Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime has consistently signaled that the Ukraine War could trigger Moscow’s use of nuclear weapons. After a lull in threats toward the end of last year, possibly due to China exerting its influence over the Kremlin, those threats are on the rise again. At the end of February, former Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev said the world faces a nuclear apocalypse if the West continues to arm Ukraine with advanced weaponry.
Despite the consistency of Russia’s nuclear intimidation, Western politicians and academics dismiss these threats as a bluff. Are they right to do so?
In a study for the Heritage Foundation, we argue that Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons is primarily a tactic meant to scare selected Western audiences, and thus weaken the link between Ukraine and its Western allies. However, we cannot be sure that Russia will not use nuclear weapons. Moreover, Russia has laid out a linguistic framework for their use. Therefore, the safest option to prevent their use is to plan for potential decision points where they might be used, and then work to ensure that they are not.
Russia has an arsenal of up to 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons. There are four circumstances in its latest nuclear doctrine that justify their use: an imminent use of nuclear weapons against Russia; actual nuclear use against Russia; a threat to inhibit Russia’s control of its nuclear weapons; and a threat to the existence of Russia.
None of those conditions apply in the Ukraine war. The Russian state is not in itself threatened. It is the one threatening the survival of a neighbor, Ukraine. Therefore, there is no coherent military justification for the use of nuclear weapons.
However, the Russian leadership is re-interpreting the notion of threat.
For example, at a recent conference, Putin, citing his country’s military doctrine, said that Russia could use weapons of mass destruction “to protect its sovereignty, territorial integrity and to ensure the safety of the Russian people.”
This is an evolution, and conceivably a wide one, from the idea that nuclear weapons could be used if Russia faced an acute existential threat.
Second, Putin and his allies have framed the Ukraine war in existential terms: If NATO “seizes” Ukraine, then Russia itself will be next. NATO’s aim, in the Kremlin’s view, is to break Russia up. Therefore, the loss of Ukraine is an existential threat to Russia, and as we know from Russian doctrine, an existential threat is grounds for the use of nuclear weapons. Russia, so the argument goes, must fight NATO in Ukraine, otherwise it will have to fight NATO in Russia.
More broadly, Russian doctrine is clear: Russia believes that it is in a global struggle with the West, a struggle that encompasses its political culture, language, and territory. The Kremlin believes that the West is fighting proxy wars, not in Africa or Asia as happened in the Cold War, but in Ukraine and other states that neighbor Russia, as well as via the Internet for the hearts and minds of Russian citizens. Russian doctrine presents a Russian state in profound conflict with the West.
So what should the U.S., working with its allies, do?
Well Informed Is Well Prepared
First, they must reassure the public that they are aware of the threat of Russian nuclear weapons. For too long, Western governments have dismissed Russian nuclear threats. Minimizing a real threat means failing to prepare to dissuade Russia.
Second, one of the key lessons learned from the 2011 Fukushima civil nuclear disaster in Japan is that a lack of information — in particular an accurate assessment of radiation levels — can lead to ill-informed decisions. The U.S. and its allies should improve how they detect and monitor radiation in case of nuclear use, a strike on a nuclear facility, or an accident stemming from a nuclear plant located in an area of military operations.
Third, the U.S. government, supported by the governments of the UK and France, the two other recognized democratic nuclear powers in NATO, can employ a series of measures to dissuade Russia from threatening to use, or using, nuclear weapons. They must also work out how to minimize, as far as possible, the catastrophic consequences if Russia deploys such weapons — or uses nuclear power stations as improvised weapons.
The first measure should be to ensure that any use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia is met by a robust Western and global response that is calibrated, relies on conventional weapons, and is informed by an understanding of Russian behavior and thinking.
Second, make sure that Russia’s potential allies in the developed and developing world inform Moscow of the unacceptability of using nuclear weapons. The critical players in this instance are not the U.S. and UK, but China and India, as well as France and Germany to a lesser extent.
