Would Putin Use Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine? Following Ukraine’s extraordinary successes in northeastern and southeastern Ukraine over the last two weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin faces more pressure than ever before to withdraw his troops. In a 90-minute call with the Russian president, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz once again called on the Russian president to seek a diplomatic solution to the war.
Voices from within Russia have even turned on the Russian president, following reports of Russian soldiers fleeing Ukraine en masse. The Kremlin attempted to spin the withdrawal of troops as a “regrouping” designed to support their original goal of “liberating” the Donbas region, but even pro-Kremlin talking heads and journalists have expressed their doubts over Russia’s progress in the war.
Russian policy expert Viktor Olevich questioned the Kremlin’s recent spin on state television recently.
“You say everything’s going according to plan,” Olevich said, referencing Putin’s strict insistence that the Russian forces are winning. “You really think six months ago we planned on leaving and repelling a counteroffensive?”
Facing criticism at home and embarrassment on the battlefield, Russia’s precarious situation in Ukraine has left national security experts and officials concerned that the Kremlin may do the unthinkable – use tactical nuclear weapons as a last resort.
Concerns Putin May Resort to Tactical Nuclear Weapons
In response to Ukraine’s recent victories, retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan, former Defense Attaché to Russia, told Insider this week that he is more concerned than ever about the possibility of Russia tapping into its large nuclear arsenal.
“I have been thinking about the pressure Putin must be feeling to do something dramatic – which causes me to think again about nuclear triggers,” he said.
Former NATO Deputy General Rose Gottemoeller also told the BBC’s Today radio program that Kyiv’s successes in Kharkiv could prompt Putin to use weapons of mass destruction.
“Putin and his coterie have been behaving during this crisis,” Gottemoeller said, adding that she now fears that Russia “will strike back now in really unpredictable ways that may even involve weapons of mass destruction.”
Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton and – also a 19FortyFive contributor – also warned on Monday that the threat of a nuclear conflict with Russia is now “a lot closer” than it was before.
During an interview on WABC radio’s Cats at Night show, Bolton said that the victories in Kharkiv don’t mean we are at a point where Russia would use nuclear weapons, but also warned that the war could be reaching that point.
“The potential risk of the use of a nuclear weapon is not so much to change the battlefield but to strengthen Putin’s position at home,” Bolton said.
Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Would Putin Do It?
We already know that the Kremlin considers the use of nuclear weapons an appropriate response if Russia faces an “existential threat,” through Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has repeatedly indicated – in an effort to quell rumors of a nuclear conflict between Russia and the West – that the war in Ukraine is “separate” to the concept of an existential threat.
With that in mind, it’s possible that Russia would not choose to use nuclear weapons as a last resort in Ukraine. That being said, Peskov’s comments were made several months ago at a time when Russia felt more confident in its ability to “liberate” Donbas and conquer other major parts of Ukraine. The Kremlin even reaffirmed its commitment to eventually conquer Kyiv just this summer.
But right now, the situation looks very different — and with his credibility and legacy on the line, Putin may be looking for new approaches that could allow him to declare some sort of victory in Ukraine, even if he loses.
Russia may ultimately consider the fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk to be an “existential threat” if those two separatist regions ask for accession to Russia. As U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan also told Insider this week, if the two breakaway states ask to become a part of Russia, the fighting taking place there “will suddenly be in Russia.” At this point, Russia could warn Ukraine that any further conflict would warrant the use of nuclear weapons.
Whether Putin would follow through with that, however, is another question.
So, would Putin do it? There are certainly ways he could justify it, but he would be taking a huge bet.
Striking Ukrainian territory with nukes wouldn’t automatically result in a third world war as Ukraine is not NATO territory. It could be the ultimate bluff for Russia, expecting that the West wouldn’t strike back over fears of the conflict escalating any further. At the same time, it could prompt the United States and NATO countries to respond in kind, worsening the conflict and plunging the world into nuclear war.
Nobody can say whether an imminent loss in Ukraine could prompt Putin to use tactical nuclear weapons, but we do know it’s one of his last remaining options.
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.