The threat of nuclear weapons has loomed over the Ukraine crisis since before the war began. On Feb. 19, Russian President Vladimir Putin personally presided over strategic nuclear exercises, including the launch of ballistic missiles, in a clear demonstration of the country’s nuclear capabilities. In his declaration of war on the morning of Feb. 24, Putin threatened any outside countries that might “hinder us, and … create threats for our country” with “such consequences that you have never experienced in your history.” He added: “All necessary decisions in this regard have been made. I hope that I will be heard.”
Putin’s words were widely interpreted as a threat to use nuclear weapons against countries that intervened militarily on Ukraine’s behalf.
Putin made the threat more explicit on Feb. 27, announcing that he was putting Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert, citing new economic sanctions slapped on his government and “aggressive statements” by NATO leaders. According to Defense One, it was the first time either Russia or the United States had raised its nuclear alert level since Washington did so during the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War, nearly a half century ago.
This is not the sort of threat one makes lightly, nor one the world can take lightly. Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, with 1,458 strategic warheads deployed on 527 intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and strategic bombers, as well as a stockpile of almost 5,000 more. As important as all those numbers is this basic fact: Virtually the entire world is in range of its most advanced ICBMs.
So far, there are no signs that nuclear forces have actually been deployed following Putin’s announcement. Rose Gottemoeller, who has served as U.S. under secretary of state for arms control as well as deputy secretary general of NATO, told Grid that Putin, who came of age at the height of the Cold War, “may have it in his mind that this is something superpowers do when they need to send a clear signal.”
The difference, she noted, is that while in the Cold War, “the U.S. would raise DEFCON, then the Soviets would raise DEFCON and then negotiations with Henry Kissinger involved would begin,” this time the Biden administration has made a point of not raising its own alert level in response to Putin’s threat. “That would be my approach,” Gottemoeller said. “Just don’t respond to this nuclear saber rattling and not to get into the public interchange with him.”
Still, what makes Putin’s statements particularly unnerving is that Putin’s nuclear red line isn’t clear. Yes, Russia has been on the receiving end of condemnations and tough economic sanctions this week, but that was surely anticipated — and Russia has been under heavy sanctions since annexing Crimea in 2014. It’s true that a number of countries are providing weaponry to the Ukrainians — including some, like Germany, that were previously reluctant to do so — but that’s not unprecedented. During the Cold War, the Soviets aided the North Vietnamese against the Americans and the Americans aided Afghanistan’s mujahedeen against the Soviets. The nuclear threat was never put forward in such public fashion.
But as Sam Charap, a Russia analyst at the Rand Corporation, warned in the Washington Post on Sunday, Putin may believe that all the pressure is aimed at removing him from power: “Credibly communicating the limits of our intentions — even though the sanctions themselves are totally justified — is really difficult. … It is plausible for them to interpret our sanctions as an attempt to fundamentally damage the Russia state and overthrow its government.”
If Putin feels that economic pressure — an area where the U.S. and NATO have an overwhelming advantage — threatens his regime’s survival, he could choose to push back in an area where the playing field is more even.
Even more unnerving: Putin is believed to be extremely isolated — literally so, during the pandemic — and his decision-making and public statements increasingly erratic. The war in Ukraine has not gone as easily as anticipated, and the economic and political backlash may be more severe than expected. It’s hard to judge what decisions Putin might take if he feels the walls closing in on him.
As Nicholas Miller, a Dartmouth professor who focuses on nonproliferation issues wrote on Twitter, “Ever wondered what happens when you strangle the economy of a nuclear-armed, autocratic great power in the midst of a major war? I guess we’re about to find out.”
How Russia’s nukes impact NATO soldiers
Whatever Putin’s red lines are, there is one that Ukraine’s backers are taking seriously: Putin’s warning against those “who create threats for our country.” Right now, no NATO country is actively considering sending its own troops into Ukraine or enforcing a no-fly zone that might entail shooting down Russian planes. This is partly because Ukraine is not a member of NATO and therefore not covered by the alliance’s mutual defense guarantee, but the nuclear threat also has a lot to do with it.
As Angela Stent, a Russian foreign policy expert at Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution put it in a Twitter Spaces conversation with Grid last week, “Russia is a nuclear superpower. The United States cannot send U.S. troops to fight Russian troops in Ukraine because this could lead to Armageddon. The Russians like to talk about the possibility of a ‘limited’ nuclear war, but it would be irresponsible for the U.S. to do that, and we all have to be worried about the possibility that this war could draw in some of Ukraine’s neighbors.”
President Joe Biden himself has made a similar point in explaining the U.S. refusal to send troops to Ukraine: “That’s a world war when Americans and Russia start shooting at one another.”
Even if NATO troops stay out of Ukraine, they are being deployed in large numbers to Eastern Europe to reassure NATO allies. This may also induce Russia to build up forces of its own. With missiles flying at targets in Ukraine just a few hours drive from NATO member states like Poland and Romania, the risk of a fatal miscalculation is alarmingly high. Adding to the tension: Russia’s ally Belarus on Sunday held a referendum that would pave the way for Russian nuclear weapons to be based in the country.
It seems unthinkable that Putin would use nuclear weapons unless Russia itself were actively under attack by foreign powers. But a lot of things have happened because of the war that seemed unthinkable a week ago.
Russia’s nuclear fears
Putin didn’t just use the nuclear threat in the early days of the conflict; he also used it in his justification for war. In addition to accusing NATO of placing nukes in Eastern Europe, Putin suggested that Ukraine itself is seeking a nuclear arsenal. In his Feb. 21 speech recognizing Ukraine’s two breakaway regions, Putin said that “Ukraine intends to create its own nuclear weapons, and this is not just bragging. Ukraine has the nuclear technologies created back in the Soviet times and delivery vehicles for such weapons. … If Ukraine acquires weapons of mass destruction, the situation in the world and in Europe will drastically change, especially for us, for Russia. We cannot [help] but react to this real danger.” He also accused Western countries of helping Ukraine acquire these weapons.
It was, even by Putin’s standards, a wild accusation: There is no evidence Ukraine is building a nuclear weapons program. It’s impossible to know whether Putin really believes what he said. Given that several of his recent statements also referenced the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it’s possible he was employing one of his favorite tactics: using Western powers’ own rhetoric, in this case false claims about weapons of mass destruction, to justify his actions.
But Putin was also referring to some actual history, which is vital for understanding how these two countries came to this point.
Ukraine’s nuclear past
For a brief time after its independence, Ukraine was home to the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, with an estimated 1,900 of the Soviet Union’s strategic warheads on its territory, along with 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 44 strategic bombers. Critically, Ukraine never had the ability to use these weapons. They were connected to command-and-control systems that led back to Moscow. But there were fears at the time that Ukraine’s government could seize “positive operational control” of these weapons. In 1994, the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, Ukraine and Russia signed an agreement known as the Budapest Memorandum, under which, in exchange for Kyiv relinquishing its Soviet nukes and signing on to the global Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), these nuclear powers agreed to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and refrain from using force against it.
Obviously, the Budapest Memorandum has not aged well. After 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and sent troops into eastern Ukraine, some Ukrainian officials suggested it was time for the country to “think about nuclear status again,” and support for the idea stood at roughly 50 percent. But Ukraine never actually took steps toward building a nuclear deterrent.
Ukraine’s experience, along with other events in recent years, may cause other countries to rethink their nuclear status.
Consider this: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 1991. Twelve years later, Iraq was invaded, and Saddam’s regime was overthrown. Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya agreed to give up its nuclear program in 2003. Eight years later, a NATO-led air campaign helped bring down his government; after the revolution, Gaddafi was killed. Now, the world has watched as one of the few countries that actually possessed weapons and gave them up is attacked by the country to which it surrendered them.
Consider also the contrast with North Korea, where officials have openly cited the Libya example as evidence for why they need their own nuclear deterrent. North Korea is not only at minimal risk of a foreign invasion, its tyrannical dictator earned several meetings with a U.S. president.
One can make the case that the nuclear capability affords geopolitical protection.
“The reality is that when you have a large nuclear power dismembering its neighbors, a lot of states are going to look at that and say, ‘a bomb looks pretty good,’” Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at Middlebury College’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told Grid. “I certainly think a country like Taiwan has to be looking at this,” he added, noting that Taiwan has had a nuclear weapons research program in the past.
If the war in Ukraine hadn’t broken out, the biggest diplomatic news story of this week would probably have involved Iran and the ongoing talks over a return to the 2015 nuclear deal, which one Iranian diplomat says have now entered a “now or never” phase. Convincing any country of the wisdom of forgoing a nuclear deterrent might be a lot harder than it was a week ago.
The “MAD” future
It’s been 73 years since the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon, ushering in the age of nuclear standoff. Today, seven more countries have them. As international relations go, the idea of nuclear deterrence — that states will avoid using nuclear weapons against each other because of the risk of mutually assured destruction (MAD) — has a pretty good track record. Even in the worst of times, nuclear powers have been careful not to let things escalate too far. The Cuban missile crisis is the classic case of a near disaster, and a surreal illustration of the fear of escalation took place in 2020 when troops from China and India — over 500 nuclear warheads between them — fought over a disputed Himalayan border with rocks and clubs rather than guns.
But in what’s been called the “new Cold War,” will deterrence continue to hold, particularly if more countries seek a nuclear deterrent of their own? There are realistic fears that China could attempt to invade and take over Taiwan in the coming years. Unlike with Ukraine, Biden has not ruled out sending in U.S. troops in that scenario.
The other problem with the deterrence concept is that it assumes both parties are rational or that they view reality in the same way. A prevailing notion is that Putin’s Russia would never attack NATO member states, including the former Soviet nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Members of the alliance, including the United States, are treaty-bound to treat such an attack the same way they would an attack on their own territories and respond in kind. But some of the West’s most knowledgeable Russia experts have also spent the last few months suggesting that Putin would never do something so irrational as attack Ukraine.
“Leaders have access to different streams of information,” said Lewis. “They have their own world views and their own internal politics. Stalin refused to believe Hitler was going to invade. Saddam Hussein’s life depended on understanding that George Bush was going to go to Baghdad. He got it wrong. Leaders have their own information bubble and their own biases and can talk themselves into this stuff.”
Putin seems to take it as an article of faith that Ukraine’s current government was installed by Western powers and that it poses a real and direct threat to his country’s security. The fact that this notion seems absurd to Americans and Europeans is beside the point.
Western countries may perceive moves like shipping weapons to Ukraine, ratcheting up the sanctions pressure on Moscow and moving troops to Eastern Europe as “limited” measures meant to avoid escalation. We’re putting a lot of faith in the assumption that Putin sees them that way too.