The United States and its European allies take Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats very seriously. After signing laws last week illegally annexing four Ukrainian provinces, the Russian president has said he is ready to use all means at his disposal to defend what he considers his territory. And he wasn’t bluffing. Western intelligence and most analysts say that while the risk of a nuclear attack is still very low, it is significantly higher than when the invasion began. The Ukrainian counter-offensive, the high mortality of Russian troops and the growing dissatisfaction in Russia with the conscription campaign and Western sanctions have put Putin in a very delicate situation – from which he could try to get out using his nuclear arsenal.
US President Joe Biden said on Thursday the risk of a nuclear ‘Armageddon’ was at its highest since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. “For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat to the use of nuclear weapons, if in fact things continue on the path they have been on,” he said during a meeting with donors in New York, a relaxed environment that may have prompted his unscripted remark. The White House was quick to point out that the president’s statement was not due to the arrival of new intelligence regarding the possibility of an attack.
Meanwhile in Brussels, headquarters of the European Union and NATO, officials are calling for calm. Their message is that while the nuclear threat is real, the rhetoric about a possible attack needs to be toned down because Putin could use it as ammunition. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned on Friday that Putin’s threats must be taken seriously and that the EU would continue to support Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.
The Russian nuclear arsenal is the largest in the world. More is known about Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons than its tactical weapons. Under New START, the only bilateral disarmament and arms control treaty still in force, Russia must notify Washington of its strategic nuclear weapons. Whereas tactical weapons, which are designed for use on the battlefield, have never been regulated. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that Russia has nearly 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons. The United States began destroying its tactical nuclear weapons after the fall of the Berlin Wall on the grounds that they were no longer needed and that storing them posed a risk. It now has just over 200.
Tactical nuclear weapons have a shorter range and power than strategic weapons, which can cross oceans and destroy entire cities. Tactical nuclear weapons typically have yields between 1 and 50 kilotons. But the United States, and it is reasonable to think that Russia too, has tactical weapons of about 0.3 kilotonnes (300 tons of TNT), which can cause an explosion comparable to the explosion of 2020 which has hit the port of Beirut, Lebanon. Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, exploded with an energy of about 15 kilotons. In October 1961, just a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the USSR detonated a 50 megaton bomb on the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya, some 1,700 times more powerful than the first atomic bomb that the United States United dropped on Japan in the final stages of World War II.
Most experts agree that if Putin decided to use his nuclear arsenal, he would probably opt for the use of tactical weapons in Ukraine. Marion Messmer, a researcher at the British analysis center Chatham House, told EL PAÍS by telephone that “a strategic atomic weapon attack against a member of NATO would lead to the devastation of Russia”. The NATO alliance, led by the United States and the United Kingdom, has provided essential military assistance to Ukraine, sending weapons and helping with training and intelligence. But NATO countries do not want the Kremlin to interpret their support for Ukraine as direct intervention in the conflict, as this could lead to full-scale nuclear war.
Far from dampening alarm over Putin’s nuclear threat, Poland has asked Washington to harbor US nuclear weapons on its territory. Polish regional authorities have also announced that they are working to establish supplies of potassium iodide tablets and distribution points for them in the event of a nuclear emergency. In response to Poland’s request, Washington replied that it had no intention of stockpiling atomic weapons in any NATO country that joined the alliance after 1997. Pavel Podvig, of the Institute for Disarmament Research, said Warsaw’s request “does not make strategic sense”. .” He explains: “We are still a few steps away from a situation in which the risk of using nuclear weapons is obvious. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a BBC interview aired on Friday that Russian officials had begun to “prepare their society” for the possible use of nuclear weapons, although he added that he did not believe that Moscow is ready to take this step.
Putin’s nuclear threats are not new. In March 2015, a year after illegally annexing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, he threatened to stage a nuclear attack on Danish submarines after Denmark announced its intention to join NATO’s missile defense system. . In late February, less than 72 hours after the start of the invasion of Ukraine, as Russia suffered its first military setbacks, Putin ordered his military to put his country’s nuclear deterrent forces into “special mode”. of fight”. The bombastic message has baffled analysts and has so far led to no concrete action, according to Western intelligence agencies.
In recent months, Putin has threatened NATO members, such as the UK and Germany, while Russian war hawks have openly called for a nuclear attack on Ukraine. Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen Republic, said in a message on Telegram that Russia should consider using “low-intensity nuclear weapons in Ukraine”.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also warned that Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons is “not a bluff”. “I believe that NATO would not intervene directly in the conflict even in this scenario,” he posted on Telegram, in reference to a nuclear attack. “After all, the security of Washington, London, Brussels is far more important to the North Atlantic Alliance than the fate of a dying Ukraine that nobody needs.”
“Demagogues in Europe and overseas do not want to die in a nuclear apocalypse,” added Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council. “Therefore, they will swallow the use of any weapon in the current conflict.”
The tactical nuclear weapons available to Russia are very diverse. Some can be fired from ground launchers, others from fighters and bombers. Most are in the hands of the Russian naval force. Some of the vehicles capable of carrying these nuclear warheads, such as the Iskander ballistic missile or the Kalibr cruise missile, have been used in Ukraine with conventional warheads. But in principle, there are very few advantages to using nuclear weapons on the battlefield, instead of conventional weapons. “They are not used to stop a counter-offensive or to progress down the field,” says Podvig. “Unless you’re willing to use hundreds of them.”
A nuclear attack with tactical weapons on a target in Ukraine is a risky step for Russia. If the attack were launched against an enemy military base near the front, the radiation would likely spread through the territory Putin has annexed, and also affect Russian troops in the area. On the other hand, if the attack targeted a Ukrainian city far from the contested areas, it would be a major escalation with unpredictable consequences. Messmer argues that “breaking the nuclear taboo would make Russia a veritable international pariah”, since countries like China, India and South Africa would be forced to condemn the attack.
Climb to defuse
While Russia’s nuclear arsenal might not be able to achieve any concrete goal on the ground, Putin could use it strategically to defuse the conflict. Putin must undo the perception that he is losing the war and may see a tactical nuclear attack as the only option to get the Ukrainian government to sit down at a negotiating table and make concessions.
Unlike strategic nuclear weapons, tactical nuclear weapons must be prepared several days in advance before they can be used. Using satellite images, Western intelligence could detect if Russia was about to transport a nuclear warhead.
Biden warned Putin he would face “catastrophic consequences” if he decided to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but did not specify what that would entail. Former CIA Director David Petraeus said in an ABC News interview that if there was a nuclear attack in Ukraine, the United States would have to respond by annihilating Russian troops in the invaded country and destroying the Russian Black Sea Fleet. But Putin may be hoping such a move will tempt Ukraine’s allies to back down.
In addition to the growing risk of a nuclear attack, there are growing concerns about a disaster at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is under Russian occupation. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, recalled on Friday that in addition to threatening to use nuclear weapons, “Russia has decided to occupy the largest nuclear power plant in Europe to install a military base there”. He added: “We have no intention of being intimidated; we are committed to defending the interests of those who believe in international law and the rules-based order.