How likely is the use of nuclear weapons by Russia?

Exploring key questions around Putin issuing what was interpreted as a threat to use nuclear weapons against NATO countries if they interfere in Ukraine.

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What is Putin’s nuclear weapons threat?

On 21 February, as part of his televised speech that heralded the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin issued what was interpreted as a threat to use nuclear weapons against NATO countries should they interfere in Ukraine. ‘Russia will respond immediately’ he said, ‘and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history’.

Then on 27 February, Putin ordered Russia to move nuclear forces to a ‘special mode of combat duty’, which has a significant meaning in terms of the protocols to launch nuclear weapons from Russia. According to Russian nuclear weapons experts, Russia’s command and control system cannot transmit launch orders in peacetime, so increasing the status to ‘combat’ allows a launch order to go through and be put into effect.

Putin portrayed this as a defensive response to the imposition of economic sanctions, but outside Russia it is seen as a pathway for Russia to use its nuclear weapons in a first strike surprise attack.

Following months of violent conflict and gains made in the east by a Ukraine counterattack, on 21 September Putin announced a ‘partial mobilization’ – a conscription of some 300,000 reservists – and a set of referendums in Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine with the intention of expanding Russian territory.

In addition, Putin made further – and stronger – nuclear threats and seemed to stretch Russian nuclear doctrine from nuclear weapons use being only in the event of an existential threat to instead a threat to territorial integrity – this is particularly worrying given that territory looks set to change and it is contested by Ukraine. 

These developments are escalating what was already a highly dangerous situation in which mixed messaging with the potential for misinterpretation could lead to decisions being made under false assumptions – there is a well-documented history of close calls with nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons deterrence was developed in the Cold War primarily on the basis of what was called ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD). The idea behind MAD is that the horror and destruction from nuclear weapons is enough to deter aggressive action and war. But the application of deterrence theory to the post-cold war realities is hotly contested and far more complicated in the era of cyberattacks which can interfere with the command and control of nuclear weapons.

Which countries have nuclear weapons?

There are five recognized nuclear weapons states under the global nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US. Almost every country in the world participates in the NPT but outside the Treaty three more countries openly declare their possession of nuclear weapons – India, Pakistan, and North Korea – while Israel has not declared the possession of nuclear weapons but is assumed to have them.

The application of deterrence theory to the post-cold war realities is hotly contested and far more complicated in the era of cyberattacks

Nuclear weapons can be divided into different categories depending on their delivery vehicles and launch platforms – land, sea, or air missiles and short, intermediate, and long-range missiles. The US and Russia exchange information on their strategic, long-range nuclear missiles under the New START agreement – a treaty to reduce and monitor nuclear weapons between the two countries.

But with the US decision to exit the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019, there are no longer any agreements between the US and Russia regulating the number or the deployment of ground-launched nuclear missiles with a range of 500-5,500 kilometres. Short-range nuclear weapons were withdrawn and put in storage as a result of the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives but are not subject to any legal restraints.

At the 10th NPT Review Conference in New York, the issue of nuclear weapons threats and the targeting of nuclear power stations in Ukraine were central to the debate. In the end a document that was carefully crafted so that the concerns about the three pillars of the treaty – non-proliferation nuclear disarmament and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy – were all finely balanced, but Russia withdrew its agreement on the last day of the conference, scuppering progress.

Would Russia use nuclear weapons?

It had been assumed if Russia were to use nuclear weapons it would do so in its attack on Ukraine, not to attack a NATO state which could trigger Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and set off a full NATO response.

In such an attack, short range, lower yield ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapons – of which there are thought to be more than 1,000 in reserve – are thought to be the most likely used. These would have to be taken from storage and either connected to missiles, placed in bombers, or as shell in artillery.

Early in 2022, Putin supervised an exercise focusing on the readiness of military command and control, combat crews, warships, and strategic missile carriers, as well as the reliability of strategic nuclear and non-nuclear weapons. The drill involved Russia’s Aerospace Forces, its Southern Military District, Strategic Missile Forces, Northern Fleet, and Black Sea Fleet.

However, increasingly the rhetoric suggests these nuclear threats are a more direct threat to NATO – not only Ukraine – and could refer to longer range, higher yield nuclear weapons.

In his 21 September speech, Putin alleged nuclear blackmail by NATO states saying: ‘Nuclear blackmail was also launched. We are talking not only about the shelling of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant … but also to the statements made by some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO countries on the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction – nuclear weapons – against Russia.

He added: ‘I would like to remind those who make such statements regarding Russia that our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO countries have. In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff. The citizens of Russia can rest assured that the territorial integrity of our Motherland, our independence and freedom will be defended – I repeat – by all the systems available to us. Those who are using nuclear blackmail against us should know that the wind rose can turn around.’

There have been no expressed nuclear weapons threats from NATO states of which three – France, the UK and the US – possess nuclear weapons. NATO does rely on nuclear weapons as a form of deterrence and has recently committed to significantly strengthen its longer-term deterrence and defence posture in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

And, as part of the recent Conservative Party leadership campaign in the UK the successful candidate Liz Truss replied in the affirmative when asked if she would ‘press the button’ – but this is a question all UK prime ministers are asked by the media and to answer yes is understood to be merely a signal of commitment to nuclear deterrence. It should not be interpreted as a direct threat to any country. 

