Seven and a half months after it began, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has not gone as the Kremlin had hoped. The Ukrainian military has resisted with skill and tenacity, in recent weeks clawing back territory in the country’s south and east. As the Russian invasion falters, concern has arisen that Putin might turn to nuclear weapons.
The nuclear threat needs to be taken seriously. Russia’s conventional forces appear stymied, the country has a large nuclear arsenal, and Putin thus far seems unwilling to lose or retreat. He has, if anything, doubled down, for example, ordering a mobilization and a sham annexation of Ukrainian territory. Moreover, Putin has made a string of miscalculations in launching and executing his war on Ukraine, and his comments have observers wondering if nuclear could be next. But there are reasons to believe Moscow would not press the nuclear button. Such use would not end the Ukrainian determination to resist. It would alienate countries such as China and India that have tried to remain on the sidelines of this war. Moreover, senior Russian political and military leaders understand that introducing nuclear weapons into the conflict would constitute a step into a murky and potentially disastrous unknown.
Putin’s nuclear threats. Putin has ensured that the nuclear specter has loomed over the Russia-Ukraine war since nearly the beginning. On February 27, three days after the Russian military launched its invasion, Putin put Russia’s nuclear forces on a state of “special combat readiness,” which may have meant an increase of staff at nuclear command centers. Since then, Putin and other senior Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, have alluded to the threat of nuclear war. On September 27, Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev cautioned that the nuclear threat was “not a bluff,” referring to words used by Putin in a September 21 address, and suggested that Russia could employ nuclear weapons in Ukraine without NATO reacting.
In his September 30 speech, Putin, after announcing Russia’s supposed “annexation” of the Ukrainian oblasts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson, declared that Russia would defend “[its] land” with “all the forces and resources [they] have.” He added the US nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had “created a precedent.” Analysts read that as an implied nuclear threat.
While Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on October 6 denied any nuclear threat, asserting that Russia was “fully committed” to not making the war a nuclear conflict, her comments did little to assure those who understand what “all the forces” implies.
Russia possesses the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, including a variety of tactical nuclear weapons that it could use against Ukraine (though Russian officials have not talked of using such weapons per se). The nuclear temptation may grow as the last six weeks have seen Ukrainian counteroffensives liberating thousands of square miles of territory in the Kherson oblast in the south and the Kharkiv oblast in the east, with the eastern counteroffensive knocking on the door of Luhansk oblast. One Kremlin insider reportedly has expressed disagreement directly to the Russian president about how he has managed the war. The October 8 attack on the Kerch Bridge linking Russia to occupied Crimea, coming one day after Putin’s 70th birthday, only adds to the gloom in Moscow.
With all these setbacks, Putin may grow desperate. On September 21, he ordered the mobilization of 300,000 men to bolster Russia’s flagging military effort. His September 30 “annexation” locked Russia into defending territory that it did not fully control and of which it loses more by the day. Putin does not like to retreat: So far, he has shown no interest in a diplomatic off-ramp to end the war. If Russia’s military situation becomes more dire—and looms toward defeat—Ukraine and the West must take seriously the prospect that Putin could go nuclear.
Russian declaratory policy foresees the possibility of using nuclear weapons in the event of a conventional war “when the very existence of the [Russian] state is in jeopardy.” Russia can lose this war, and it will not be existential for the Russian state, but it could prove existential for Putin’s political longevity. Might he conflate the two? Magnifying the concern are Putin’s miscalculations, beginning with his decision to invade in February.
President Joe Biden sees the possibility of nuclear use as real. On October 7, he told a private meeting that for the “first time since the Cuban missile crisis, we have a direct threat of use [of a] nuclear weapon if in fact things continue down the path they are going.” (Historians might note other nuclear close calls, such as the 1973 US nuclear alert when the Soviet Union seemed ready to intervene in the Yom Kippur war or the 1983 “Able Archer” NATO exercise during which a Soviet early-warning radar misinterpreted missiles being launched from US military bases.) “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon,” Biden added.
