Might Vladimir Putin use a nuclear weapon? The calculations are changing


The nuclear bluster and threats from many of those connected to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have, at times, been bone-chilling.

“The horsemen of the apocalypse” are on their way, Dmitry Medvedev warned this past week. The former Russian president, whom many European countries once considered to be relatively friendly to the West, had days earlier condemned the leaders of those same countries, vowing to “do everything to make them disappear.”

But as President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine reaches the four-month mark, there have also been notable shifts in how both sides may be assessing the so-called nuclear “red lines.”

In an interview with BBC News around the same time, Russia’s Ambassador to the U.K. sounded definitive when he asserted that nuclear weapons have “nothing to do with the current operation.”

And other Russia-watchers say they believe there is rationality behind such proclamations.

“I think the risk of a nuclear threat right now is pretty low — as long as Russia feels it’s winning,” said Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based defence think-tank.

A Russian YARS intercontinental ballistic missile is launched as part of a military exercise in February 2022, just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Russian Ministry of Defence)

Western and Ukrainian defence officials claim Russia’s losses range from between 15,000 and 33,000 soldiers killed, and possibly as many as 1,500 tanks destroyed. Either figure represents a stunning loss of combat strength for Russia’s army in a remarkably short period of time.

But Kremlin officials and Putin himself continue to insist publicly that their “special military operation” is accomplishing its goals and is going well.

In the weeks following Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, Western countries, including Canada, were extremely hesitant to provide what were perceived as “offensive” weapons to Ukraine at the risk of provoking Russia to expand the conflict or to cause the Kremlin to turn to its huge nuclear arsenal.

But Chalmers said such fears have abated.

“We started the war with this rather artificial distinction between defensive weapons, which were OK — anti-tank weapons — and offensive weapons like tanks which were not OK. And we’ve moved substantially beyond that,” he told CBC News in an interview.

“Now the United States is saying: ‘We’ll only supply particular weapons if they’re not used against Russia’s own territory.'”

Lines blurred

In some instances, Russia has even assisted the West by blurring the lines.   

While Russian media have reported a number of significant explosions and possible Ukrainian attacks on its side of the border, the Kremlin has been coy about attributing blame.

In a segment on his weekly news program, Russian propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov warned the U.K. government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson that Russia could easily wipe the United Kingdom off the map by firing a single nuclear torpedo from a Russian submarine. (Russia 1 Channel.)

“What we haven’t seen is Ukrainian artillery strikes into Russian territory, into places that everybody recognizes as Russian. That hasn’t happened and pretty clear signals from the United States that they are encouraging Ukrainians to stick to that red line,” said Chalmers.

That’s not to say that the threat of the conflict going nuclear is insignificant — or it couldn’t escalate to that, he said.

“Where the risk rises is if there is some sort of catastrophic collapse of Russian conventional capability — which could happen — and they begin to lose quite a lot of territory,” he told CBC News in an interview at RUSI’s London offices.

For the moment, the likelihood of a Ukrainian rout of Russian forces in their country appears exceedingly remote.  Indeed, in the worst moments of the ongoing battle for Severodonetsk, a top Ukrainian official suggested up to 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers were either being killed or wounded every day.

Nonetheless, President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to drive Russian troops off every bit of land they’ve captured.

Ukrainian service members hold a Javelin missile system, at a position on the front line in the north Kyiv region.
Ukrainian service members hold a Javelin missile system at a position on the front line in the north Kyiv region on March 13, 2022. The Javelin was among the earliest of the weapons supplied by the United States to reach Ukraine. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

A key question will be how the Kremlin defines the territories it has captured from Ukraine — starting with the limited proxy war it began fighting with Ukraine in 2014 right up until its most recent conquests in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and southern Kherson area.

“The question is, what is Russia’s own territory? Is it as Russia defines it? Or as others define it?” said Chalmers.

Some American politicians have openly mused about the possibility that Putin might attempt a nuclear demonstration by blowing up a device over the Black Sea as a way to demoralize Ukrainian troops or force a surrender.

Unexpected consequences

But Chalmers sees that as increasingly unlikely as well.

“I think the problem with demonstration shots is that they can either be too little or too large,” meaning it could easily trigger unexpected consequences, such as a ferocious response or none at all, he said.

Ukrainian service members fire a shell from a M777 Howitzer near a frontline
Ukrainian service members fire a shell from a M777 Howitzer near a front line, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on June 6, 2022. (Reuters)

Other experts who study Russia’s nuclear force posture also see indications that the Kremlin is signalling that detonating a nuclear device is a last resort.

