As the war gets worse for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a nuclear detonation in Ukraine remains a valid threat.
Recently, the Kremlin went ahead with its plan to relocate tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, just north of Ukraine, in a move that U.S. President Joe Biden called “totally irresponsible.”
Now, Biden says the threat of a Russian nuclear strike is real.
Nukes in Belarus
As soon as Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine started to show signs of failure, the Russian leader and his Kremlin advisers started telegraphing to the West that a nuclear strike was very much an option.
In September last year, Putin gave a speech to mark the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian provinces — Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson. During his remarks, the Russian leader once more affirmed he is willing to “use all the means at our disposal” to defend Russian territory, which presumably could include the annexed provinces under attack by a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Earlier in 2023, Putin decided to relocate nuclear weapons to Belarus for the first time since the end of the Cold War. A willing proxy of the Kremlin, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko obliged. Putin has now verified that the nukes are in place in Belarus.
The Russian military has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, numbering several thousand warheads, including 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons. These munitions pack a smaller yield than their strategic counterparts but are still catastrophic.
The Russian military has often exercised the deployment of a tactical nuclear weapon during annual large-scale drills and thus is reasonably familiar with the procedures necessary to deploy one. Moreover, the Russian military’s nuclear doctrine states that the Russian military could deploy a nuclear weapon “in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.”
Predicting a Nuclear Strike
Events have shown that the Russian military and intelligence apparatuses are fairly open to Western intelligence services, and as of now, U.S. officials state there are no indications Russia is getting ready to deploy a nuclear weapon against Ukraine.
The U.S. and NATO have the means to detect whether the Russian military is getting ready to launch a nuclear weapon. This process is easier (and more accurate) when it comes to strategic nuclear weapons compared to the smaller but still deadly tactical nukes.
A tactical nuclear strike against Ukraine, which would be the first detonation in combat since World War II, could cause a conventional conflict to spiral out of control and draw in the U.S. and NATO. Such an outcome wouldn’t be to the benefit of Russia. But, like a cornered animal, Putin might resort to an irrational move if he feels threatened.
A 19FortyFive Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.