“Just one launch, Boris, and England is gone,” said a broadcaster on Russian state
television back in early May. Moscow began wielding the nuclear card not long
after its invasion of Ukraine, creating a tense and worrying diplomatic
situation. This article investigates the authenticity of such Russian nuclear
threats and what a nuclear conflict might look like.
In late February Moscow increased the readiness of its nuclear arsenal to a ‘special
regime of combat duty’. Interestingly the expression Putin uses here to
indicate some heightened state of alert does not exist in Russian military
manuals. Nuclear forces are always combat ready, that is the point of them. An apparent fictional alert level does suggest the announcement was an empty threat.
This being said Russian forces have faced a series of embarrassing setbacks, Western arms
have flooded into Ukraine, couple these with sanctions and aggressive rhetoric;
concerns Putin may cross the nuclear line are ever present. As the conflict was
escalating so fast in the early stages, it was not inconceivable that it would
go all the way to nuclear war.
A decisive and unprompted use of nuclear weapons is unlikely. What concerns analysists,
politicians and the public alike is a pre-emptive strike. In theory this would
occur if the meaning or authenticity of a threat is miscalculated and one
nation launches thinking the other is going to do the same. When in reality
there may have been no real risk of attack in the first place. With nuclear
readiness supposedly increased, comments made on state TV and Western weapons
killing Russian troops the opportunity for escalation is not hard to see.
The announcement was a stark reminder of the capabilities Russia has, but far from
a sign that Russia wants to use them. Since the invasion, the West have become
more unified, NATO nations increased defence spending to meet the 2% of GDP
that NATO requires, Ukraine applied to the EU and Scandinavian countries began
NATO membership applications. This unity is quite the opposite of what the
Putin regime needs, and the nuclear card gave the regime some breathing
As the war goes on and Russian progress slows, a simple analysis would suggest the likely
use of asymmetrical weapons increases in order to force progress. There is
evidence on the ground for the opposite happening. It is clear Russia’s key
objectives have not been achieved and Ukraine are inflicting huge causalities
on Russian forces. Yet Putin’s nuclear sabre rattling has reduced. The 9th
of May Victory Day speech was pinned to be a defining moment, the West
were preparing for variety of threatening messages. This didn’t happen, the
speech went by without any major talking points. The lack of nuclear rhetoric
in the speech is a good indication there was never an intention to use the
weapons. Putin has already played the nuclear card and short of using them,
there isn’t much more he can do.
What would a nuclear strike look like?
The strategy would be ‘escalate to de-escalate’. If Moscow were to seriously contemplate a nuclear strike, it would be a limited one and not over a major urban centre.
The main aim would be to deter aggression from a NATO adversary, rather than
for military gain.
Commentators believe Moscow’s threat is posturing to deter the US and its allies from
becoming more involved in the war in Ukraine. As such targets would be in
Ukraine, not NATO states and they’d be military, not civilian targets. They
would be low yield, tactical nukes detonated in the air to minimise fallout.
Conceivably Kyiv could be a target to force a ‘peace at all costs’ plea from
Ukraine, but this would not be the first target. It is unknown how NATO would
react to a nuclear strike, boots on the ground would be more likely than
nuclear retaliation but dialog would be the first port of call.
If NATO were to formally have combatants fighting in Ukraine and Russia attacked with
nuclear force, a similar strategy would likely be taken. A tactical, low yield
bomb could be dropped on a concentration of forces and strategic locations on
the battlefield. After a strike on forces, the next step is domestic military
targets. Nuclear sites first, submarine warfare to neutralise nuclear subs and
then strategic military locations. Only after these steps do we get into the
realm of dropping nuclear weapons on civilian populations. Escalation would be
hard to stop but intense negotiation would be first priority.
Now just under 4 months into the invasion, there is certainly less room for miscalculation.
Each actor has settled into their role and one another’s hands are better
understood. The consensus among analysts is that nuclear war was and is not on
the cards. The threat continues to be defensive discourse from Moscow. A lack
of escalation in Putin’s messaging is a positive sign. The situation is what
experts refer to as a ‘non-zero’ risk. The risk is low, but it’s not zero. But
perhaps the clearest answer we have is that Western nations have not increased
their nuclear alertness to match Moscow.