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Russia's dangerous game How likely is Putin to cross the nuclear red line?

Source: Meduza

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin — along with numerous other Russian officials, politicians, and propagandists — has regularly threatened to use nuclear weapons. The president's most recent mention of the topic came on September 21, when he announced Russia’s “partial mobilization.” To get a better idea of whether there’s any chance of Russia’s leaders following through on their nuclear threats and what the consequences will be if they do, Meduza spoke to Maxim Starchak, an expert on Russia’s nuclear policy and a Fellow at the Center for International and Defense Policy of the Queen’s University in Canada.

In Vladimir Putin’s September 21 speech announcing mobilization in Russia, the president vowed to use “all the means at [his] disposal” to protect the Russian people if Russia’s "territorial integrity" is threatened. “It’s not a bluff,” he added. As nuclear weapons expert Maxim Starchak told Meduza, this carefully worded statement, aimed at deterring NATO and the U.S. from interfering directly in Russia's war against Ukraine, contained two glaring ambiguities.

The first is the concept of “all the means at Putin’s disposal.” Technically, according to Russia’s nuclear doctrine, Putin shouldn't have nuclear weapons at his disposal: their use is only permitted if conventional weapons are used on Russian territory and the existence of the Russian state itself comes under threat (or if other specific conditions, none of which currently apply, are met). “In the war with Ukraine, this scenario is essentially not possible,” Starchak said.

But Putin has never been one to let facts get in his way. In the same speech, minutes before invoking Russia’s “territorial integrity," he expressed support for the prospective annexation of Ukraine’s partially-occupied territories. “Putin is artificially expanding the concept of ‘the existence of the state itself’ while also not specifically mentioning nuclear weapons,” said Starchak.

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If Putin decides to use tactical nuclear weapons on Ukraine, there’s little more than a few veto points to prevent him from going through with it: according to Starchak, the nuclear strike process is set in motion when the president himself, the Chief of the General Staff, and the defense minister all grant permission from their respective nuclear briefcases.

The process for using a strategic nuclear weapon — the kind capable of reaching the U.S. — is a bit more complicated, and would be detected early on by U.S. and NATO intelligence once set in motion, Starchak said. Still, preventing the launch from getting underway once Putin ordered it would require someone to disobey the president’s orders at an unprecedented level.

And while deterrence theory holds that a rational Putin wouldn’t launch a nuclear strike on another nuclear power (or a nuclear power's ally) for fear of retaliation, Ukraine has neither nuclear weapons of its own nor NATO membership.

But none of this means a Russian nuclear strike is imminent. In Starchak’s view, Putin’s decision to announce a call-up is likely an indication of how unlikely he is to launch a nuclear strike. “By choosing mobilization, it’s as if Putin is saying that he’ll use manpower [rather than nuclear weapons] to solve his problems in Ukraine,” Starchak said. After all, while the Russian authorities claim they plan to draft 300,000 men, they could mobilize millions more — and Starchak believes that could be enough to defeat Ukraine.

If things do escalate even further, there are still steps Russia would likely take before launching a nuclear strike, the expert told Meduza. “The conventional wisdom is that one level below the use of nuclear weapons is the use of high-precision weapons, which are considered an alternative to (tactical) nuclear ones,” he said. “[Before using nuclear weapons,] Russia could attack Kyiv and [Ukrainian] government targets [with high-precision non-nuclear weapons].”

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On the other hand, said Starchak, that might not change the situation on the battlefield. “Each weapon fired on Kyiv is one less that can be used in the Donbas, Kherson, or Zaporizhzhia. “[...] Taking Kyiv without a large number of missiles isn’t feasible, and whether it would actually have an effect on the overall situation at the front is dubious,” he said.

Another possibility would be for Russia to attack the supply routes used by the U.S. and NATO to transport weapons to Ukraine, Starchak said. The problem is that such a strike would carry the risk of NATO personnel being killed, which would likely cause the alliance itself to retaliate. “It’s possible that things would remain stable if NATO’s one-off response didn’t provoke a counterresponse from Russia,” Starchak said, “but that’s not what would happen if NATO’s response involved transferring NATO forces into Ukraine.”

All in all, Starchak told Meduza, the prospect of NATO getting directly involved on the ground in Ukraine is terrifying to Washington and Moscow alike. At the same time, Putin’s mobilization speech suggested he plans to frame Ukraine's ongoing offensives on newly “annexed” territory as a “threat to Russia’s territorial integrity" in the event that he decide to resort to a nuclear strike. What would that look like?

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“In Russian military theory, the first step in nuclear escalation is a single demonstrative strike on a deserted area or offshore,” said Starchak. “Theoretically, that could be done in the Arctic Ocean — a clearly ‘deserted’ place that wouldn’t carry any huge risks to Russia’s own troops or citizens of any other state.”

The goal of such a strike, he said, would be to exert psychological pressure without exposing civilians to radiation. But just like in the case of a theoretical high-precision strike on Kyiv, Starchak doesn’t believe a nuclear strike on an unpopulated area would have an effect on Ukraine’s resistance effort. And if that turned out to be the case, he said, the next step up would be for Russia to launch a strike on a Ukrainian military target.

But even if Russia launched a nuclear strike powerful enough to destroy an entire city, Starchak said, it still likely wouldn’t be enough to defeat the Ukrainian army — and would bring future problems of its own. “It would create radiation contamination in the area, ruining the territory for future use by Russia,” said Starchak. “So it’s unlikely that using a nuclear weapon on Ukrainian territory would have any military value.”

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Starchak did acknowledge that Putin’s not necessarily a rational actor, and one can imagine him using nuclear weapons to destroy Ukraine out of spite. But he’s also unlikely to want to spark NATO's involvement, which that would certainly do. “For a person who’s worried about his health, interested in attaining eternal youth, and still expects everyone who meets with him to go through a quarantine period, that's [likely] too big a risk,” said Starchak.

If Russia does launch a nuclear strike, according to Starchak, the retaliation could take a number of different forms. “It’s likely that the U.S. is already working on possible responses,” Starchak said. “NATO forces could enter Ukraine; there could be a non-nuclear strike on Russian troops in Ukraine; the U.S. could launch a nuclear strike on Russian troops; and so on.”

Putin likely already understands those possibilities, and that should theoretically be enough to serve as a deterrent, according to Starchak. If it’s not, he said, “I hope that even a limited military response from NATO wouldn’t escalate into a world war. But at the same time, it’s impossible to predict how events will unfold.”

English-language version by Sam Breazeale

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