Despite the ominous tone, the recent threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin have raised questions. The first concern is whether the Russians are truly aiming to deter the West from intervening in their internal affairs. It would be extremely risky to use a nuclear weapon on a civilian target like Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but Russia’s nuclear warheads are safely centralized in a centralized storage facility. The second concern is whether the threats are just a show of force.
Vladimir Putin’s Nuclear Threats are a Bluff
Whether Putin’s nuclear threats are a ploy or not remains to be seen. The Russian leader has carefully cultivated the image of a ruthless master strategist, unstoppable military force, and risk taker. This public façade of Putin only adds to the uncertainty of the nuclear poker game. Nuclear brinkmanship is not new, but few countries take it lightly. The key question is how far Putin is prepared to go.
The president of Russia has been deliberately vague about his nuclear weapons arsenal. His statements are not specific about his nuclear arsenal, but also refer to conventional long-range strike systems. Some of these systems are already being used in the conflict in Ukraine. Thus, it is not clear whether the president is trying to make a significant change in his nuclear posture. The threat of nuclear war may be a ploy to divert attention away from his military’s failures.
The Russian leader’s comments are incendiary. In a recent meeting with the legendary military strategist General Valery Gerasimov and defense minister Sergey Shoygu, Putin took a seat at the head of a long banquet table. His commanders looked like deer in the headlights. He also ordered his nuclear forces to go on “special combat duty alert” – a military term for the world preparing for a nuclear launch.
The Russian president’s threats are an elaborate bluff, and the West should not panic. The Russian threat to attack Ukraine is unlikely to result in nuclear war, but the West should remain resolute in its support for the Ukrainian people. The West should build a plan to deter such a nuclear attack and consult with NATO allies. Although the Russian president has been threatening nuclear war for months, the risk of escalation remains low.
Using a Nuclear Weapon to take Out Volodymyr Zelenskyy Would be Difficult and Risky
Taking out Volodymyr Zelenskyi would be very difficult and risky. It would require ironclad intelligence and would result in major civilian casualties. Russia would have to accept that its forces would be unable to enter an irradiated Kyiv. In addition, it would be very difficult for the Russians to use a nuclear weapon on Zelenskyy.
Using a nuclear weapon on Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former Ukrainian president, would not be a good idea. Russia would not be able to gain any tactical advantage on the battlefield. In addition, a nuclear attack would be very difficult and risky. In fact, the only plausible nuclear mission would be a Hiroshima-style “strategic” attack.
While the threshold for Putin to use nuclear weapons is hard to assess, he could do it in order to signal Russian defiance and the weakness of the U.S. or NATO. A nuclear attack on the Ukrainian military would be difficult and risky, but it would send a clear message that the situation could be much worse. While Putin would be tempted to use a nuclear weapon on Zelenskyy, he would probably be limited to a low-yield tactical nuke to avoid civilian casualties and prevent a reaction from NATO or the US. Moreover, the US would be hesitant to use nuclear weapons because of the high risks to civilian casualties.
There are a number of other options besides the use of nuclear weapons. For one thing, it would be a “crime against humanity” and cement Putin’s legacy as a mass murderer. A nuclear use in Ukraine would trigger more severe pushback against Russia. The Russian government is a rational actor and would want to avoid a nuclear exchange in general.
Using a Nuclear Weapon to Send a Signal to the West
If the West were to consider such an option, it should be understood that there are growing risks associated with such an option. Such a response would be a tough conventional one as well as a nuclear one. A nuclear weapon would be a powerful warning shot, but its effects on the surrounding region would be far greater. It is also worth remembering that the world has a limited amount of nuclear weapons, and the threat of a Russian test launch will only increase the likelihood that the West will respond in kind.
Using a nuclear weapon to send trough the Western world is the most controversial option. It is a major risk, but would represent an unprecedented change in history. It would require a massive scale military response from the West, which would demoralize the Ukrainian people. If Russia uses a nuclear weapon in this way, it will likely face “huge” consequences from the West. But the effects would be the exact opposite of what Russia seeks. The war would last for years, and both sides would be forced to fight in the long run.
The Biden administration has reportedly been war-gaming various scenarios of Russia using an atomic bomb in Ukraine. But current officials declined to speak on the record. While retaliation could be a costly mistake, it is arguably the most effective way to send a strong signal to Russia. If Russia were to use a nuclear weapon on the West, the United States would have to respond with conventional force. However, it could attack Russian troops in the Ukraine or attack the military unit that used the nuclear weapon.
Russia’s nuclear War heads are Kept in Centralized Storage
Since the end of the Cold War, Russia and the U.S. have reduced their nuclear arsenals. In 1967, the U.S. had 31,225 nuclear weapons, while the Soviet Union possessed 35,000 such weapons spread across eleven time zones and a vast Eurasian landmass. Regardless of who holds the largest nuclear arsenal, both countries still have nuclear weapons that can be used to attack other countries.
In peacetime, Russia’s nuclear warheads are stored in centralized storage. Should there be conflict, Russian forces may transfer these warheads from centralized storage to tactical bombers. Alternatively, Russian forces could mate these warheads with medium-range missiles or bombers, such as the S-400 air defense systems. These weapons could be used against the US and NATO forces in a crisis.
An inspection of warhead storage facilities could be a challenge. Some facilities are too sensitive to access, and some are privately owned. And there is a significant bureaucratic barrier to inspect former warhead storage facilities. In addition, the host state could always veto a request for an inspection, which is an important safeguard. However, it could lead to allegations of bad faith on the part of the host country.
The Russian Ministry of Defense maintains a dozen centralized storage facilities for nuclear weapons. These sites, known as “Object S,” are spread across the Russian Federation and house thousands of nuclear warheads and hydrogen bombs of different explosive yields. During the last three months, Russian officials have made numerous threats to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Podvig is the director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project and is now based in Geneva.
Using a Nuclear War Weapon to Guarantee Ukraine’s Immediate NATO Accession
The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 has caused some people in Kiev to consider the idea of using a nuclear weapon to ensure the immediate membership of their country in the European alliance. While Ukraine does not have a fully-fledged nuclear capability, it does have the technological capability to close the gap and a large number of people feel that the 1994 decision to abandon nuclear arms was a mistake. Many public figures in Ukraine now support rearmament. The Budapest Memorandum, signed in 1994 by world leaders, sought to protect the newly independent Ukraine and avoid any confrontation between nuclear-capable nations.
But Ukraine has no functional military and no experience controlling a nuclear arsenal. Ukraine also lacks the budget to operate TU-160 bomber jets, and has no operational control over its arsenal. Ultimately, Ukraine would be far more vulnerable if it had a nuclear weapon stockpile. Moreover, this would be an extremely unwise decision and could lead to further conflict.
But Russia’s president has made it clear that if he doesn’t get his way in Ukraine, he may resort to using a nuclear weapon against the country. He also raised the alert level of his nuclear forces. It is possible he may even consider martial law. If Russia were to attack Ukraine, it could lead to instability in the region and a weaker Putin regime at home.
But if Russia does not use a nuclear weapon in the immediate future, then the escalation of operations is not a good idea. It could end up in a war with Russia. But if the Russian annexation of Ukraine proves to be effective, the U.S., and NATO, can offer support to Ukraine. So it is in the interests of both countries to deter Russia from using a nuclear weapon.