An all-out nuclear war with Russia is highly unlikely. However, the possibility of a limited nuclear strike by Russia is a possibility.
I know that nuclear war is a extremely scary prospect. And I've seen those maps of all the possible targets in the United States painted red, with targets so numerous that little non-red area is left. But even the makers of those maps are NOT saying ALL those targets WILL be hit (a detail many folks seem to have missed). Rather, they are just showing all possible targets (literally thousands of possibilities), NOT likely targets. In reality, there are a number of reasons why a surprise nuclear attack on the US by Russia (or even China) will likely only feature a handful of targets.
Why All-Out Nuclear War Is Highly Unlikely
1) The aggressor nation will want to keep a significant portion of their nuclear arsenal in reserve to deter retaliation. For example, Russia would not want to exhaust its nuclear capability out of fear that China might try to take advantage of such a situation and attack Russia. Or to prevent a possible retaliation by NATO.
2) The Russians would want to exploit the
resources (land people, agriculture, energy, minerals, etc.) of the US after the war, therefore don't want to reduce all of
America to a radioactive no-go zone. Conquering and demilitarizing the United States makes much more strategic long-term sense than utterly destroying the US.
3) The Russians know, like it or not, that the United States is still the world's largest economy, accounting for nearly 25% of the world's economy. To utterly destroy the US would create massive economic problems globally, including for Russia. Again, strategically, Russia would prefer the US remain mostly intact, although thoroughly declawed, after the war.
4) The personal weakness of Obama may have convinced Putin and Russia that the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine is no longer in effect. They may be making the calculated risk that Obama will NOT order the US to retaliate with our nuclear weapons. Instead, Obama may sue for peace (surrender), thus turning the US over to Russia (basically as a vassal state), or even to the UN to administer.
Targets Russia Would Likely Avoid
Put emotions aside for a moment, and try to think from Russia's point-of-view. You want to take out the US as a world military power and turn it into a vassal state. You want the US to remain mostly intact so that you can exploit its resources and finances. You think its current leadership is extremely weak. You would want to AVOID hitting any major financial centers (examples: New York, Charlotte, Chicago), major industrial cities (examples: Houston, St. Louis, Dallas), major seaports (large coastal cities), and any regions where there are resources you want to exploit (major agricultural or energy regions).
Likely Targets For a Limited Nuclear Strike
So, where would Russia consider hitting with tactical nukes? Major political and military command & control centers, as well as major communications infrastructure. Obviously, I have no inside information on what Russia plans to attack, but here is a list of places I think most likely to be targets, and why?
1) Washington, DC: Highly symbolic, as well as strategic, target. The political and governmental center of the United States. Would decimate most political and government leadership (President and some other high ranking officials would likely survive). Key military center (the Pentagon).
2) Peterson Air Force Base/Cheyenne Mountain/Colorado Springs, CO: The headquarters of NORAD will be a certain target.
3) Various Other Military Bases. There are hundreds of military bases throughout the US of varying degrees of significance. Russia will not attack ALL of them, for the reasons given above, but may hit several of special significance,in addition to Peterson AFB listed above. I won't hazard a guess as to which ones Russia will choose to hit, and would recommend not living very near any military base.
4) Denver, CO: Big population (2.9 million in metro area), with few reasons for Russia to not target it (surprisingly, Denver is not really a major financial or industrial center). Also, Denver likely plays a major role in the US Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) and/or "Shadow Government," depending on how accurate certain conspiracy theories are.
If Obama crumbles, as Putin may suspect, and does not order a retaliation strike, it is likely that these initial targets will be the only ones hit. At this point, I would expect a fairly quick surrender of the US. However, if Obama does try to "slug it out" with Russia with conventional warfare, Russia would likely expand targets to hit one or two large population centers f lesser financial or industrial importance (example: Atlanta) relative to other large population centers. Unfortunately, should Obama order a nuclear counter-strike, the situation would quickly escalate to and all-out nuclear war.
This article is, of course, speculation. But I believe it to be well-reasoned speculation, and have given my reasoning. You are free to do your own speculating. The main point of this article is to think about these possibilities in a rationale, rather than emotional, way.