Third, develop and roll out a comprehensive monitoring system to prepare for either military or civilian nuclear release and contamination, whether deliberate or accidental. Work with allies, especially in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, to review how they detect and monitor radiation levels. This monitoring and detection system should be rolled out across Europe and networked across governments. As the use of nuclear power grows, this system should be expanded to cover the globe. This will primarily help protect civilian populations from civil nuclear accidents, but it could also help in times of war. Related to this, we should maintain key medical stockpiles, such as those of potassium iodide, and supplies of personal protective equipment.
Fourth, keep channels of communication with Moscow open, even if the Kremlin is not responsive.
Collapsing Dreams Can Be Dangerous
Russia would probably prefer to threaten the use of nuclear weapons, but fight conventionally. But Putin and his generals are not necessarily bluffing. Threatening to use nuclear weapons to divide Western populations was a Soviet tactic, and perhaps Moscow is repeating it now. But the West cannot be sure, and official Russian statements and doctrine present the loss of Ukraine, bizarrely or not, as “existential,” which under Russian doctrine allows Russia to use nuclear and chemical weapons.
Putin’s dreams of Ukraine reincorporated into Russia, of breaking up NATO, and of Russia leading a global anti-Western alliance are collapsing about him. Disaster for Russia’s imploding armed forces may well await, and at some point, Ukraine’s armed forces will likely threaten to break Russia’s land corridor linking Crimea to the Donbas.
At that point, Putin will make one of the most fateful decisions of the century: whether to employ nuclear or chemical weapons. The U.S. must act now to minimize that threat and to ensure the protection of the American public and U.S. allies.
Robert Seely, PhD, is Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight. Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, formerly commanding officer of the U.K.’s Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Regiment and of NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion, is a Fellow at Magdalene College at Cambridge University. Ted R. Bromund, PhD, is Senior Fellow in Anglo-American Relations in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation.
March 14, 2023 at 10:30 am
I agree that the West should take Russian threats of using nuclear weapons seriously. From the Russian perspective NATO proved to be an offensive alliance when they attacked Serbia in the 1990s and created Kosovo. To the Russian Leadership NATO is that existential threat. The most causal survey of Russian History will demonstrate that Russian leadership can not tolerate an enemy that could base tactical missiles less than 300 Km from Moscow. Russia spent over 500 years building defensible borders that were swept away with the fall of the Soviet Union.
March 14, 2023 at 1:28 pm
You declare that nothing threatens Russia.
Can I quote first-tier politicians from the EU and the US where they speak directly about the need to dismember Russia?
And then shouts – “Russia is saber-rattling!”
Russia will never use nuclear weapons in a local conflict, especially in Ukraine.
There is no chance for Ukraine in a conventional war, and only direct military intervention by NATO can somehow change the situation, Ukraine has neither the strength nor the resources, and material assistance will not turn the tide.
But NATO’s entry into the war will automatically mean the use of nuclear weapons, but not tactical ones against Ukrainian cities, but strategic ones against NATO cities and military facilities.
March 14, 2023 at 2:28 pm
All of this could have been avoided if we had let Ukraine keep its nukes.
from Russia with love
March 14, 2023 at 5:53 pm
Ukraine, the one you care about, has never had a nuclear weapon. you are for that Ukraine which is against Russia? this Ukraine is also against the USSR and denies everything Soviet. the nuclear weapons that were taken out of Ukraine were Soviet, that is, not Ukrainian, hated and alien. and we can say that Russia helped Ukraine with decommunization. 😉 it remains to blow up the ammunition depots that Ukraine has organized at its nuclear power plants and the rejection of the totalitarian Soviet atom will be completed.
but don’t worry! Ukraine will definitely have nuclear weapons. immediately after a new federal district of Russia is formed on its territory. 😉
March 15, 2023 at 2:55 am
Nuclear or chemical weapons?
Nuclear reactors, tactical nuclear weapons?
What a bunch of baloney.
Putin recently proposed widening Russia nuclear doctrine, to bring it closer to US doctrine, which is the most permissive of any nuclear armed country. Before the Russians ever mentioned nuclear, it was already mentioned by Polish, Portugese, and American officials, but most especially by Liz Truss in her campaign … that was the initial trigger for Putin’s warning, in which he simply restated the language of §24 and §27 of Russian nuclear doctrine from 2014.
