What to know about Putin’s nuclear order

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Feb. 27 that he had put his nuclear deterrence forces into alert, blaming the West’s “aggressive statements.” (Video: Reuters)

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered nuclear forces on alert Sunday, adding a complicated and concerning dimension to the widening conflict in Ukraine.

Experts said it was the first time the Kremlin, which has the world’s biggest nuclear stockpile, had made such an announcement since the Russian Federation was established in 1991.

U.S. officials have refused to say whether the Pentagon’s posture has changed in response to Putin’s announcement. White House press secretary Jen Psaki, speaking on MSNBC, said soon after that the United States has “the ability, of course, to defend ourselves, as does NATO” while describing Russia’s actions as an escalation to justify its actions in Ukraine.

While experts said they did not expect Putin to attempt any sort of nuclear strike on the West or a smaller-scale nuclear attack within Ukraine — where conventional Russian forces already have a major advantage — they said the fact the alert was occurring at a time when a major conflict is unfolding on NATO’s borders made it much more dangerous. Russia has nearly 6,000 warheads, slightly more than the United States’ approximately 5,400, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

“We’re in a dangerous moment. How dangerous, it’s hard to assess,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

What to know: