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

Russian President Vladimir Putin has put his country’s nuclear forces on high alert, citing “aggressive statements” by NATO leaders over Ukraine. While some analysts have warned that Putin will be willing to do everything in his power to achieve his goals, others say the dire warning falls short. necessarily indicate his intent to press the nuclear button.

Russia, home to the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear warheads, isn’t shy about using them — that seems to be the message coming from the Kremlin as it struggles with mounting condemnation of its war in Ukraine and unexpectedly stiff resistance on the ground.

On Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry said its Strategic Missile Forces “began to carry out combat missions with reinforced personnel.” The move comes a day after Putin ordered the country’s deterrent forces, which include nuclear weapons, to be placed in a “special regime for combat duties”.

While the vague language has baffled analysts, everyone agrees that the Russian leader’s insulting words had at least one clear intention: to increase pressure on opponents both in Kyiv and in the West.

“It’s a way for Vladimir Putin to flex Russia’s nuclear muscle,” Polina Sinovets, head of the Ukraine-based Odessa Center for Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, said in an interview with France 24.

The world’s largest nuclear arsenal: Moscow certainly has the means to plunge the world into a nuclear catastrophe, whether by accident or on purpose.

With about 6,000 nuclear warheads, Russia has the world’s largest stockpile of weapons — even larger than the 5,500-estimated warheads the US military estimates. About 1,600 Russian warheads have already been deployed, either on land or aboard nuclear submarines, according to Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, best known for keeping track of the Doomsday Clock, a Cold War relic that conveys scientists’ opinions on the possibility of humanity’s self-destruction (currently still at 100 seconds to midnight).

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

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

“If Russia is going to use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war, it probably won’t stop at short-range missiles,” added Nikolai Sokov, an expert on Russian nuclear capabilities at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.

However, both analysts downplayed 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 foreign ministers of the Soviet Union and Russia between 1987 and 1992.

“[Putin’s message] The Ukrainians are primarily aimed at putting pressure on their negotiators as they hold preliminary talks with the Russian delegates,” he told France 24. “It is a way of expressing how far Moscow is willing to go if Kyiv refuses to surrender.”

Meanwhile, Loos said, “Putin is warning Western leaders that he is willing to consider a nuclear option if they try to intervene militarily in Ukraine.”

How high is “high alert”? The vague language used by the Kremlin has made it difficult to assess the extent to which Putin has changed the nuclear equation. As Sokov pointed out, “The problem with [Putin’s move] is that it does not match any of the scenarios that justify the use of deterrent forces under the Russian nuclear doctrine.

In June 2020, Putin himself signed a document outlining Russia’s nuclear doctrine and listing four scenarios for the use of nuclear deterrence. All four are defensive and there is no envisioning the use of nuclear weapons in an invasion, such as the conflict in Ukraine, or in response to sanctions.

The West denounces Putin’s “escalatory” order to put nuclear forces on alert

© REUTERS The most likely understanding of Putin’s order, Loos said, “is that it allows command and control systems to remain alert, shortening delays and simplifying the procedure for triggering errors.”

“When it comes to nuclear escalation, there are many steps that need to be taken,” he added. If Putin really wanted to raise the matter, “he would start referring directly to 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 launchers and submarines with nuclear warheads leaving port – almost all of which would be visible on satellite imagery.

Even then, Senovets warned that “the growing nuclear threat will only act as diplomatic blackmail, because Putin is well aware that if he uses nuclear weapons, Moscow will likely be bombed as well.”

Risk of a “tragic accident” if the goal is to frighten opponents in Kyiv and in the West, Putin’s gamble appears to have failed.

Asked whether Americans should be concerned about nuclear war, US President Joe Biden on Monday offered a quiet “no” in response, while both the State Department and NATO said they saw no reason to change their nuclear alert levels. He didn’t even mention the nuclear threat to Putin.

To extract concessions, the Russian leader may be tempted to send out more outspoken threats in the coming days, Loos warned, emphasizing that Putin finds himself in trouble both in Ukraine and on the international stage.

“International sanctions are getting more and more severe day by day, and the military offensive is not going as planned, which leaves Putin with few advantages other than nuclear weapons,” he explained.

However, Sokov warned that nuclear threats come at a heavy cost to 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 grave mistake that will do a lot of damage to Putin and Russia,” he said. “[Putin] He’ll come across as cranky, dangerous, and too eager to brandish a nuclear threat. This will only increase Russia’s isolation on the international stage.”

Sokov added that it is worrying that Russia’s nuclear escalation generates “a climate of uncertainty in which a tragic accident could occur.” He noted that a large share of Russian 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 thus increasing the risk of a preemptive strike.

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