighter aircraft it's been begging for and one that can fire a large variety of US weapons.
Attacks against NATO personnel won't solve Russia's biggest problem inside of Ukraine though, and that's the constant flow of western weapons into the country. For Russia to regain its battlefield advantage, it has to put a stop the flow of western weapons. So far, it has attempted to do so by targeting western civilians directly. Vladimir Putin has long cautioned about the consequences of the west arming Ukraine, and western media has eaten it up. Now it's difficult to put on a single news broadcast without hearing worries or concerns about “escalation”, and this is by design: Putin wants the west afraid of 'escalation' so they'll stop supporting the flow of western arms to Ukraine. To drive escalation fears home, Putin did a fair amount of nuclear saber rattling starting in summer of 2022.
Every other day it seemed like Putin was threatening the use of nuclear weapons, and the news absolutely rattled the west. News services picked up the stories and spread wild speculation about Russian nuclear attacks around the world. Surveys taken on continued support for Ukraine showed a dip during the height of Putin's nuclear fear offensive. However, Putin was never going to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, mostly because doing so would be disastrous for him. The United States issued a specific warning directly to the Ministry of Defense, the contents of which are unknown to the public- but it's believed that it included a threat to use conventional military power directly to neutralize Russian forces inside Ukraine. The fear offensive began to falter when China's Xi Jinping grew increasingly frustrated over his new Russian vassal state.
China has a no first use policy, and if Russia were to use nuclear weapons, Xi would be forced to condemn the attack. Given how China has aligned itself with Russia, it would also reflect very poorly on a China who's public image is already under attack over its own hostilities towards Taiwan. With Xi Jinping growing increasingly annoyed about Putin's empty nuclear threats, he put pressure on his new vassal to cease making them, and since then the nuclear saber rattling has died off significantly.
However, recently Russia revived the threat of nuclear weapons by cleverly announcing that it was now moving part of its nuclear arsenal into neighboring Belarus. Once more, Putin got to scare the west with nuclear weapons without actually mentioning their use. The choice to put nukes in Belarus was to get the west to start talking about nuclear war again, but it also serves the purpose of bringing Belarus even deeper under Russian control. Since nuclear threats have failed to stop western support for Ukraine, and indeed the flow of arms has only increased, if Putin wants to win this war he'd have to cut off the flow of equipment at the source. And that means attacking NATO arms shipments and the facilities that store them directly.
Poland has become the most important European NATO partner to America during the entire Ukraine war. Not only has Poland been a strong supporter of arming Ukraine, but its geographic location makes it a logistical hotspot for supplying the beleaguered nation. For its part, Poland has proven itself a master of logistics, expertly handling the influx of dozens of different weapon systems and transporting them safely into Ukraine. Russia would thus need to attack Poland to stop the flow of arms, and to be perfectly honest we're pretty sure Poland wishes Putin would try it.
An attack on Poland's logistic bases would likely come out of Kaliningrad via long-range ballistic missile attack. Being on NATO's frontline, Poland enjoys some very robust air defenses, but a surprise attack by ballistic missiles could still lead to significant numbers of them getting through Polish air defenses. Its not known just how many precision weapons Russia has left in Kaliningrad, as the nation has been plundering its own stores for a potential conflict with NATO in order to avert all-out defeat in Ukraine, but for the sake of argument we will simply assume it has enough to shut down the major logistics hubs inside Poland feeding Ukraine.
This would trigger an immediate Article 5 declaration by the NATO alliance, though once more the question of proportionality comes into play. There's a saying that an animal is most dangerous when it's cornered and wounded, and Russia is about as wounded as a cornered, rabid animal can get. While its conventional forces are utterly outclassed by NATO's own, that might in fact end up being the problem. Russia is already facing a horribly embarrassing defeat inside Ukraine, and been forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel for manpower to fight its failing war. Further conventional military defeats either in Ukraine or outside of it, like say the enclave of Kaliningrad, may be too much for Russia to bear- forcing its hand.
