Will Russia Use Tactical Nuclear Weapons? – Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN this week that Russia may use tactical nuclear weapons if they believe that Moscow was facing an “existential threat.”
“We have a concept of domestic security, and it’s public. You can read all the reasons for nuclear arms to be used,” he said, adding that if there is an existential threat, then the weapons will be “used in accordance with our concept.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby responded to the comments, describing them as “dangerous.”
“It’s not the way a responsible nuclear power should act,” he said, stressing that Pentagon officials have so far not seen any evidence that Russia was likely to use nuclear weapons, or that the United States needs to change its strategic deterrent posture.
“We monitor this as nest we can every day,” he said.
But what would make Russia use nuclear weapons?
Russia’s Idea of an Existential Threat
What, exactly, the Kremlin will consider an “existential threat” is unclear. However, with NATO forces so far refraining from initiating direct military conflict with Russia, it seems unlikely at this stage that Russia would make such an escalation.
For Russia, an existential threat could mean direct military action from NATO forces that undermines its territory – including contested territory, or perhaps even the eastern regions of Ukraine that Russia recognizes as independent. Military escalation is most likely the primary “existential threat” that Russia envisions but given Vladimir Putin’s suggestion that economic sanctions on his country constitute an “economic war,” it’s hard to know whether or not Russia would resort to more extreme measures in the event that its economy begins to crumble and Putin’s position is threatened.
Repeated promises from the West that NATO would not expand any further East than Germany have been repeatedly broken, and before Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine, he had spent years requesting assurances from the West that NATO would not accept Ukraine as a new member state.
Any policies from the West or comments from Western leaders about the potential of Ukraine joining NATO may also prove an “existential threat” to Russia – however, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has already ruled out future NATO membership for Ukraine as part of ongoing peace negotiations with Russia.
Unless NATO forces become directly involved with the war, that “existential threat” may not arrive – and while it remains unlikely at this stage that any NATO country will make such an escalation, rumored plans for Russia to use biological or chemical weapons in Ukraine may just be enough of a provocation for it to happen.
Jack Buckby is a British author, counter-extremism researcher, and journalist based in New York. Reporting on the U.K., Europe, and the U.S., he works to analyze and understand left-wing and right-wing radicalization, and reports on Western governments’ approaches to the pressing issues of today. His books and research papers explore these themes and propose pragmatic solutions to our increasingly polarized society.