Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s top defense officials on February 27 to dispose of nuclear forces “in a special mode of combat duty.” In the early hours of February 24, in the statement with which he launched the invasion of Ukraine, the president issued the following, thinly veiled, threat: “Whoever intends to hinder us must know that Russia’s response will be immediate. And it will lead to consequences that you have never faced in your history.” Days before the attack, the Russian Armed Forces had carried out maneuvers with nuclear-capable weapons.
What does the order given to the Minister of Defense and the Chief of Staff technically mean? What is the logic behind Putin’s escalating nuclear rhetoric? Is the Russian president really willing to be the first to re-detonate an atomic weapon to hit an enemy from Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The agitation of the nuclear threat by the leader of a superpower, the most disturbing in decades, deeply aggravates the tension unleashed by the Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Western leaders have so far reacted with restraint. The US has not increased its nuclear alert levels, and official messages condemn Putin’s escalation but seek to convey calm. A significant part of the experts believe that the nuclear option is so delusional that it is not plausible. “We all know that Putin is unpredictable, that he does things that no one thinks he would do, but I think this is not possible. It would expose Russia to tremendous consequences,” says William Alberque, Director of Strategy, Technology and Arms Control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London.
But there are others who disagree. Francesca Giovannini, executive director of the Atom Management Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center, believes that, while unlikely, the option of resorting to atomic weapons should not be ruled out outright. “The circumstances are very complex, and he is under enormous pressure,” she says.
It is not possible to know the background disposition of the soul of the person who can give the order to shoot, but several contextual elements help to interpret the situation. To next, some of them.
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The technical meaning of Putin’s order
The instruction given by Putin last Sunday does not fit neatly into the Russian nuclear categories known in the West. Government officials and experts point out that it does not correspond to a standardized nomenclature such as the American Defcons and they agree that in any case it does not imply a maximum state of alert and rather constitutes a new political message.
On Monday night, Pentagon sources quoted by the Reuters agency indicated that they had not detected any relevant factual movement in terms of weapons. The Russian Defense Minister, Seguéi Shoigu, reported to President Putin on Monday that his measure had been implemented and that in this framework the personnel in the nuclear command posts had been reinforced, reports the TASS agency. If it were just that, it would be a substantially irrelevant measure.
Both Russia and the United States – the two main nuclear powers – always have a percentage of their arsenals ready for use. These are made up of a long-range strategic segment, which counts as means of delivery with missiles launched from land (in silos or mobile), sea (in submarines) or air (in bombers); and a tactical segment, of shorter range, with nuclear warheads of lower power. The deterrent capacity depends on the credibility of the response, and for this reason a part of the arsenal is in a position to be used quickly. Last December, the chief of the Russian General Staff, Valeri Gerasimov, pointed out that 95% of the missiles of the Russian strategic nuclear force are constantly ready for combat. The alert level can be increased by increasing the number of warheads loaded on launchers, raising the number of deployed armed submarines, etc. But, at least for now, no such measures seem to have taken place.
The logic of rhetorical escalation
The reasoning behind Putin’s rhetorical escalation is quite evident. “What his message indicates is that he wants to win this war with Ukraine, he is afraid that the West will intervene directly and he wants to make sure that we are out of the conflict,” says Alberque, who worked in NATO before joining the IISS.
Western countries have made it clear that they have no intention of fighting Russia, but Putin sees a growing willingness to arm Ukraine. The threat seeks, from the outset, to introduce the most extreme and disturbing variable in the calculation of the West, in the hope that it will serve as an element of inhibition in future decisions.
Russian nuclear doctrine
The current Russian doctrine that entered into force with a Putin’s executive order of July 2, 2020 sets out four conditions under which Russia would use its nuclear weapons:
a) arrival of reliable data on the launch of ballistic missiles against the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies;
b) use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against the Russian Federation and/or its allies;
c) attack by an adversary against critical military or government infrastructure of the Russian Federation, the disruption of which would undermine the nuclear response capability;
d) aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when they endanger the existence of the State.
Neither of these conditions seems even remotely conceivable. To justify his decision, Putin has alleged “aggressive statements” by senior commanders of NATO countries.
The disposition to the unimaginable
Normal logic suggests that it is inconceivable that Putin would order a nuclear attack under current circumstances. It is not plausible that the conditions set forth by the Russian doctrine would be met, and the retaliation that it could trigger would be unheard of. This is one of the arguments used by Alberque to rule out the option.
“I think it would trigger a widespread reaction that would lead to a total isolation of Russia. Even countries like China would take steps in that direction. Things like Russia’s expulsion from the UN Security Council would come up and it would really be the beginning of the end for Russia. And I think that Putin knows that this is a credible scenario”, considers the expert.
Alberque also underlines arguments of a military nature. “Where would you shoot the bomb? In the Black Sea or in a forest, as a warning with radioactive consequences? Or an eyesore in a city? The Ukrainian forces are not concentrated in a massive way to make sense of a precise strike against them… there is no use that makes sense”. In addition, many specialists observe, the Russian Armed Forces have enormous conventional firepower to cause massive destruction without having to resort to atomic weapons.
These arguments lead many leaders and experts to dismiss the prospect of a nuclear attack out of hand.
But there are others who are not so clear. First is Vladimir Putin’s proven record of breaking boundaries, of moving into the unpredictable, of being willing to take increasing risks to defend his interests. Later, some point to a possible loss of a certain sense of reality, impossible to verify, but that flutters in the air. The prolonged solitude of the autocrat, installed in a culture of paranoia widespread in the USSR and, of course, in the KGB, cradles of the formation of the Russian leader. After meeting him in 2014, Angela Merkel told Obama that she thought Putin lived in another world, according The New York Timess.
And then there are the extreme circumstances of the moment. “I think he’s under enormous internal pressure,” says Giovannini. “He is not crazy. I don’t think he would fire a strategic bomb. But he worries me that he might consider the option of a tactic. To send a message that he is ready to do anything to defend Russian interests. Thinking that maybe an attack with a tactical head in Ukraine would not trigger a NATO military reaction against Russia. Other respected experts, such as François Heisbourg, have also pointed out that the threat cannot be dismissed out of hand, not least because history shows that Putin is not bluffing.
The arsenal available
Russia has the largest arsenal in the world together with the United States, and even somewhat higher in quantitative terms – some 6,000 nuclear warheads between deployed and other concepts, according to data from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—. The deployment of strategic weapons is limited by the New START pact, which binds both powers. The nuclear dimension has been fundamental in the modernization project of the Russian Armed Forces promoted by Putin. Shoigu reported in December that, as a result of years of effort, modern weapons and equipment now make up 89% of the nuclear trio—land, sea, and air. Russia has developed new delivery vehicles, including hypersonic ones, and has a vast arsenal of tactical nuclear warheads.
The nuclear rhetorical escalation is part of a worrying context. On the one hand, it should be noted that Belarus has just held a referendum to modify its Constitution and allow its conversion into a nuclear state. It was approved by 65% of votes in favor, according to data from the regime.
On the other hand, the moment is of great importance in the renegotiation of the nuclear pact with Iran, a process that has been going on for months and is full of difficulties.
In addition, on another level, the Biden Administration is working on defining its nuclear doctrine, and Putin’s threats can influence it and give arguments to those who push for it to set more aggressive lines. And, without a doubt, he will cement the prospect of a very long stay of US nuclear weapons in European bases, an issue that has been the subject of intense debate in the past. Another effect contrary to that desired by the Kremlin linked to its own initiatives. It is, already, a very long list.
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