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How to decode Putin’s nuclear warnings

What is the risk of Russian nuclear use in Ukraine? Here’s what you need to know.

Ukrainian soldiers stand next to a BM-21 multiple-rocket launcher in eastern Ukraine on Thursday. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sept. 21 Russian President Vladimir Putin issued nuclear warnings as part of his speech announcing partial Russian mobilization and his endorsement of illegal “referenda” in the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.

Here’s what you need to know about the risk of Russian nuclear use.

1. What did Putin say about nuclear weapons?

Putin made two distinct nuclear warnings in his speech. The first was directed toward NATO. Putin claimed, with no evidence, that NATO policymakers have discussed using “weapons of mass destruction” against Russia. He “remind[ed]” NATO that Russia possesses “more modern [weapons] than the weapons NATO countries have.” The message was clear: Moscow could retaliate against a NATO nuclear strike — which NATO has not threatened — with a nuclear strike of its own.

Why Russia’s mobilization may lower the risk of nuclear war — for now

The second nuclear warning was more general. Putin pledged that Russia would use “all weapons systems available” to protect its “territorial integrity,” Russia’s “people” as well as Russia’s “independence and freedom.” The target audience for this warning was less clear than the first, including but perhaps not limited to NATO.

2. Is there anything new in Russia’s nuclear policy here?

The first warning contained nothing new. Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine and 2020 Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence both state that Moscow “reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies.” Putin’s message is also consistent with his previous warnings, which were designed to deter NATO intervention in the war.

Some analysts now argue that the second warning expands the scope for Russian first use of nuclear weapons. Yet the Basic Principles already state that Russian nuclear forces exist to protect “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state.” So, it’s not clear that Putin’s words change much.

However, the context in which Putin issued these warnings is important. In the same speech, Putin endorsed the alleged “referendum” voting taking place over the next few days in the occupied parts of Ukraine’s Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. Western officials point out that these votes are illegal under Ukrainian and international law, and predict that “sham” voting will show large majorities in favor of joining Russia, paving the way for Moscow’s annexation of these areas. Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 after an illegal referendum purported to show 97 percent of voters there favored joining Russia.

Would Putin’s nuclear warning regarding Russia’s territorial integrity also extend to annexed territory? That’s an important question — some Western analysts have previously raised the possibility that Ukrainian attempts to retake Russian-occupied Crimea could increase the risk of Russian nuclear threats or even use of nuclear weapons.

3. What are Putin's nuclear options in practice?

It’s highly unlikely Putin would use Russia’s large arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons capable of striking the United States, for fear of sparking an apocalyptic nuclear war. But Putin could rely on a combination of threats and, potentially, the use of shorter-range and lower-yield nonstrategic nuclear weapons to shock Ukraine and its Western supporters. His goal would be to compel them to seek an end to the war on Russia’s terms for fear of further escalation.

Exactly how Russian nuclear use might unfold in this scenario is not clear. Official Russian sources do not go beyond broad statements of policy. And Russian expert writing usually assumes Moscow’s conventional forces can win a “local” war of the Ukraine type, making nuclear escalation unnecessary.

Nevertheless it’s possible to speculate from this literature how such nuclear use might unfold. Russia could conduct an underground or atmospheric nuclear detonation — for example, at its Novaya Zemlya testing facility in the Arctic. It could conduct a demonstration strike in an uninhabited area that’s close to Ukraine, such as the Black Sea. It might also attack Ukraine directly, against a military target or perhaps even a Ukrainian city. Putin could use these options in sequence, giving time for Ukraine to concede, or the West to put pressure on Kyiv to concede, before he escalated further.

4. How might the world respond?

Even if these options were part of a Russian plan, nuclear use carries extreme risks for Putin and his regime. It is highly likely that it would put Russia in a worse military, political and economic situation.

How Putin’s partial mobilization could backfire

Putin has no certainty that Ukraine would concede — or that the West would rein in its support for Kyiv. That would leave him with the options of escalating further or accepting that his desperate gamble had failed. Ukraine, the United States and NATO have given no indication that they are ready to back down.

Putin would also break the 77-year taboo against using nuclear weapons, risking global horror, condemnation and economic isolation far beyond what Russia has experienced already.

Then there’s military retaliation against Russia. Before Putin’s speech, President Biden warned that Russian nuclear weapons use “would change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.” He also put Putin on notice regarding the U.S. response — noting that “the extent of what [the Russians] do will determine what response would occur.”

It is not clear what military retaliation would look like. Nongovernmental analysts have proposed a range of credible nonnuclear responses, from cyberattacks to conventional strikes against Russian forces, designed to punish the units that carried out the attack or assist Ukrainian troops in driving Russia from its territory.

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5. Who makes these nuclear decisions in Russia?

Of course, Putin may not have unchecked authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. The Russian government maintains three nuclear briefcases, assigned to Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, respectively. Analysts say authorizations from the holders of two of the briefcases are necessary to order use of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.

Yet it is unclear if any similar safeguards exist for the nonstrategic nuclear weapons that are of greatest concern today. Analysts have posited that although the Russian armed forces may not possess a formal veto, the military would have a measure of control through their involvement in the planning and execution of the strikes. But putting any faith in the idea that Russian officers could refuse to execute an order seems risky, indeed.

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James J. Cameron is a postdoctoral fellow at the Oslo Nuclear Project in the University of Oslo’s political science department. He is the author of “The Double Game: The Demise of America’s First Missile Defense System and the Rise of Strategic Arms Limitation” (Oxford University Press, 2017).

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