Vladimir Putin's Nuclear Weapons Already Transformed the Ukraine War

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Vladimir Putin's mere mention of nuclear weapons reshaped the Ukraine battlefield. The Russia president speaks during a joint press conference with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko at the Kremlin on September 9. 2021 in Moscow, Russia. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin's nuclear weapons have no military utility in the Ukraine war—yet they've already transformed the battlefield.

At midnight on Monday, February 27, Russian armed forces carried out President Putin's order and placed their nuclear forces into a "special service regime," an elevated alert that is the second of four levels. It was an unprecedented move, one that hadn't occurred in almost 40 years.

"Top officials in NATO's leading countries have been making aggressive statements against our country," Putin said in justifying his order, adding that the threat to Russia was not just military but also economic, in the west imposing "illegitimate sanctions." Three days earlier, when Putin announced his decision to invade Ukraine, he threatened NATO and the United States not to intervene, saying that if they did, there would be "consequences that you have never encountered in your history."

Putin's nuclear threat prompted an oversize reaction commensurate with the world-destroying capacity inherent in all things nuclear. The three big questions: Would Putin really ever use his nuclear weapons? How should the introduction of nuclear weapons amidst the Ukraine war be understood? And finally, is there a way out?

The answer as to whether Putin would ever use nuclear weapons, nuclear experts say, is yes, no, and we don't know.

Yes: because Putin has already shown that he is willing to ignore international law and convention, that he is willing to risk it all (his leadership and his country) in attacking Ukraine. Yes because on the battlefield Russian forces are reaching the end of their capacity. And yes because the west's sanctions are indeed having devastating effect, doing precisely what is intended, damaging a country through means other than military force.

No: because Putin's threat is merely seeking to deter military intervention by the United States and NATO, a move that many see as risking escalation in Ukraine to World War status, one that could mean nuclear war. And no because Russia's use of nuclear weapons would mean the end of Putin.

Rather than seeing him as a madman, think of Putin as rational. He'll do what is in Russia's interest—as he sees it, obviously. Putin is not likely to use a nuclear weapon because there is no scenario where a nuclear weapon would aid in the conquest of Ukraine, nor one that ends well for Russia. The use of a nuclear weapon, even if it didn't provoke western retaliation, would mean certain annihilation of the mother country, isolated in every way from the rest of the world.

And we don't know: because predicting what Putin might do is a fruitless exercise. Alerts and threats could be just that—could be. Putin might be both a paranoid madman and entirely rational.

"What concerns me most is the potential for accidental use by either side as a result of misjudgment or miscalculation ... especially if Putin finds himself backed into a corner," Steve Schwartz, a fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, tells Newsweek.

While nuclear weapons and nuclear war are equated in most people's minds, in many ways, nuclear weapons are distinct, and because of that, they have already been used as an instrument in this war. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this political use of nuclear weapons has been their only true utility. But even there, it is important to note that nuclear weapons did not save the Soviet Union from unraveling. Given both the United States and Russia's acceptance that they have limited battlefield utility and that they represent such high stakes, both have adopted a so-called "whole of government" nuclear strategy by folding in non-nuclear moves—psychological, diplomatic, cyber—to be able to act in ways short of nuclear war to convey seriousness.

There's no need to enumerate how many nuclear weapons Russia has, and what types, and how they could be used. Suffice it to say that it has enough.

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Experts don't believe Russian President Vladimir Putin will use a nuclear weapon on Ukraine, but the conflict escalating could increase those chances. A picture shows damages after the shelling by Russian forces of Constitution Square in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-biggest city, on March 2. Sergey BOBOK/AFP/Getty Images

What is unfolding instead is a demonstration of the social and political power of nuclear weapons. Their characteristics—the biggest, the worst, the most destructive—are not just terrifying but also in sync with the current out-of-breath news cycle. "Nuclear" anything always grab headlines and facilitate apocalyptic musings.

Those headlines and musings have made a nuclear war seem more imminent—thereby helping Putin achieve his primary objective: unnerving the west and deterring military action in support of Ukraine.

What stopped the Biden administration from placing U.S. troops on Ukrainian soil to deter a Russian invasion, one that White House officials said was certain? Why won't a no-fly zone be implemented? Why won't U.S. military forces be put on the ground? Nuclear weapons. Russia is not just any country: it's a nuclear power.

And when it's over? Some will say: thank goodness, we avoided nuclear war. Others will say (and are already saying) that the Biden administration was weak, that it succumbed to nuclear blackmail in failing to save Ukraine. Others will say the success of Putin's nuclear threat is the reason to have nuclear weapons: that countries like South Korea will surely want to have them, that they "work." And still others will argue that this just proves how dangerous nuclear weapons are—that we were this close, that it is ever more urgent to accelerate disarmament.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Thursday that he thinks Putin's nuclear talk is a bluff. "You only threaten the use of nuclear weapons when nothing else is working," he said.

U.S. intelligence officials are not so sure. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told Congress on Tuesday, without explicitly mentioning nuclear weapons, that "our analysts assess that Putin is unlikely to be deterred by ... setbacks and instead may escalate, essentially doubling down." Still, she also said that Putin "probably still remains confident that Russia can militarily defeat Ukraine."