Any movement to ready and deploy Russian nuclear weapons would be seen and monitored by US and others’ satellites, which can see through cloud cover and at night. Depending on other intelligence and analysis – and the failure of all diplomatic attempts to dissuade Russia – NATO countries may decide to intervene to prevent launch by bombing storage sites and missile deployment sites in advance.

But there are enormous risks associated with this decision, as to attack might precipitate a far worse attack from Russia and could be characterized as an act of aggression by NATO rather than of pre-emptive defence. However, not to pre-empt leaves Ukraine or other countries – including the UK, US, and other NATO states – open to nuclear weapons explosions with the possibility of hundreds of thousands dead, depending on the target.

How would NATO respond to a Russian nuclear attack?

If Russia were to attack Ukraine with nuclear weapons, NATO countries would most likely respond on the grounds that the impact of nuclear weapons crosses borders and affects the countries surrounding Ukraine. NATO could respond either by using conventional forces on Russian strategic assets, or respond in kind using nuclear weapons as it has several options available.

The US has around 150 B-61 nuclear gravity bombs stationed in five NATO countries – Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey – and the US, UK, and France also have long range capability for nuclear attacks under NATO auspices.

Any movement to ready and deploy Russian nuclear weapons would be seen and monitored by US and others’ satellites, which can see through cloud cover and at night

But both scenarios mean NATO being drawn into a major war with Russia and so the advantage of deciding to hold back on nuclear retaliation – and communicating that response as NATO has repeatedly done throughout the conflict – is that Putin cannot credibly portray NATO as threatening Russia with nuclear weapons.

It is always possible that Putin may decide to launch a long-range ballistic missile attack against the US or the UK, but he knows – as do all his officials – that this would be the end of Russia.

If such a decision were made, it is hoped senior military personnel would recognise the full implications and choose to take other actions. History is replete with instances of close calls when individuals acted to prevent a dangerous situation from escalating to full nuclear weapons use.  

At the UN General Assembly in September 2022 many countries expressed shock and condemned the overt nuclear weapons threat by Putin. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the war has already caused ‘unspeakable suffering and devastation’ in Ukraine, and that the latest developments, including the potential for nuclear catastrophe, will only lead to an ‘endless cycle of horror and bloodshed’.

Does or did Ukraine have nuclear weapons?

As part of the USSR, Ukraine hosted Soviet nuclear missiles along with Belarus and Kazakhstan and, at the end of the Cold War, Ukraine hosted approximately one-third of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons but did not have control over them and so could not have launched them.

In 1994, Ukraine committed to joining the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state and agreed to transfer all nuclear warheads to Russia for elimination by 1996. As part of this arrangement, Russia, the UK, and the US along with Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan signed the Budapest Memorandum to provide security assurances if the former Soviet states joined the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states.

The Memorandum agreed that Belarusian, Kazakh, and Ukrainian independence and sovereignty would be respected in the extant borders, that parties would refrain from the threat or the use of force – and specifically from the use of nuclear weapons – against Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, and from using economic pressure to influence their politics.

They also agreed immediate United Nations (UN) Security Council action to help Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine if they were a ‘victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used’.

On 27 February, in a stage-managed national referendum on constitutional reforms, Belarus voted to allow Russian forces and nuclear weapons and Russian forces to be hosted on a permanent basis, going against the terms of the Budapest memorandum. Belarus also allowed Russian troops to use Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine from the north.

What role does nuclear power play in any threat?

Having civil nuclear power plants and developing nuclear weapons are distinct categories, and the third pillar of the NPT promotes the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Although some countries view the production of civil nuclear energy as a proliferation risk, there are many measures to verify a country’s status such as International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards and verification and export control regimes.

In total, there are 15 nuclear reactors scattered across Ukraine and the country depends on nuclear power for half of its electricity needs – its energy production is composed of nuclear (54 per cent) coal (29 per cent), natural gas (eight per cent), hydro (five per cent), solar (two per cent), and wind (one per cent).

How likely is the use of nuclear weapons by Russia? 2nd part

But Ukraine’s civil nuclear energy programme is dependent on Russian nuclear fuel as all 15 reactors are Russian VVER types, and some have even been upgraded to newer models. However, in recent years Ukraine has begun developing energy cooperation with the European Union (EU) as well.

In 1986, the nuclear power station at Chernobyl in Ukraine caught fire and a major radioactive emergency ensued causing enormous damage over many years. The site is no longer functioning as an energy producing facility, the site of the fire has been made safe, and the EU has been developing a storage facility with Ukraine at Chernobyl.

But the Russian military took control of the Chernobyl site as part of the invasion, although it is not clear why – possibly due diligence and the prevention of theft, or to scare people who may think there is still a threat from Chernobyl.

Although a missile attack on a nuclear power plant could result in a serious radioactive incident, it is not at as dangerous as a nuclear weapon explosion, which would have far more severe impacts in terms of explosive force, fires, radiation, and radioactive fallout.

But throughout Russia’s 2022 war against Ukraine, Russian troops have sought to occupy nuclear power stations and have targeted them in attempts to cut off power production and deny Ukraine much-needed energy.

This has also increased the fear of a civil nuclear accident akin to the Fukushima nuclear meltdown disaster in 2011, and invoked memories of the Chernobyl disaster which spread radioactive debris all over Europe.

This article was first published on 1 March 2022 and updated on 23 September 2022.