The United Nations (UN) warned in March that the risk of nuclear weapons being used is higher than at any time since the Cold War.
The warning came after the Russian Federation announced it would station non-strategic nuclear weapons in Belarus, the first “nuclear sharing” agreement made since the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons entered into force in the 1970s.
It was also last month that the bipartisan media outlet openDemocracy also offered an op-ed that the risk of nuclear war over Ukraine is real – noting that just days into Russia’s unprovoked invasion, Vladimir Putin was already making his first threat of escalation.
If NATO became heavily involved in its support of Kyiv, Moscow could be forced to employ tactical nuclear weapons. Though Putin has increasingly saber-rattled, there are concerns that should Russia lose Crimea, it would push Putin to actually go nuclear.
What could that actually mean if Putin’s nuclear threats aren’t so hollow?
Last November, the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) laid out three scenarios if Russia were to use the no-longer proverbial “nuclear option.” The first could be as a mere signaling device, as in a nuclear test that would warn of its resolve and capability. However, such an action wouldn’t likely tilt the scales.
The second option laid out by CRF was as a battlefield weapon that could be employed against the Ukrainian military or energy infrastructure in an attempt to weaken the country’s will and damage its military capability. It could further be utilized to weaken the Ukrainian forces, but also to create an uninhabitable no-man’s-land.
The third option might entail the use of nuclear weapons to target the civilian population. Its aim would be to weaken Western resolve.
This would normally be seen as highly unlikely, but these are hardly normal times. Moscow expected an easy victory and instead, it has found itself in the greatest military quagmire since the Soviet-Afghan War – one that is even less likely to result in a victory, while it has only made Russia look weak on the world stage.
Will Putin Push the Button?
The great danger is that it isn’t actually those in the Kremlin who now believe the nuclear option needs to be considered. Russian state TV presenter Vladimir Solovyov, who has earned the nickname ‘Putin’s voice’ because of his ideological affinity with the Russian president, has repeatedly called for the Kremlin to use nuclear weapons against not only Ukraine but also at Germany and the UK.
In addition, according to a recent survey released on Monday, about 29 percent of respondents in Russia believe the use of nuclear weapons by Russia against Ukraine would be justified.
It was also on Saturday that Estonian President Alar Karis told Newsweek that the West should be prepared for the possibility that Putin might employ nuclear weapons.
“There are very few people who are close to Putin who actually know. But he is definitely not insane, at least in medical terms. That means he knows exactly what he is doing,” Karis said about the Russian dictator’s mentality. “But there is not much information, you can speculate when Putin starts to change generals that something is not going the way he wants.”
Karis further suggested that if Russia becomes “very desperate” it would give Putin cause to push a button.
“But it’s not that easy,” Karis explained. “It’s not that you have a button in the corner, and then you go and push it. There are still certain steps to follow.”
The question is whether if pushed into a corner, Putin will be forced to make the steps to push the button. If it happens, the West will surely push back.
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Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.