The Pentagon, meanwhile, is being cautious in not making any moves that would suggest a nuclear response to Putin's threat. Officials have publicly stated they feel comfortable with the U.S. "strategic deterrent posture" as it is and that they are closely monitoring the situation. A routine unarmed Minuteman missile test in California was canceled so as to not provoke the Kremlin. No nuclear exercises have been held.
When asked during a hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee this week as to how the United States might respond to the use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, STRATCOM commander Adm. Charles A. Richard said he could only address the question in closed session.

Admiral Richard's response could be seen as either reassuring or ominous. Obviously the United States is contemplating what it should and would do, both in response to Putin's nuclear threat and the many "what ifs" that lie ahead. Military sources tell Newsweek that there have been numerous high-level meetings to specifically discuss nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, in two weeks, Russia has made no overt changes in its nuclear forces, no "muscle moves," as one senior defense official called it. The nuclear command centers in Russia, and its defenses, have gone to a higher level of readiness—as Moscow has announced—but there are hardly any signs of any physical preparations within Russian nuclear forces to increase readiness or convey a direct threat.

It's not only Putin's words that are operating here, but it's mostly Putin's words.

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The human costs of the war have been "staggering," said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Medical workers provide medical assistance to an Ukrainian serviceman wounded during the fighting with Russian troops near the Ukrainian capital, in a hospital in Kyiv on March 4, 2022. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Asked why Putin's comments are creating such "a media frenzy," as he calls it, Hans Kristensen, one of the country's premier nuclear experts at the Federation of American Scientists, simply says, "because they're nukes.

"Yes, Russia has a lot of them," he says, "but what we are witnessing is still a bit of a Cold War discussion. There is nothing on the ground that reflects that this is becoming more of a risk, but people are glossing over how [the nuclear threat] relates to this particular conflict and talking about destroying the world, the old discussion."

Asked if he thought it was likely that Putin will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Kristensen gave a tentative "no." So far, "there is nothing that threatens the Russian state.

"Putin would have to perceive this," he says, and "feel that mood. I'm not confident he's not a moody guy. But he not over the deep end yet."

Kristensen says he's concerned, though, that things going on in the background might convey nuclear signals for both sides, leading to a misunderstanding. Russian has used nuclear-capable SS-26 Iskander missiles in its long-range attacks on Ukraine, as well as flown nuclear-capable fighters and bombers. And Russia has been practicing dispersal of its mobile nuclear missiles in the Far East, practice that came since the invasion and after it conducted a large-scale nuclear exercise.

Meanwhile, the United States also has 4 B-52 bombers forward deployed in the U.K. In the past week, they have twice flown south of Moldova and over Romania, just 100 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. American anti-air and missile defenses have also been sent to Rzeszow airport located on Poland's Ukraine border.

Given all of these moves, Kristensen cautions that "there's no explicit signaling going on."
"When North Korea was preparing, testing and carrying out nuclear tests, a submarine popped up in Guam as an explicit threat. We see nothing like that now."

Experts also warn that there are steps that Russia could take with nuclear weapons – in exploding them – that would communicate a don't-make-any-more-moves-or-else threat. Moscow could conduct an underground nuclear test (it would be Russia's first since the end of the Cold War) or explode a nuclear weapon over the ocean just to show that Putin is serious.

"It's not so farfetched," Kristensen says. "This same kind of demonstration of political resolve is part of French nuclear doctrine."

Steve Schwartz agrees that the risk of Russia using nuclear weapons remains low. But he also mentions the possibility of a "nuclear demonstration shot"—maybe the use of one nuclear weapon—by Russia.

Is there a way out?

Understanding the self-fulfilling impact of nuclear weapons should temper much of the fear that people have. It's not that one can say that nuclear weapons won't be used, but there are no signs that they will be. We need to recognize more clearly that speculation about numbers and effects merely serves as its own escalation. From the initial frenzy regarding Russia's threats to the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear facilities in Ukraine to the continuing angst over Putin's threat, everything else seems to become less important.

Of course, most people are shocked and dismayed by the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine. In focusing on heartbreaking stories and nuclear fears, though, there is a tendency to pay less attention to the fact that Russia isn't losing, militarily, and likely won't lose. Russia continues to make slow and steady progress towards taking the entire eastern periphery of Ukraine and in encircling and besieging Kyiv and Kharkiv, its two largest cities. It's ugly. But it is also steady progress, progress that should tend to temper concerns that Putin will use nuclear weapons because he is desperate.

But many signs also point to the fact that despite progress forward, Russia has exhausted itself. Putin overestimated the prowess of his own military while underestimating Ukraine's capabilities and resolve, and as a result he had to pivot from his initial strategy of taking Kyiv and driving the government out. Movements on the ground are still seeking to surround and besiege Kyiv, but the linking up of Russian advances along the east periphery of the country more points to a strategy in which Russia is aiming to take enough territory to be in a strong negotiating position after accepting a ceasefire or an end to hostilities.

Precisely because of nuclear weapons—because we have overstated the prospects of their use—Putin ends up in a more powerful position. And because we "went nuclear" in response to his threats, we also have elevated the apocalyptic in a way that normalizes the brutal, everyday war on the ground.

Putin hasn't used nuclear weapons—even teeny-tiny nuclear weapons—because indeed they have no military utility. Non-militarily, they have as much power as we give them.