Why—and how—the world should condemn Putin for waving the nuclear saber

By Pavel Podvig | March 29, 2022

Photo credit: www.kremlin.ru. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.

Nuclear weapons have been part of the current war in Ukraine from the beginning—not in a physical way, but as a threat Russia deliberately introduced to shape the conflict. In announcing the launch of the “special military operation,” President Putin warned that any attempt to interfere will be met with an immediate response with catastrophic consequences. Three days later, as if to make sure that the message was received, the president ordered Russian strategic forces to be put on a “special mode of combat duty.” As the war has unfolded, Russian officials of various ranks have not shied away from reminding the world that Russia is a nuclear power with an ability to use its nuclear weapons.

Russia’s willingness to use nuclear weapons to protect its war against Ukraine is unsurprising. This is how nuclear deterrence is supposed to work. What is surprising, however, is the blunt nature in which nuclear weapons have been openly put on the table. Such explicit messaging is very dangerous and should be condemned in the most forceful way.

Although the political message is clear, the reality on the ground is more complicated. A large portion of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces, as well as US ones—more than 1,000 warheads on each side—is constantly in a very high degree of readiness. Intercontinental ballistic missiles can be launched within minutes of receiving a launch order. Strategic submarines on patrol are also ready to launch their ballistic missiles on a short notice. This force could be brought to an even higher alert level, for example by dispersing mobile missiles in a forest or by sending submarines to the sea. But by all indications, none of this has been done.

Other weapons in Russia’s nuclear arsenal, including those assigned to strategic bombers, non-strategic missiles, and aircraft, are normally not deployed. This means that no launchers roam around with nuclear-armed missiles on them, and no aircraft are sitting on tarmac ready to take off with nuclear bombs or cruise missiles. These weapons are in secure storage facilities, usually at least several kilometers away from their delivery systems and often even farther. Of course, they could be brought closer and deployed, but the United States would most certainly detect such a visible step. There are no signs that this has been done so far.

Ukraine and the post-Cold War world

The “special mode” appears to have mostly involved increasing the number of personnel on duty and telling them to be more vigilant. It may have also involved steps that made the command-and-control system of Russian strategic forces less vulnerable. For example, it may have enabled communication lines that could be used to transmit launch orders. Or maybe it issued preliminary authorizations that would be activated in the event of an actual attack.

None of these measures signaled Russia’s intent to launch a preemptive strategic nuclear strike. This is not the mission of the Russian strategic forces, and they are incapable of destroying any meaningful portion of the US strategic nuclear arsenal. US deterrence potential is quite solid. But so is the Russian one, especially when it is prepared to withstand an attack. Nuclear deterrence observes a rather strange logic. That is, the “special mode of combat duty” may have made the situation more stable by assuring Russia’s leadership that its strategic forces would be able to deliver a guaranteed retaliatory response in any circumstances.

“More stable,” however, is a relative term. The situation is rather fragile, and a first use of nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out completely. According to its military doctrine, Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a conventional aggression “that would put in danger the very existence of the state.” This seems to suggest that nuclear weapons could only be used in a case of a direct attack on Russia. The formula, however, is vague enough to leave some room for interpretation. What is an aggression? And at what stage is the state’s existence in danger? The Kremlin may interpret these words in a different way than those outside of Russia. Also, the Kremlin apparently believes it is confronting the United States if not the entire West, not just Ukraine. At some point, Moscow could view its military campaign setbacks, the harsh economic sanctions, and almost-explicit calls for regime change (even if walked back) as events that endanger the existence of the state as it exists today. All countries involved in this conflict must tread carefully, keeping in mind that they do not control how others interpret their moves or motives.

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The situation is not yet at the point where the danger is too close, but it could deteriorate in unpredictable ways. If the Russian and NATO militaries were in direct contact, the situation could escalate quickly. This is why the United States and NATO have gone to great lengths to avoid confronting Russia. But some things are much harder to control. A broad interpretation of interference in the conflict could lead Russia to attempt to disrupt supplies of certain weapons, potentially resulting in an exchange of conventional strikes against bases and facilities in neighboring countries and in Russa. An exchange of this kind could rapidly escalate further. And then there are unknown paths to escalation that may look innocuous until it is too late. That is the nature of a crisis.

Paralysis in the face of a nuclear threat, however, is not the only option. Quite the contrary. But the response should take the risk into account. The wrong thing to do would be to get into a nuclear threat competition with Russia, as it is likely to have an advantage in that contest. In mentioning nuclear weapons explicitly and often early in the conflict, Moscow has already demonstrated a certain degree of unpredictability and its high tolerance for risk.

The response to Russia’s nuclear signals should be expressed as a clear, forceful, and consistent message: Introducing nuclear weapons into this situation is dangerous, reckless, and unacceptable. Politicians, experts, journalists, and citizens should not get into discussions about what kind of nuclear weapons could be more or less effective from a military or political point of view. The very thought of nuclear weapon use should be condemned as irresponsible and criminal. This message will receive the broadest possible support—and could help end this war without sliding into a nuclear confrontation.

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