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Ukraine conflict: Is Putin’s nuclear escalation hot air or a genuine threat?
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Ukraine conflict: Is Putin’s nuclear escalation hot air or a genuine threat?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has put his country’s nuclear forces on heightened alert, citing “aggressive statements” by NATO leaders on Ukraine. While some analysts caution that Putin would be willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his aims, others say the chilling warning does not necessarily indicate his intention to press the nuclear button.

Russia, home to the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear warheads, is not shy about using them – such appears to be the message coming from the Kremlin as it grapples with mounting condemnation of its war in Ukraine and unexpectedly stiff resistance on the ground.

On Monday, Russia’s defence ministry said its strategic missile forces had “begun to carry out combat duty with reinforced personnel”. The move came a day after Putin ordered the country’s deterrence forces, which include nuclear arms, to be placed on a “special regime of combat duty”. 

While the cryptic language has puzzled analysts, all agree that the Russian leader’s menacing words had at least one clear intention: to up the pressure on opponents both in Kyiv and in the West.

“It’s a way for Vladimir Putin to flex Russia’s nuclear muscles,” said Polina Sinovets, the head of the Ukraine-based Odessa Centre for Nonproliferation, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

The world’s biggest nuclear arsenalMoscow certainly has the means to plunge the world into nuclear catastrophe, whether by accident or design. 

With around 6,000 nuclear warheads, Russia has the world’s largest stockpile of weapons – larger even than the US military’s estimated 5,500 warheads. Some 1,600 Russian warheads are already deployed, either on land or on board nuclear submarines, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which famously keeps track of the Doomsday Clock, a Cold War relic that conveys scientists’ views on the likelihood of humanity destroying itself (currently still at 100 seconds to midnight). 

Russia also has an ample supply of short-, medium- and long-range missiles capable of carrying the warheads.

“There are around 2,000 tactical missiles that can be used in regional conflicts (that are capable of striking Ukraine) and a further 1,597 long-range strategic ballistic missiles,” said Sinovets.

“If Russia were to use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war, it would probably not stop at short-range missiles,” added Nikolai Sokov, an expert in Russian nuclear capabilities at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation.

However, both analysts played down the risk of an imminent Russian nuclear strike. Instead, Putin’s threat should be understood as “a political signal”, said Sokov, a former adviser to the Soviet and Russian foreign ministers between 1987 and 1992.

“[Putin’s message] is primarily aimed at the Ukrainians, to put pressure on their negotiators as they hold initial talks with Russian delegates,” added Rafael Loss, a nuclear policy expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s a way of stating just how far Moscow is prepared to go if Kyiv refuses to give in,” he told FRANCE 24. 

At the same time, “Putin is warning Western leaders that he is ready to contemplate the nuclear option should they attempt to intervene militarily in Ukraine,” Loss said.

How high is ‘heightened alert’?The cryptic language used by the Kremlin has made it difficult to assess the extent to which Putin has altered the nuclear equation. As Sokov noted, “the trouble with [Putin’s move] is that it does not match any of the scenarios that justify the use of deterrence forces under Russian nuclear doctrine”.

In June 2020, Putin himself signed a document clarifying Russia’s nuclear doctrine and listing four scenarios for the use of nuclear deterrence. All four are defensive and none envisages the use of nuclear weapons in an invasion, such as the conflict in Ukraine, or in retaliation for sanctions.  

West slams ‘escalatory’ Putin order to put nuclear forces on alert

04:13

© REUTERS

The most likely understanding of Putin’s order “is that it allows command-and-control systems to remain on alert, shorten delays and simplify procedures for missile launches”, said Loss.

“When it comes to nuclear escalation, there are many more steps to take,” he added. If Putin really wanted to up the ante, “he would start by directly mentioning nuclear weapons, which he hasn’t done yet”.

According to the experts FRANCE 24 spoke to, such an escalation would result in nuclear missiles being loaded onto bombers and submarines equipped with nuclear warheads leaving port – all of which would almost certainly be visible on satellite imagery. 

Even then, Sinovets cautioned, “a heightened nuclear threat would only work as diplomatic blackmail, because Putin is well aware that if he uses nuclear weapons, Moscow would probably be bombed as well”.

Risk of ‘tragic accident’If the aim was to scare opponents in Kyiv and in the West, it seems Putin’s gamble has failed to pay off.

Asked if Americans should be worried about nuclear war, US President Joe Biden on Monday offered a calm “No” in response while both the State Department and NATO have said they see no reason to change the own nuclear alert levels. As for Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, he hasn’t even mentioned Putin’s nuclear threat. 

To extract concessions, the Russian leader may be tempted to voice more explicit threats in the coming days, Loss warned, stressing that Putin finds himself in a tight spot both in Ukraine and on the international stage.

“International sanctions are getting steeper by the day and the military offensive isn’t going quite as well as planned, leaving Putin with few advantages other than nuclear arms,” he explained. 

However, Sokov cautioned that nuclear threats come at a heavy cost for the Russian president, shattering his image as a ruthless – but rational – strategist. 

“Resorting to nuclear threats in the context of the Ukraine war is a terrible mistake that will do a lot of damage to Putin and Russia,” he said. “[Putin] will come across as someone who is erratic, dangerous, and all too eager to brandish the nuclear threat. This will only increase Russia’s isolation on the international stage.”

Alarmingly, Russia’s nuclear escalation generates “a climate of uncertainty in which a tragic accident could happen”, Sokov added. He noted that a significant share of Russia’s missiles are designed to carry both conventional and nuclear warheads – making it difficult for other nuclear powers to know what type of weapon is being used, and thereby raising the risk of a preventative strike.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

© Studio graphique France Médias Monde

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