At the beginning of the Russian military operation in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin indirectly raised the possibility of a nuclear strike on any country interfering in the conflict.
Here are some of the key issues surrounding Putin’s use of nuclear weapons, a possibility many Western analysts and diplomats consider remote.
What did Russia say about nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war?
In a speech announcing the start of the military operation in Ukraine on February 24, Putin issued a tacit but unequivocal ultimatum that if the West intervened in what he described as a “special military operation,” he could use nuclear weapons in response.
“Whoever tries to stand in our way or… threaten our country and our people, they should know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be like you have not seen in your entire history,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin translation.
Three days later, on February 27, Putin ordered his military leaders to put Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces on high alert, citing what he described as aggressive statements by NATO leaders and Western economic sanctions on Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also spoke of the dangers of nuclear war, although he said Moscow was doing everything it could to prevent it.
“I don’t want to artificially exaggerate these risks,” Lavrov said last week. “Many would. The danger is serious and real, and we should not underestimate it,” prompting the US State Department to describe his comments as “the height of irresponsibility.”
While Washington has not observed any measures indicating that Russia’s nuclear forces are on high alert, Western experts and officials cautioned against viewing the comments as mere threat given the risk of Putin using nuclear weapons if he feels trapped in Ukraine or if NATO goes to war.
From the battlefront in eastern Ukraine
* What did the West say about Putin’s implicit threats?
US officials quickly described Putin’s statements about placing Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert as dangerous, escalatory and completely unacceptable, while NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described them as aggressive and irresponsible.
But US officials immediately made it clear that they did not see any indications that the Russian forces had changed their nuclear stance, and the US military said it saw no reason to change its position.
On February 28, US President Joe Biden asked the American people not to worry about a nuclear war with Russia. Asked whether American citizens should be concerned about it, he replied, “No.”
* What are the chances of Russia using nuclear weapons?
Biden’s comment appears to reflect a widespread view among American experts and Western officials that the chances of Russia using nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war are very low.
“Since 1945, every leader with nuclear power … has rejected the use of nuclear weapons in battle for good reasons,” Gideon Rose, the former editor-in-chief of Foreign Affairs, wrote last week.
“Putin will not be an exception, as he is acting in a pragmatic manner. He knows that it will call for extraordinary retaliation and global contempt, with no reason to justify it,” he added.
Western experts and diplomats pointed out that the main goal of Russian threats to launch a nuclear attack is to deter Washington and its NATO allies from directly participating in the war.
“They can’t be trusted. He’s trying to intimidate the West,” said a Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
How can Russia use a nuclear weapon?
While Western countries have supplied Ukraine with weapons since the invasion, Biden said last year that putting US forces on the ground in Ukraine was “not on the table.”
The United States and its allies do not want to engage in a conventional war with Russia, let alone do anything that might ignite a nuclear conflict.
And if Russia were to use nuclear weapons, experts saw a range of possibilities, from a bombing over the Black Sea or an uninhabited part of Ukraine to demonstrate its capabilities to a strike on a Ukrainian military target or a city.
However, the use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine could endanger Russian forces and lead to a radioactive effect on Russia itself.
How can the West respond?
Some analysts said Washington might opt for a conventional military response rather than a nuclear counterstrike that could harm US allies or lead to further nuclear escalation that puts Europe or the US mainland at risk.
“What I would suggest instead is that the United States and NATO respond with overwhelming conventional military, political and diplomatic force to further isolate Russia and seek to further isolate Russia,” said Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association, a non-profit group that seeks to educate the public about arms control. To end the conflict without escalating into an all-out nuclear war.”
How can a Russian strike change the nuclear landscape?
NATO may seek to redesign its US-made ballistic missile shield in Poland and Romania to shoot down Russian missiles in the future. The alliance has long argued that the current design is aimed at countering missiles from Iran, Syria, and rogue actors in the Middle East.
It is not yet clear whether the Russian strike might raise the possibility of other nuclear states such as India and Pakistan using such weapons. If it leads to global condemnation, experts said, it could reduce the chances of others using nuclear weapons.