Western leaders are trying to pursue a path that balances, on one hand, their determination to support Ukraine as it defends itself against a naked Russian aggression and, on the other hand, their desire to avoid a broader NATO-Russia clash, particularly one that could involve nuclear weapons. Careful management is necessary to contain the nuclear risk.
On the more positive side, the Pentagon closely watches Russian nuclear forces, and it has said since February that it sees no change in Russia’s nuclear posture. It repeated this assessment on October 7, adding that there was no reason for changing the US strategic posture.
To be clear, Putin does not want nuclear war, because it could escalate and mean the end of Russia. However, he wants Ukraine and the West to believe that he and Russia could go nuclear. In doing so, Putin hopes to intimidate Kyiv into negotiating an end to the conflict on Moscow’s terms, while using the nuclear threat to persuade the West to cease its flow of arms and other assistance to the Ukrainians.
Putin’s good reasons against nuclear use. There are reasons to think that Moscow would not go nuclear. First, while the primary motivation would be to send a political signal, nuclear use might not have much effect on the battlefield. The Ukrainian military does not mass large formations that would offer lucrative targets. Moreover, using nuclear weapons to stop Ukraine’s counteroffensives would mean for the Kremlin to attack targets on what it now claims to be Russian territory.
Kyiv also gives little reason to think it would back down. Ukrainians understand that Moscow’s terms amount to a complete capitulation that would end Ukrainian democracy and their prospect of becoming a normal European state. Ukrainians also understand that Russian occupation means disappearances, summary executions, mass graves, torture chambers, filtration camps and other war crimes and atrocities. They, Ukrainians—contrary to Russians—regard this fight as existential.
Another point that could dissuade Putin from the nuclear option is the certain international condemnation that would ensue. China, India, and the Global South have largely tried to stay on the sidelines; they could not do so if Russia used nuclear weapons in a war that it had begun but could not fight successfully at the conventional level. By using a weapon of mass destruction, Putin would become a global pariah overnight.
Most critically, sober-minded senior Russian political and military officials who are not so fixated on Ukraine as Putin surely understand that using nuclear weapons would cross a threshold that has not been breached in more than 75 years. Doing so would open a Pandora’s box full of unpredictable, nasty, and potentially catastrophic consequences – including for Russia itself. If Moscow were to set down a nuclear path, it would have no idea – and even less control over – where it would lead.
While Putin may understand that, will he make another miscalculation? And if he did, would senior Russia military leaders carry out an order that they understand would be fraught with risk for Russia? The possibility of a Putin miscalculation remains a worry, but Western leaders also need to consider what would happen were they to accede to the Kremlin’s nuclear blackmail and cease support for Ukraine. They have to ask what would come next.
Meeting with young businesspeople on June 9, Putin asserted that Peter the Great did not conquer land from Sweden but was “returning” to Russia land that had historically been Russian. Putin suggested he was doing the same in Ukraine. That comment alarms others given that the Baltic states, Finland, and a portion of Poland were once parts of the Russian Empire.
Pushing against Putin’s threat. Biden and other Western leaders thus far seem to understand that giving in could only mean facing nuclear threats down the road, perhaps against NATO members. On September 25, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan cautioned “that any use of nuclear weapons will be met with catastrophic consequences for Russia, that the U.S. and our allies will respond decisively.” On September 28, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stated that Germany would “continue to support Ukraine at an unabated pace”; as for nuclear weapons, he added that “like President Joe Biden, I have to say to Russia: ‘don’t do it.’” On October 9, Biden and Scholz spoke by phone, and the two agreed that Russian nuclear threats were “irresponsible” and that the consequences of any Russian nuclear use would be “extremely serious.”
Senior Western defense and military officials should be conveying this message directly to Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. They may well have a fuller appreciation of the risks and consequences for Russia. Western diplomats should also be engaging their Chinese, Indian and other counterparts in the Global South to orchestrate a barrage of “don’t do it” messages.
Putin has put in play a nuclear threat to send a political signal regarding an action that, all things considered, the Kremlin has strong reasons not to take. The West nevertheless cannot ignore the risk but has compelling motivations to continue to support Ukraine and must ensure that it gets its political signaling to Moscow right.
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