Mixed signals from Vladimir Putin about whether his invasion of Ukraine could go nuclear and a reported conversation between his military chiefs about atomic weapons have fueled speculation about what Russia might turn to in the war.
The discussion, which took place in Putin’s absence, about when and how Russia might use a tactical nuclear weapon alarmed the Biden administration and Western capitals, according to Los New York Times.
There is a cautious consensus among experts that the risk of Russia using nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war is low.
But the military leaders’ purported conversation came amid frustration over battlefield losses and veiled threats from Putin about defending four annexed provinces in Ukraine by “all available means.”
Last week, Putin insisted that there was “no need” to use nuclear weapons.
James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it is not impossible that Russia will resort to nuclear weapons in the future.
He said news week: «I see that Russian nuclear use is very unlikely in the short term, but if things go wrong for Russia, I think it is a possibility.
“We should be modest in our ability to predict what the first Russian use would entail. There is a lot of uncertainty.”
He said that in order of increasing strength it would be an underground nuclear test in Russia; a surface nuclear test in Russia, or a demonstration over international waters like the Black Sea.
The next step would be a demonstration shot over a sparsely inhabited part of the Ukraine and the most forceful move would be the use of the battlefield against Ukrainian forces.
“I don’t pretend to know which of these is more likely. Even more escalation options are possible,” he said, such as attacks against Kyiv or even the United States, “but I think they are substantially less likely to be used for the first time.” .»
“In any case, even for battlefield use, the goal would be to terrify Ukraine and, in particular, its partners into backing down or making concessions, not tactical advantage.”
The Pentagon estimates that Russia has as many as 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, which have lower yields and are used at shorter ranges than the warheads carried by intercontinental ballistic missiles. They have never been used in combat and can be deployed in various ways, including with missiles or artillery shells.
Russia has an “escalate to de-escalate” deterrence doctrine and last month the US Institute of Peace said one option could be for Russia to publicly transfer a nuclear weapon closer to Ukraine or detonate a tactical nuclear weapon offshore. as a “demonstration attack”. «
This could allow Moscow to “de-escalate” the situation, so it freezes in place, allowing them to keep their forces inside Ukraine for Putin to declare victory.
Some analysts have proposed an attack over the Black Sea, but Patricia Lewis, director of international security research at London-based think tank Chatham House, said this would put Russia’s own fleet at risk.
“Several countries that they depend heavily on, including Turkey, would have something to say about it,” he said. news week.
Lewis said there was no need for Moscow to send a message of nuclear capability through a demonstration attack because “we already know they can do it.” Regarding an attack on what they call their own territory in Ukraine, “they could do it, for example, in a city that they are currently evacuating.”
“But then people in Russia will say ‘why are you bombing your own territory?’ And this is the problem with nuclear weapons, no matter how small the radioactive mess you leave behind.”
Another option, Lewis believed, would be to deploy a nuclear weapon in a rural area further west in Ukraine under the guise of targeting a nuclear or biological weapons facility that Moscow would say it had to act quickly to thwart.
This would be followed by a pause in the fighting and “NATO’s approach of not responding in the same way would allow it to be a different kind of pause,” he said, “what I think they’re trying to do is scare us all.”
He described the possibility of Russia resorting to nuclear weapons as “unknown rather than unlikely.”
Pavel Podvig, an analyst based in Geneva, where he heads the Russian Nuclear Forces research project, said the forces in Ukraine are scattered and mobile, so there would be no suitable military targets.
“There is a consensus that the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield would not make sense,” he said. news week. “The only way nuclear weapons could be used is to send that message of readiness and readiness to escalate.”
“You could think of a demonstration strike,” he said, “but then the question is a demonstration of what? The answer is that the demonstration of their willingness to go ahead and kill tens or hundreds of thousands of people, because otherwise it is not a demonstration of anything.
“Unless the message is there that we are prepared to follow up with an attack on cities, on civilians,” he said, “this demonstration would be totally ineffective.”
On Friday, the Group of Seven (G7) countries warned that Moscow would face “serious consequences” if it used chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, but deterrence could also come from Putin’s own military.
“I think it’s hard to imagine that Putin would summon generals and tell them ‘look, we’re going to go ahead and we’re going to go ahead with this kind of plan, we’re killing ten or hundreds of thousands of people,'” Podvig said.
“Not that they necessarily disobeyed direct orders. But you can imagine that’s a tough order to give and they might have their opinions on the wisdom of that move.”