When more than 100,000 Russian soldiers and hundreds of their tanks and other vehicles rolled across the border into Ukraine in the early morning of Feb. 25, Putin announced he was putting Russia’s nuclear forces on special alert — without saying precisely what that meant.

His warning sounded ominous. 

“No matter who tries to stand in our way … they must know that Russia will respond immediately and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history,” he said.

Malcolm Chalmers is deputy director-general of RUSI, a security and defence think-tank in London, England. (Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC)

But Pavel Podvig, a researcher at the Geneva-based UN Institute for Disarmament, said after listening carefully to Russia’s leadership, he’s concluded they are extremely unlikely to break the “taboo” on detonating a nuclear weapon.

“If you look at the statements made by officials, they are normally very careful and they are normally emphasized that, well, the Russian doctrine says that there is only certain circumstances when Russia would have reserved the right to use nuclear weapons, and that would be the the threat to the very existence of the state,” he told CBC News.

“That does not necessarily mean that we are completely out of the woods. But as I said, I hope that the gravity of these weapons is understood by [Russia’s] leadership.”

Weapons stockpile

In addition to his UN work, Podvig maintains a blog, Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, where he updates key developments in Russia’s nuclear capabilities.

His site states that Russia has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world, with a total of 5,977, including a sizable number that are now considered old or obsolete, a number verified by the Federation of American Scientists, which has tracked such statistics for decades. 

Of those not considered old or obsolete, Podvig said approximately 1,200 weapons are permanently attached to fleets of strategic bombers and nuclear submarines, most of which can be deployed or launched within minutes of receiving an order.

Launchers for the YARS thermonuclear intercontinental ballistic missile are prepared to be taken to Moscow for the Victory Day parade in May 2022. (Russian Ministry of Defence)

The remainder — including lower-yield devices that are sometimes referred to as “tactical” or “battlefield” weapons — are kept in 35 storage facilities at military bases around Russia, including several in close proximity to Ukraine’s border.

Given that many missiles are kept separately from their launchers, Podvig said there is “a good chance” that any Russian move to deploy a nuclear weapon in the context of Ukraine would be noticed by the West — and so far, he said, there has been no indication of any such activity.

‘No good military options’

Podvig said there are “no good military options” for using such smaller devices on the battlefield and the political and economic costs for Russia in terms of global isolation and possible Western retaliation would be so huge that Putin’s regime would have nothing to gain by doing so.

“I think it is still not quite correct to think about this kind of a process as completely detached from any kind of notion of humanity,” he said of the thinking of Russia’s leadership.

The online platform War on the Rocks, which posts analysis of the military aspects of the Ukraine war, came to much the same conclusion as Podvig.

A couple walks in front of the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine K-549 Knyaz Vladimir anchored ahead of the Navy Day parade in Kronstadt, Russia, on July 16, 2021. (Igor Russak/Reuters)

“Nuclear deterrence is working and, as a result, both the United States and Russia face constraints in how they approach conflict that involves the other,” wrote authors Jeffrey Lewis and Aaron Stein.

“Nuclear deterrence has limited the escalation of the conflict in profound ways.”

Nonetheless, other nuclear watchdogs take a more pessimistic view about Russia’s inclination to press the nuclear button at some point.

A report last week from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute stated: “The risk of nuclear weapons being used seems higher now than at any time since the height of the Cold War.” 

An underground bunker in Finland.
Finland has applied to join NATO to get the protection of NATO’s nuclear umbrella. For 60 years, city planners have been designing nuclear-weapons proof bunkers to protect the population should Russia attack. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Notably, the Finnish government has cited Russia’s threatening nuclear posture as the key reason why its government decided to end 70 years of non-alignment and formally apply to join NATO.

“This is one of the very profound changes that have very rapidly taken place in Finland,” said Matti Pesu, an analyst with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Finland shares a 1,300-kilometre border with Russia and lost about 10 per cent of its territory in the Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40.   

In fact, Finns have been so concerned about Russia’s nuclear arsenal that throughout the Cold War and even afterwards, city officials built a series of nuclear fallout bunkers under the capital, Helsinki, to protect the population in the event of another Russian attack.

Pesu said while the risk of Russia actually using a nuclear device against Finland or another country remains low, the chance Russia’s leadership would try to use their weapons to intimidate or coerce Finland is much higher.

“Finland could be more susceptible to nuclear coercion and Russia would be more willing to use nukes as a political tool, simply because Finland is not in NATO.”

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