This is where Russia's clown shoes military comes into play- unable to put up a conventional fight, Russia really only has one choice, and that's the nuclear option. After the annexation of the occupied regions of Ukraine, Putin warned that Russian doctrine allows him to use nuclear weapons in defense of Russian territory. This is technically true, but was once more an empty threat- his own government would remove him from power for attempting to use nuclear weapons over occupied territories, knowing it would prompt an immediate and disastrous retaliation from NATO- even within Russia's corrupt government, there are still people who prefer being alive over being incinerated in nuclear hell fire. However, an attack by NATO against actual Russian territory may be too much to bear- especially if Russian forces are handed a devastating defeat. In order to prevent Russia from going nuclear, it's likely that the US would push for a long range war against Russia. In this scenario, US combat jets, supported by NATO allies, would undertake a bombardment of Kaliningrad's air defenses and military bases.
Up against a depleted military, even the heavily fortified Kaliningrad would be easily overwhelmed- especially with the addition of submarine and ship launched stand off attack weapons. The key would be to overwhelm Russian defenses for a true shock and awe air and missile campaign, something the US and its allies have more than enough material to do. In order to not push Russia into the nuclear option, Kaliningrad would be likely to be the only target of a NATO attack. The US would seek to ensure that Russia suffered a defeat which would fundamentally weaken it in the long run, thus it would be a priority to destroy air fields and port facilities in Kaliningrad.
The goal would be to bottle Russia up and ensure it can never again launch an attack against NATO- or at least not for years to come. However, the US has another option as well- and that's targeting Russia's all-important energy producing infrastructure. The vast majority of Russia's Gas fields are well within range of attack by the US Navy and Air Force. Submarines could use gaps in the Arctic ice to launch cruise missile attacks against Artic platforms, or push closer to the Russian coast under the ice to launch deep strikes into Siberia.
The US Air Force could easily reach pretty much any oil producing or refining facility by simply flying B-52s armed with stand-off weapons directly over the North Pole. In fact, this is something America has been ready to do since the first nuclear bomb was fitted to an airplane. While destroying Kaliningrad's abilities to project military power would be a significant blow to Russia, striking at its abilities to produce, refine, and transport oil would have the more lasting effect. Currently Russia's economy is being kept from feeling the worst of the sanctions thanks to its massive energy industry- European price caps on Russian oil alone denied the Russian government billions in revenue. Physically destroying their ability to export oil or natural gas would have an immediate and significant effect on the government's budget, crippling their ability to continue waging war and weakening the state overall.
A strike against Russia's ability to produce oil may also help destabilize Russia's internal politics. Already there is significant strain on Russia society from internal divisions between the various ethnic groups in Russia. A collapsing Russian economy could be the straw that breaks the camel's back and leads to if not a civil war, at least attempted secessionist movements inside some of Russia's republics. The Russian Far East is particularly vulnerable to this, given that ethnic Russians have been on the decline as they migrate west towards Moscow for decades. Today the region has a massive and growing Chinese population, and the majority of investments in the region comes from China, not Russia.
These people feel like they have less and less of a Russian identity by the day. China itself may use the social unrest to attemp to split the RFE from the rest of Russia, and it's easy to see that Xi Jinping has ambitions to do exactly that. Already new Chinese maps of Russia have the old traditional names for Russian territory seized from China during the 19th century. The fact that Outer Manchuria just happens to be rich in energy resources is the icing on the cake for China- and a reason why Russia fears losing the region.
Whatever the response, the aim would be to avoid all-out war against Russia, as that would only end in one way- either Vladimir Putin is forcibly removed from power, or Russia inevitably turns to its nuclear arsenal as it faces catastrophic defeat against NATO's superior armed forces. Ironically as Russia becomes weaker, it becomes more dangerous. Now go check out Deadly Weapons US Is Sending To Ukraine, or click this other video instead!