Russia will use nukes regardless of whether we arm Ukraine (2024)

Over the past few weeks, Western countries have green-lit Ukraine’s use of Nato-class weapons to strike targets on Russian territory. Russia has responded with a predictable chorus of nuclear threats. with former President Dmitry Medvedev threatening Washington, Paris, and London with nuclear annihilation if Nato countries placed troops in Ukraine. At the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Rossiya-1 anchor Vladimir Solovyov chillingly quipped that Russia’s nuclear threats are a bluff until “there is no Great Britain to laugh at.”

Russia’s nuclear threat-mongering has engendered two contrasting responses in the West. The first is that Russia’s nuclear threats should be easily discounted as puffery. This argument hinges on the contention that Russia knows that nuclear weapons use will trigger a large-scale Nato conventional attack on its forces in Ukraine or a nuclear strike-back.

The second is that Russia could be tempted to use nuclear weapons if Nato escalates too strongly. Concerns about “escalation risks” have delayed the delivery of tanks and fighter jets to Ukraine and impede Ukraine’s ability to strike Russian military infrastructure.

Both arguments are fallacious. Through a decade of engaging with Russian stakeholders and experts on nuclear strategy, I believe that there are realistic scenarios in which Russia could use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine or much less likely, against a Nato country. And – crucially – Russia’s decision will be independent of the West’s conduct.

It is my view that while the Kremlin will use Western support for Ukraine as a pretext for nuclear escalation, much like how Russia used Nato expansion to justify invading Ukraine in February 2022, Western support will not trigger it. Instead, Vladimir Putin’s decision to press Russia’s nuclear button will likely be shaped by the coalescence of three factors.

The first is how Putin sees the frontline situation evolving in Ukraine. The popular view is that Russia will only consider nuclear weapons use if it is on the verge of defeat in Ukraine. Speculation about Russian nuclear weapons use reached a crescendo in late 2022, as manpower shortages aided Ukraine’s rapid-fire victories in Kharkiv and Kherson. The chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Oleksandr Syrskyi recently argued that Russia could consider tactical nuclear weapons use if it faces a “catastrophic defeat.” Mass military desertions and protests in Moscow featured in Syrskyi’s doomsday scenario.

This logic is not necessarily accurate. There is a growing chorus of influential voices in Russia who argue that tactical nuclear weapons use could force Ukraine and the West to capitulate. If Russia is making incremental gains at too high a cost, it could see a nuclear escalation as a lesser evil to a years-long war of attrition. The hawkish Council on Foreign and Defense policy chief Sergey Karaganov, who moderated the discussion with Putin at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, is the most prominent exponent of this chilling argument. Talk about a Hiroshima and Nagasaki style end to the Ukraine war is intensifying.

The second is Russia’s internal political stability. Although Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is dead and MH-17 perpetrator Igor Girkin is behind bars, ultranationalist champions of total war remain Putin’s biggest threat. Since Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky threatened nuclear attacks on Europe and Japan in the early 1990s, this faction has lobbied for lowering the threshold for Russian nuclear first use. As ultranationalists have already pushed Putin towards mass conscription and large-scale civilian infrastructure strikes, it is conceivable that this lobby could make him go nuclear.

The third is a permissive attitude from China. As China wants to restrict the influx of nuclear-powered submarines in the Indo-Pacific and dissuade North Korea from following Russia’s example, Beijing has consistently urged Putin to refrain from nuclear weapons use. If China finds itself embroiled in a large-scale conflict in the Indo-Pacific, most likely over Taiwan, or reacts inordinately to AUKUS’s development, its calculus could change. And if the other two factors are in place, Putin could green-light a nuclear strike.

As Russia’s nuclear logic is not inherently reactive, the West should therefore not be afraid to give Ukraine the weaponry and flexibility it needs to win the war. Allowing Russia to gain more territory and Putin to believe that Nato will capitulate in the face of a nuclear strike is the worst possible outcome for the West and Ukraine.

Samuel Ramani is an Associate Fellow at the University of Oxford, specialising in international relations

Russia will use nukes regardless of whether we arm Ukraine (2024)

FAQs

Russia will use nukes regardless of whether we arm Ukraine? ›

Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to use nuclear threats to thwart Western support for Ukraine. A possible strategic defeat of Russian troops on the battlefield in Ukraine could provoke Russia to use nuclear weapons. Experts believe that Russia can use nuclear weapons regardless of Western support for Ukraine.

