The talks about the risks of nuclear war intensified after Russia invaded Ukraine. Is it probable that Vladimir Putin could decide to use nuclear weapons in this war? Let’s look deeper into this issue.
Threats of using nuclear weapons: What is the aim?
There are several possible ways to use nuclear weapons without making an actual strike.
Firstly, they can be used to deter, that is, to prevent aggression by an adversary by the threat of a counterattack.
Alternatively, they can be used to compellence. For example, an adversary may be forced to sign a peace agreement because of the risk of a nuclear attack. Usually, it is thought that nuclear weapons are effective for deterrence but not so useful for compellence.
Both strategies failed against Ukraine. Why?
Vladimir Putin and nuclear weapons: Why this strategy didn’t work so far?
Despite the trials of Russia to use the possibility of nuclear war as a form of deterrence, this has not achieved the intended effect. Ukraine has paid little attention to these warnings and launched counterattacks to reclaim its territories, sometimes with great success.
On the other hand, NATO has ruled out a direct intervention in Ukraine, and some Allies have restricted the aid supplied to Ukraine to reduce escalation risks. In a certain sense, this could be viewed as a sign of hesitation, but it would be an incorrect impression. When the Russian Federation did not show any intention to de-escalate the war, NATO countries implemented their own preventive measures in response.
For example, at the same time when Russia was aiming to strengthen its position in annexed Crimea, NATO has been reconsidering its position of nuclear deterrence, and this process continued for several years. In 2020, the US deployed a new low-yield nuclear submarine warhead. Similarly, in 2021, the UK decided to expand its nuclear stockpile by 40 percent.
Furthermore, in response to continued aggression in 2022, Western countries introduced and systematically increased economic pressure on the Russian Federation using the mechanisms of international law, and are continuing to supply military aid to Ukraine. Even those territories that were occupied, still remain Ukrainian land.
What about nuclear arms reduction treaties?
Since 1994, Russia’s and the US’s arsenals of nuclear weapons have been regulated by Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The last extension of this treaty in 2021 was reached in a difficult way.
Current events have shattered the confidence of Russia. Thus, such treaties may become impossible in the future. At the same time, doubt arises whether Russia can significantly enlarge its nuclear arsenal.
Currently, Russia has about 5,977 nuclear warheads – arms that can trigger a nuclear explosion. It is the largest nuclear stockpile in the world.
Could Vladimir Putin decide to use nuclear weapons in the future?
The possibility that Vladimir Putin could decide to use nuclear weapons in the future cannot be excluded. However, exact predictions are impossible, because there are many variables involved.
Russia considers the occupied Crimea “its own territory”. On the one hand, this could lead to somewhat stronger position in terms of nuclear deterrence. On the other hand, Ukrainian army has conducted military operations in the occupied territory of Crimea, and this did not lead to a stronger escalation of potential nuclear conflict, or any stronger measures of deterrence.
Increasing isolation from the international community, impacts of economic sanctions, and its reduced military resources may tempt Moscow to turn to “nuclear signals” again and again, with the aim to increase pressure upon Ukraine and its allies in order to win certain “political benefits”.
It is also difficult to predict what pressures to take drastic action Vladimir Putin may face from his ‘domestic’ environment, or if there would be no such pressure at all.
But it cannot be said that Russia’s president has a lot of freedom of action in this regard. NATO is not going to cease its own nuclear deterrence policy in response to aggression in Ukraine. Even if Ukraine is not a NATO member (at least for now), it is a NATO partner country. This cooperation supporting Ukraine’s freedom and right for self-defense has intensified since 2014, in the wake of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
Furthermore, Russia’s choice to continue the invasion and also to actively demonstrate its arsenal of nuclear weapons has clearly reaffirmed the need for a reliable nuclear deterrence strategy from the side of NATO. That is why the Alliance is not considering nuclear disarmament in the foreseeable future.
To sum up, tensions around nuclear weapons are intensifying. However, as they are usually a form of deterrence or compellence, the actual risk of a nuclear conflict from the side of the Russian Federation remains limited.