'Consequences you have never seen': How to read Putin's nuclear threats

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Surely even Vladimir Putin – destructive, isolated, determined to restore his version of Russia's greatness – wouldn't use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, right?

The short answer is, like so many things with Putin, we don't know – probably not.

The Russian president's invasion of Ukraine is not going as smoothly or quickly as many military analysts forecast. Ukraine has put up a fiercer-than-anticipated resistance to Russian troops. The Pentagon says Moscow's poor tactics, from communications to supply-line coordination, appear to have hampered its progress. The funneling of weapons to Ukraine by its Western allies has bolstered its chances of victory.

Putin's saber-rattling warnings to countries who interfere in the war that they will face "consequences you have never seen" has set off alarm bells around the globe, as did his move to put Russia's nuclear forces on a "special regime of combat duty alert."

But most political scientists, nuclear arms experts, Western officials and seasoned Kremlin watchers say it's highly unlikely he would detonate a nuclear weapon to break an impasse over Russia's stalled offensive in Ukraine, now into its third month.

"If the conflict in Ukraine essentially remains an overt one between Russian and Ukrainian forces, with the West playing more of a proxy role, if we stay where we are today in terms of Western involvement in the conflict, I see no likelihood at all," said Dmitri Trenin, until recently director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.

A port city, a steel cage, a palace: Steps that made Putin 'the richest man in the world'

Dmitri Alperovitch, the Russian-born chairman of Washington-based Silverado Policy Accelerator, a think tank, said "nuclear weapons are off the table."

However, Alperovitch, one of the few Russian policy observers to predict Russia's invasion of Ukraine, said that if there is "an actual kinetic conflict between Russia and NATO powers, then everything is on the table." Overall, though, he described the chance of the war entering a dangerous new nuclear phase as "minuscule."

The U.S. government, as least publicly, also largely views it this way.

"We don't see, as an intelligence community, practical evidence at this point of Russian planning for deployment or even potential use of tactical nuclear weapons," Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns said in recent public remarks.

Thousands of warheads and a nuclear hotline

It's been three decades since Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, asserted in his 1990 Nobel Prize acceptance speech that the "risk of global nuclear war has practically disappeared." Last summer, during a summit in Geneva, Putin and President Joe Biden unequivocally reaffirmed a joint declaration between Gorbachev and then-President Ronald Regan that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."

5 takeaways from Geneva summit: Can Joe Biden trust Vladimir Putin?

Joseph Cirincione, a former president of nuclear nonproliferation think tank Ploughshares, said there's been a taboo on the use of nuclear weapons since the U.S. detonated two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, a move that killed at least 200,000 people instantly, contributed to Japan's unconditional surrender and helped end World War II. The U.S. remains the only country in the world that's detonated a nuclear weapon against an enemy.

"Some people have tried to argue that we could use nuclear weapons with a (relatively) low (explosive) yield. What they don't factor in is that you're creating explosions hotter than the surface of the sun, mega-fires and radiation that has an immediate high intensity and then lingers for a really long time," said Cirincione.

Russian RS-24 Yars ballistic missiles roll in Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow.
Russian RS-24 Yars ballistic missiles roll in Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow.

Over the years, Washington and Moscow have established multiple direct hotlines aimed at reducing the risk of an accident or miscalculation that might trigger a nuclear war. The need for the hotline grew out of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened to install nuclear weapons in Cuba.

"The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog's back 1234567890," read the first such test dispatch the U.S. sent to Russia on a secure teletype machine on Aug. 30, 1963. The sentence used all the machine's keys to check they all worked.

That first hotline has since been upgraded to one that uses encrypted text messages. Hotlines to other nations have been introduced. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the Pentagon said it established a "deconfliction hotline" with Russian military commanders to prevent the two nuclear powers from being pulled into direct conflict. (Ukraine itself was once home to thousands of nuclear weapons, inherited from its time as part of the Soviet Union. It gave them up when it became independent in 1991, in return for security guarantees from the international community. That decision now looks fateful.)

Aid to Ukraine: President Biden signs lend-lease act to help accelerate military help

In late January, the U.S. and Russia agreed to extend the New START treaty for five years. This treaty, signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, aims to limit deployed nuclear warheads on each side to 1,550. It also puts certain types of verifiable restrictions on each side's missiles and bombers.

New START ground inspections are expected to take place, even though relations between Moscow and Washington have plumbed new lows in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Still, according to the Federation of American Scientists think tank, despite progress in "reducing nuclear weapon arsenals since the Cold War, the world’s combined inventory of nuclear warheads remains at a very high level."

As of early 2022, according to FAS, nine countries possessed approximately 12,700 nuclear warheads. Roughly 90% of these are owned by the U.S. and Russia, who each have around 4,000 warheads in their military stockpiles for use by missiles, aircraft, ships and submarines. The remaining warheads are retired or being dismantled.

'Escalate to de-escalate'

When Russia celebrated its Victory Day on Monday, marking its defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, it paraded nuclear-capable ballistic missiles through Red Square.

Putin has warned his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinistö that joining NATO and abandoning Finland's neutral status would be a "mistake."