Russian doctrine does not permit tactical nuclear weapons, and views them as escalation for total nuclear annihilation. And who exactly is threatening? Is it not the US that pulled out of the ABM, constructed missiles sites on Russia’s border in Poland & Romania, withdrew from the INF, has an enormous sphere of influence on Russia’s borders, and has organized an anti-Russia coalition (NATO), engages in mock invasion and attack exercises, develops plans for a first-strike, concepts such as escalate-to-de-escalate, tactical nukes, lower yield adjustable yields, and publishes plans regularly for regime change and splitting up the country — just this week both again surfaced in the MSM.
If there is going to be a nuclear strike, it will be Brussels, London and Washington.
Talk of a calibrated conventional strike is rather fanciful. What on earth could that mean? Sailing aircraft carriers within range of Zircon missiles? Or launching stolen Kinzhals on Moscow?
March 15, 2023 at 1:45 pm
Unless Russia fears Ukraine base for launching missiles by rogue elements?
March 15, 2023 at 2:18 pm
Here is what was left out of the article.
1. In 1990 President Gorbachev met with Secretary of State Baker. The agreement was that if NATO and Europe would allow East and West Germany to unify there will not be any NATO expansion, especially into former Warsaw pack nations. This agreement was voided in 1997 when Poland, Hungry, and Czech Republics were invited to join NATO. Even worst, NATO’s expansion continued on and by 2004, seven more countries joined NATO, to include 3 that were part of the old USSR, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
2. In 1999, NATO violated the sovereignty of Serbia, and by force, created a new country. As a small country, surrounded by NATO, and NATO allied countries, Serbia was forced to give up it’s territory. Military kinetic operations continued with NATO bombing Libya in 2011.
3. On 5 Dec 1994, the Budapest Accords were signed. Part of the agreement was that if Ukraine gave up it’s nuclear weapons, three countries officially would protect Ukraine. The three countries were USA, United Kingdom, and Russian Federation. Two other countries, France and China, would also provide assurance, but not under the same document. This agreement was broached, when USA started politically and financially supporting Maidan, resulting in the legally elected Ukrainian Government. The only country to even attempt to provide assistance to the legitimate was Russia, by extricating the pre-Maidan political leadership of Ukraine out of Ukraine to save their lives.
4. Where as, NATO is the military, the EU was solidified as a political entity between 1994 and 2004, In 2004 the EU’s expansion followed NATO’s expansion, where it is now near the border of Russia, attempting to gobble up Ukraine.
5. After Maidan, Ukraine started persecuting the Russians living in Ukraine, seeking separation from Ukraine. This persecution included in political disinfringement and military actions against citizens, such as mortar and artillery fire into predominantly cities in Ukraine occupied by Ukrainian citizen Russian speakers. This resulted first Crimea first becoming independent, and later rejoining Russia. Similar movements were started in Lugansk and Donetsk a short time later. The Minsk Accords put a hold on the separatist movements and a damper on the worst of the Ukrainian treatment their citizens in the south and east part of the country. What was revealed recently was that the real purpose of this document was to rearm Ukraine for offensive military operations. This was in Dec 2022, by Angela Merkel in an interview to Die Zeit, and it was done on behest of NATO.
6. By Feb 2022, over 14 thousand Russian speaking Ukrainian citizens were killed by the government of Ukraine. On 21 Feb 2022, OSCE published a daily report (40/2022) listing several thousand cease fire violations most of them by the Ukrainian government against their citizens.
7. As reported by europereloaded.com, there were plans as early as 2011, by the US to bring Ukraine into NATO / EU orbit, and set up nuclear missiles in Crimea aimed at Russia. We need not go back that far in history, to remember the Cuban Missile crisis, when we almost went to war with the USSR to keep nuclear missiles aimed at the US out of Cuba.
Based on this, NATO and Ukraine in it’s current state is a threat to Russian.
March 15, 2023 at 7:04 pm
China will not allow Russia to use nukes.
Russia has essentially become a client state of China at this point.