AAfter a series of battlefield losses in eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued an ambiguous but ominous threat to use nuclear weapons. “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without a doubt use all available means to defend Russia and our people,” he said Wednesday in a speech broadcast on national television. “This is not a bluff.”
Because he ordered invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Putin routinely reminds the world that Moscow’s nuclear arsenal is the largest in the world. He has publicly put Russia’s nuclear forces on “special combat alert,” held high-profile nuclear exercises and issued veiled threats to use nuclear weapons if any nation stood in the way of his goal of toppling the government in Kyiv.
All of these moves have so far appeared to be mostly for show – US intelligence has yet to see any changes in the posture of Russia’s strategic arsenal – but the prospect of the world’s most powerful weapon cannot be ignored, and Putin’s latest statement appears to have expanded the realm of scenarios , in which he says he might launch one. The Biden administration has formed a team of experts to devise a response strategy should Russia do the unthinkable.
Experts inside and outside the government still think it highly unlikely that Putin would ever use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. But the fear is that he might, especially if the Russian invasion continues to flounder solid resistance and debilitating strategic failures. Putin may launch a limited nuclear strike or show one out of desperation, intelligence officials say. Moscow is investing billions of dollars in overhauling its nuclear forces and reshaping its arsenal. On Putin’s orders, the military began stockpiling a wide range of smaller, lower-explosive weapons, called tactical nuclear weapons, intended for use on the battlefield in “limited nuclear war.”
Still, Putin’s declaration on Wednesday went a step further than the conditions under which Russia had previously said it would use nuclear weapons, outlined in a six-page document from June 2020 titled: “The Basic Principles of State Policy of Russian Federation in the field of nuclear deterrence. The decree says that Russia will go nuclear in response to the use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction and “in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation using conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is threatened.” In his national address on Wednesday, Putin said Russia planned to annex its occupied regions of southern and eastern Ukraine after Kremlin-run referendums to create “republics” and added that he was ready to defend the “territorial integrity” of the occupied territory. Absolutely.”
A senior administration official told reporters on Wednesday that Putin’s latest round of “playing the nuclear card” is based on a new “legalistic” construct he is presenting: If these “sham” referendums pass, then all of Ukraine’s attempts to returning these territories would be seen as an attack on Russia itself – thus allowing Moscow to go nuclear under the terms of the 2020 decree.
Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Wednesday morning, President Joe Biden said Putin made “reckless” and “irresponsible” nuclear threats and accused Russia of violating the defining principles of UN membership in its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Biden has taken various steps to avoid escalating tensions with Russia. He postponed an intercontinental ballistic missile test, rejected a plan to supply Ukraine with fighter jets and refused to match Putin’s heated rhetoric with threats of his own. Instead of entering the war, he chose a subdued, two-pronged strategy of providing arms to the army of Ukraine, while hitting Russia’s economy with crippling sanctions. Asked about the potential for Putin to use chemical or tactical nuclear weapons during an interview on “60 Minutes” on Sept. 18, Biden said, “Don’t. Don’t Don’t You will change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.
The threat of tactical nuclear weapons
Although far-fetched, Pentagon and intelligence officials believe the most likely nuclear scenario would be if, faced with the overwhelming conventional military power that pushed Ukraine’s advance into Russian territory, Putin could reach for a less tactical nuclear weapon. Its aim would be to intimidate the Ukrainian government and force the US and its allies to withdraw from the conflict if nuclear holocaust looms. No one wins an all-out nuclear war, Russia’s theory goes, but a single smaller detonation could be devastating enough to bring an adversary like Ukraine to its knees — and scary enough to deter the U.S. from mounting a robust response that could to kill thousands if not millions.
The nuclear bombs that the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 produced the equivalent of 15,000 to 25,000 tons of TNT. The detonation power of a tactical nuclear weapon may be equal to these quantities or only a fraction of 1000 tons of TNT or less. Putin has invested heavily in these weapons and boasts approximately 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons of varying yields and delivery platforms, according to US intelligence estimates. Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal, including anti-ship missiles, torpedoes and cruise missiles, has been updated with greater accuracy, longer range and lower yields to suit its potential military role, according to US assessments.
Not since the Cold War has the specter of nuclear weapons loomed so large. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the United States and the Soviet Union each had tens of thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at every major city and industrial asset in each other’s countries. What kept them in check – and continues to do so – is the expectation that if one side launched a nuclear strike, it would have to deal with the devastating consequences. The theory, known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), is what military planners have been banking on since the dawn of the atomic age.
The two countries have gradually reduced the number of weapons through various treaties designed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. The current major agreement, called the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), limits the US and Russia to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads — strategic weapons housed in missile silos, submarines and intercontinental bombers. However, the treaty does not apply to smaller “non-strategic” warheads. Both nations are free to stockpile as many tactical weapons as they wish.
The US, for its part, largely abandoned the development and deployment of these tactical weapons after President George H.W. Bush issued an order to do so in September 1991. The military dismantled about 5,000 weapons, including nuclear anti-personnel mines, nuclear depth charges and nuclear artillery shells, located primarily in Europe. After the purge, the only remaining tactical weapons were the 200 or so B61 nuclear bombs the US has deployed in five NATO countries stretching from the Netherlands to Turkey. Although the weapons are mostly symbolic of the alliance’s unity, Russia has long demanded that the B61 be removed from the European continent, a demand that has been repeated as the crisis in Ukraine has worsened. “Having a NATO nuclear capability, however small, keeps all NATO members bound and committed to the mission of nuclear deterrence,” said Rose Gottemuller, former NATO deputy secretary general and retired US diplomat.
The crisis raises questions about the future of US-Russia relations and the prospects for continued reductions in nuclear weapons. The US suspended bilateral arms control talks with Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. Even in the darkest moments of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union would hold diplomatic talks about nuclear weapons. The superpowers identified certain weapons deemed mutually threatening and then worked to eliminate the threat.
Thomas Graham, a retired US ambassador who helped negotiate every international arms control and non-proliferation agreement between 1970 and 1997, says the world is headed for a complete “untangling” of the many safeguards that have held nuclear war in check at a distance. While Putin’s gun-rattling can simply be dismissed as a scare tactic, the threat is serious enough not to be ignored. “If he goes up against the wall again, which he will, then I think we’ve got a problem if we press him,” Graham says. “He could do anything.”
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