What is Russia's nuclear doctrine? ›

Russia's existing doctrine states that it may use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack or in the event of a conventional attack that poses an existential threat to the state.

What is the Ukraine nuclear arms agreement? ›

1994 Trilateral Statement

Ukraine agreed to transfer its nuclear warheads to Russia and accepted U.S. assistance in dismantling missiles, bombers, and nuclear infrastructure. Ukraine's warheads would be dismantled in Russia, and Ukraine would receive compensation for the commercial value of the highly enriched uranium.

What is Russia's policy on nuclear weapons? ›

Since Russia's February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons against the West, stated that Russia has deployed nonstrategic nuclear weapons to its ally Belarus, and declared the suspension of certain Russian obligations under the New START Treaty that limit ...

How many nukes does NATO have? ›

Number of nuclear warheads belonging to NATO allies 1949-2023. As of 2023, there were estimated to be approximately 4,223 nuclear warheads belonging to three NATO allies, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. The majority of these belonged to the United States, which had 3,708 nuclear warheads.

How many nukes would have to go off to cause a nuclear winter? ›

A nuclear war using as few as 100 weapons anywhere in the world would disrupt the global climate and agricultural production so severely that the lives of more than two billion people would be in jeopardy from mass starvation.

What is China's nuclear doctrine? ›

China believes that the final results of wars are decided by people instead of advanced weapons and WMD. The most significant foundation for China's national defense is the concept of People's War. Therefore, implementation of a policy of no-first use of nuclear weapons will affect the results of wars in the future.

What is the NATO doctrine on nuclear weapons? ›

NATO's stated nuclear doctrine is as follows: The fundamental purpose of NATO's nuclear capability is to preserve peace, prevent coercion and deter aggression. Nuclear weapons are unique. The circ*mstances in which NATO might have to use nuclear weapons are extremely remote.

What is the nuclear doctrine of the US military? ›

The Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations is a U.S. Department of Defense document publicly discovered in 2005 on the circ*mstances under which commanders of U.S. forces could request the use of nuclear weapons. The document was a draft being revised to be consistent with the Bush doctrine of preemptive attack.

Does Canada have nuclear weapons? ›

Canada does not have nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons or relevant delivery systems, and is a member in good standing of all relevant nonproliferation treaties and regimes.

Does Germany have nuclear weapons? ›

Although Germany has the technical capability to produce weapons of mass destruction (WMD), since World War II it has refrained from producing those weapons. However, Germany participates in the NATO nuclear weapons sharing arrangements and trains for delivering United States nuclear weapons.

Who broke the Minsk agreement? ›

At the start of January 2015, Russia sent another large batch of its regular military, which together with separatist forces of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) began a new offensive on Ukrainian-controlled areas, resulting in the complete collapse of the Minsk Protocol ceasefire.

Does Russia have nuclear weapons to destroy the world? ›

Of the stockpiled warheads, 1,710 strategic warheads are deployed: about 870 on land-based ballistic missiles, about 640 on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and possibly 200 at heavy bomber bases, FAS said. Such numbers mean that both Moscow could destroy the world many times over.

Which country has the highest weapons in the world? ›

Who has the most nuclear weapons? Russia has the most confirmed nuclear weapons, with over 5,500 nuclear warheads. The United States follows behind with 5,044 nuclear weapons, hosted in the US and 5 other nations: Turkey, Italy, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.

Does Japan have nuclear weapons? ›

Since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan has been a staunch upholder of antinuclear sentiments. Its postwar Constitution forbids the establishment of offensive military forces, and in 1967 it adopted the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, ruling out the production, possession, or introduction of nuclear weapons.

How many nuclear bombs in America in 2024? ›

United States

The stockpile figures do not include retired warheads and those awaiting dismantlement. FAS estimates the current military stockpile stands at 3708 warheads, with 1,336 retired warheads awaiting dismantlement, for a total of 5,044 warheads as of May 2024.

How many nukes does China have? ›

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' 2024 Nuclear Notebook estimates that China now has about 500 nuclear warheads, and more are being produced to equip future delivery systems. Of the nine nuclear-armed powers, China is thought to have one of the fastest-growing nuclear arsenals at present.

How many lost nukes? ›

FARO, Wayne County — United States military leaders have admitted to losing six nuclear weapons since 1950. Unsealed documents show one is in the Mediterranean Sea, two are in the Pacific Ocean, two in the Atlantic Ocean and one is in Eastern North Carolina.

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