Three days after launching the biggest invasion of another European nation since World War II, President Vladimir Putin put the world on notice: In a televised meeting, he ordered Russian nuclear forces to “special combat preparation.”
In case anyone didn’t get the first message, Dmitry Kisleyov, a pompous host on state television, hammered it home a few hours later: “Now Russia’s entire nuclear triad has been placed on special alert. Putin warned [the world]. Don’t try to scare Russia.
Western officials took heed – although privately they said they were less concerned with words than with deeds. In the fourth week after the invasion, US officials said there was no indication that anything had changed for Russian nuclear weapons launched by silo, submarine, truck or air.
Yet threat or bluster, Putin’s nuclear saber slashes amid a hot war in Europe have reignited attention on how Russia is planning the “unthinkable” – the use of the largest nuclear arsenal in the world – and how the nuclear policies of other countries, primarily the United States, might play into this.
“Few wars, if any, have been launched with as much nuclear posturing as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” said Olga Oliker, director of the International Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia program, in a statement. article published by the journal Foreign Affairs a few days after Putin’s intervention. announcement.
“I think the main thing is that the Russian doctrine allows the use of nuclear in the event of an existential threat to the state,” she said in a follow-up message to RFE/RL. “Regime change is probably an existential threat to the state. But the usefulness of nuclear weapons for this is not entirely clear. But there is a real danger here.
“The threat from Putin is unprecedented in the post-Cold War era – and unacceptable,” Daryl Kimball, head of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said in a statement the day after the order. Putin TV. “There has been no instance in which an American or Russian leader has raised the alert level of its nuclear forces in the midst of a crisis in order to try to coerce the behavior of the other party.”
In 2020, Russian military planners released a new strategic document that offered more clarity on when Moscow might use nuclear weapons and what might justify it.
the documenttitled Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence, stated that the use of nuclear weapons was an option only as a retaliatory measure against the use of weapons nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction – or if “the very existence of the state is in danger.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated this directive in comments to CNN March 22. Refusing to rule out the use of nuclear weapons, he stressed that Russian policy allowed it in the event of an “existential threat to our country”.
On one level, this is highly unlikely: Moscow is on the offensive in Ukraine, after all, and neither Kyiv nor NATO is threatening to attack Russia, much less such a devastating attack.
For many analysts, however, a problem arises if the Kremlin and military commanders equate the existence of the Russian state with Putin’s regime.
And in Putin’s Russia – where the speaker of parliament has declared that there is no Russia without Putin, and where top officials casually accuse the West of plotting the country’s demise – it is not so wacky.
On March 23, Putin’s longtime ally, former president and current deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev hinted that escalating tensions could lead to a nuclear disaster and alleged that Washington was engaged in a long-term plot to destroy Russia.
“The logic here is simple: if the change of government is forced from outside, the state is no longer sovereign,” said Nikolai Sokov, senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation and former Soviet and Russian diplomat who participated. in major arms control negotiations.
“That’s why I think the most risky period will be after the fighting is over and the West will have to decide what to do with Russia. If it goes too far – the Iraqi scenario – then I don’t rule out the use of nuclear,” he said.
“Ultimately, the use of nuclear should not be limited to military contingencies. It is possible to defeat a state using non-military tools, so (1) the use of nuclear is possible in peacetime and (2) politics must be very carefully calibrated,” he said in a statement. E-mail.
In 2018, the administration of President Donald Trump published a doctrine document which explained both American and Russian thinking on the use of nuclear weapons.
“Russian strategy and doctrine emphasize the potential coercive and military uses of nuclear weapons,” the newspaper said. Moscow “erroneously believes that the threat of nuclear escalation or the first actual use of nuclear weapons would serve to ‘de-escalate’ a conflict on terms favorable to Russia. These misperceptions increase the possibility of dangerous miscalculations and escalations.
As far as Ukraine is concerned, said a prominent Russian expert on nuclear issues, the conflict remains “strictly local”. In other words, beyond the provision of arms and intelligence, NATO and the United States have tried to stay out of the way.
They’re “taking the necessary steps to keep it that way, and Russia, albeit with fairly explicit nuclear signaling, recognizes that,” said the expert, who asked to speak anonymously due to growing concerns over government pressure on analysts and independent media.
Moreover, Russia has not deployed its full conventional arsenal: “The images of Mariupol or Volnovakha are extremely depressing, but they give a glimpse of what is possible, and on a much larger scale.”
“Thus, there are no conditions for the use of nuclear,” he said.
A Russian nuclear strike would mean “we are entering the uncharted waters of nuclear war. And a nuclear war can never be won,” he said.
New START, old START
Until the Russian invasion, arms control was one of the few areas where the United States and Russia could still talk to each other.
Even as relations soured — over Crimea, election interference, Syria, the Kremlin’s poisoning of dissidents and other issues — Moscow and Washington maintained caps on their nuclear arsenals.
The Trump administration has withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. But Trump did not withdraw from New START, the only remaining agreement limiting US and Russian nuclear forces.
Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, made it his administration’s top priority to agree with Russia to extend the treaty by five years, and former Cold War foes did so just days after he entered. in operation in 2021.
For many Western experts, the Kremlin’s willingness to extend New START was an indication that Moscow was rational — and pragmatic — about its nuclear arsenal.
But this treaty does not include tactical or non-strategic nuclear weapons – less powerful weapons that are not designed to be launched at distant cities atop long-range missiles, but for local use on the battlefield. American intelligence services believe that Russia has more than 1,500 of them.
According to a Congressional Research Service report released this month, the United States has far fewer, about 230 in total. About 100 of them are deployed in Europe – mostly gravity bombs designed to be dropped by jets – something Moscow has complained about for years.
“Russian statements, combined with military exercises that appeared to simulate the use of nuclear weapons against NATO members, led many to believe that Russia might threaten to use its non-strategic nuclear weapons to coerce or intimidate its neighbours,” the CRS report said.
For the moment, fears of instability or confusion within the Kremlin or in the strategic command structure that oversees Russian nuclear weapons operations are non-existent, according to Western officials, who say that the command and control procedures and the chain of authority overseeing launch decisions is robust and competent and professional.
In recent days, US and UK officials have publicly and privately suggested that Putin was misled by his closest advisers – both on Russia’s capabilities heading into war and on ongoing operations.
That makes the use of nuclear weapons even more unlikely, said Kimberly Marten, an expert on Russian foreign and security policy at Barnard College at Columbia University in New York.
It “implies that there is a screen of presumably rational officers, who themselves do not want to experience nuclear war, who serve as a filter between Putin’s emotional reactions and the battlefield,” she said. to RFE/RL in an e-mail.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say nuclear use won’t happen,” she said. “I remain concerned about a miscalculation or an error that results from an unintended confrontation and escalation between Russian and NATO forces in a border area, for example.”
The other reckoning for the Kremlin, experts say, is whether the limited use of a nuclear or chemical weapon in Ukraine would result in exactly what it has been emphatically warning against: NATO intervention. in the conflict, caused, for example, by radioactive fallout drifting into the member states of the alliance.
“I think Russia would use nuclear weapons to keep war from becoming existential for them, and any war with NATO is existential,” Oliker said. “So there is a real risk if NATO states get directly involved.”