Finland leaders back NATO bid: Russia vows 'retaliatory' military measures

However, Russia's official nuclear doctrine, parts of which have been reiterated by Putin and his senior officials in recent weeks, is that the country would only resort to using its nuclear arsenal if it faced an "existential threat." In the Ukraine context, this has been interpreted to suggest a scenario in which a NATO member, such as Poland, is drawn into the conflict and Russia was at risk of being overwhelmed militarily. Ukraine is not a NATO member, though it has repeatedly expressed its desire to join the alliance.

"This doctrine has led some U.S. analysts to conclude that Russia has adopted an

'escalate to de-escalate' strategy," wrote Amy Woolf, a nuclear weapons researcher, in a late April paper for the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress.

The gist of an "escalate to de-escalate" nuclear strategy, which Russia has denied it is pursuing, is that Moscow would seriously contemplate a nuclear strike – perhaps a limited one, not necessarily over a major urban center – in order to deter further aggression from a NATO adversary. This is akin to shocking an enemy to backing off. It would also let the nuclear genie out of the bottle 77 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Worryingly, while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said Tuesday that Putin "faces a mismatch between his ambitions (in Ukraine) and Russia's current conventional military capabilities."

The apparent implication from Haines' remarks was that even without a NATO member's forces becoming directly entangled in the war, Russia's leader could see the prospect of a conventional military loss to Ukraine as an existential threat.

If Putin felt he couldn't win, or if the war was taking too long, Russia may "have greater reliance in effect on asymmetric tools," Haines said in her testimony. "So they may rely more on things like cyber, nuclear, precision, etc. And that's obviously a shift."

Russian Security Council deputy head Dmitry Medvedev wrote on his Telegram channel on Thursday that it was NATO countries supplying Ukraine with weapons, not Russia, that was increasing the "risk of turning (the conflict) into a full-fledged nuclear war."

Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the Victory Day military parade at Red Square in central Moscow on May 9, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the Victory Day military parade at Red Square in central Moscow on May 9, 2022.

Robert Muggah, founder of SecDev, an Ottawa-based data science, security and intelligence think tank, said that one of the problems with trying to understand Russia's true appetite for waging a war with nuclear weapons – however limited – is that it is based on all sorts of uncertainty and implicit assumptions, such as" gauging our anxieties on statements by Putin and the vitriol coming out of Russian state media."

For weeks, Russian state media has been broadcasting programs that show war-mongering scenarios that illustrate the impact of a nuclear apocalypse.

Muggah said that while it is virtually certain that national defense and intelligence departments operate sophisticated models to monitor and predict nuclear risk, these are not publicly available. Beyond rhetorical statements, that makes it difficult to determine if there are actual "material shifts" in either Russian or NATO postures of nuclear war.

The White House has said that Americans don't need to be concerned about a potential nuclear war and has not changed the U.S. alert level, believed by security experts to be at Defcon 3 out of 5, although there is no official confirmation of that. Defon 1 is maximum readiness, meaning a nuclear war is about to begin or already has begun. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the level is reported to have hit Defcon 2, the highest it's ever been. Russia maintains its own versions of Defcon – also secret.

Cirincione, the former Ploughshares president, said it wasn't entirely clear what Putin's announcement of a "special regime of combat duty alert" for its nuclear forces meant.

"It might have been a change in procedures for communication of nuclear orders. In a normal state of affairs, what's called the constant alert level, the communication system in Russia is not capable of transmitting a launch order. It's like a safety on a gun. Some believe that what he did was basically remove the safety from the nuclear gun. He allowed a launch order to be transmitted in the communication system," he said.

Metaculus, an online research group, has sought to identify probabilities of nuclear exchange based on expert commentary. Metaculus estimates the risk of a full-scale nuclear exchange in 2022 between the U.S. and Russia at 0.35%, which is similar to the annual risk during the Cold War, according to the group.

Metaculus attributes the most likely risk to an accident or false alarm. SecDev has developed a gauge that assesses the probability of Russia using a nuclear weapon (intended or otherwise) based on 12 defined metrics that Muggah says examine "the availability, mobility and reliability of strategic and nonstrategic weapons, as well as signals of state readiness, posture, domestic support and battlefield conditions."

In addition to official statements and published doctrine, the SecDev forecast tool uses verifiable open-source intelligence inputs such as satellite imagery to track deployed nuclear weapons that are married with delivery vehicles, and on standby and alert. It also examines estimates of weapons still in store houses and lacking a delivery facility. The SecDev model currently sees over a 20% chance that Russia will detonate a nuclear weapon in 2022, whether deliberately or accidentally.

"Our model is deeply imperfect but I hope it's an improvement on the sort of knee-jerk response that a lot of us have every time somebody goes off on Russian state television, and all of us send each other a concerned tweet," said Muggah.

Still, Dimitri K. Simes, the Russian-born president of the Center for National Interest think tank in Washington, framed the risk another way in a call this week with reporters.

"We can say as many times as we want this is a war between Russia and Ukraine, and not between Russia and the U.S. and Western Europe. Very few people in Russia who have power accept that. They believe they are confronted with a military coalition organized by the collective West. They believe (Russia) has acted with a certain restraint, said Simes, who recently returned from a two-week visit to Moscow.

"We did not expect that Putin would proceed with a major invasion of Ukraine. I don't think we want to experiment with what Putin would do if we press him into a corner."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Putin wields nuclear threat in Ukraine. Is it an empty one?