The war in Ukraine was only a few days old when Russian President Putin ordered his generals to prepare the ‘deterrent troops’ for battle. He suggested the use of nuclear weapons. Two acclaimed nuclear weapons experts are examining the likelihood that the world’s largest nuclear power will actually use nuclear weapons.
Pavel Podvig, who is of Russian origin, works for the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, in Geneva. The Dane Hans Kristensen is president of the Nuclear Information Project in the American Federation of Scientists, a non-profit organization based in Washington DC
What kind of weapon is it?
Nuclear weapons experts distinguish between two different types of nuclear weapons: strategic and tactical. Strategic nuclear weapons allow you to hit an enemy from a great distance. The idea is that they are quickly deployed in response to an attack. According to Russian military doctrine, tactical nuclear weapons are intended to attack targets closer to home, on the battlefield, under certain circumstances.
In this case, it is the other kind, experts say. “If the Russians decide to use nuclear weapons, it will be tactical weapons, short-range systems,” says Hans Kristensen. Podvig notes that tactical weapons can mainly be used for targets such as tank columns and aircraft carriers. “And it does not matter in this war.”
Therefore, Podvig concludes that nuclear weapons are “militarily useless”. Kristensen agrees: “I do not see what Russia would gain from a nuclear attack.”
When would Russia deploy nuclear weapons?
The fact that there are no obvious military reasons does not mean that the use of nuclear weapons can be completely ruled out, the Dane warns. “Things are going badly in Ukraine, and the sanctions are hitting Russia hard. At some point, they could decide to use a nuclear weapon to reverse the trend.”
Podvig: “The only possible reason to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine is to attack civilians and cities, to force the country to surrender. As the Americans did at the end of World War II, in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” It was the first and last time nuclear weapons were used, in August 1945.
Who presses the button?
According to Russian military doctrine, Russia can use nuclear weapons if there is an “existential threat”. It is a matter of interpretation, and in the end only the President can issue such an order. “You hope the bar for the use of nuclear weapons is set very high,” Podvig said. “But ‘high’ is a relative term.”
The Russian nuclear weapons expert stresses that there is no physical button that directly connects the president with a launch system. In the case of a Russian ‘first strike’, a deliberate attack, the process is complicated, says Podvig. “Then they have to move nuclear warheads from depots in central Russia to fire installations. It’s a time-consuming process.”
“We do not know much about that process,” says Hans Kristensen. “If the president gives the order, the soldiers have to carry it out. It’s obvious we would at least know some time in advance that something is going on.”
How do we know if an attack is coming?
So far, there is no indication that a nuclear attack is imminent, both experts agree. Podvig: “No warheads screwed on missiles or bombs loaded on planes.”
The move of warheads from depots to launchers closer to the front would be particularly striking. According to Kristensen, there is a warehouse close to the border with Ukraine, in Belgorod. “This depot appears to be active, but whether it means there are actually nuclear warheads there, or whether they can receive nuclear warheads there, we do not know. The vast majority of tactical warheads are deeper in Russia.”
How likely is a nuclear attack?
Pavel Podvig considers it highly unlikely that the Russians will use a nuclear weapon. “There is no military reason to do so, nor are there any concrete indications that anything is happening.”
“It is difficult to say whether they would,” says Hans Kristensen. Of course, I hope not. But the fact that we’ve been talking about it for so long illustrates that we’re really worried. “
Less than a month ago, Russia presented these images of a new intercontinental nuclear missile, RS-28 Sarmat, nicknamed ‘Satan II’: