Russia’s nuclear arsenal is huge, but will Putin use it?

For decades, the threat of nuclear armageddon has kept Russia and the West out of a direct confrontation. The prospect of global nuclear war has been a line that neither side is willing to cross.

But now, analysts who study Russia’s nuclear strategy say they are increasingly worried that this stark nuclear line is becoming blurred. As Russia’s conventional war in Ukraine falters, thanks in large part to Western weapons and training, some see an effort to bend nuclear deterrence to fit the current conflict. Others say that long-standing policies in Russia might encourage nuclear use to prevent it from losing the war.

With neither side showing signs of backing down, the possibility of a nuclear strike appears more real than it has in decades.

“We are at this fairly dangerous junction,” says Pavel Podvig, a senior researcher at the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research who tracks Russia’s nuclear forces. Podvig says he thinks the likelihood Russia would use a nuclear weapon is “extremely low.” But he adds, “I do worry.”

Diverging Doctrines

At the height of the Cold War, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union amassed enormous stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Many were so-called “strategic” weapons — large warheads delivered by submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles — and designed to be used in a global thermonuclear war.

But the two nations also had thousands of “tactical” nuclear weapons that could be smaller in size and were able to be delivered by planes, short-range missiles or even artillery. NATO powers prepared to use such weapons, for example, if they were faced with an overwhelming conventional Soviet attack on Western Europe.

By the 1990s, the U.S. had largely given up on tactical nuclear weapons. New, more precise conventional weapons had the same long-range strike capability with none of the radioactive fallout. And the tactical nukes were seen as a security risk — because they were smaller and more portable, terrorists might more easily get their hands on one.

Russia, however, decided to keep its tactical arsenal, says Anya Fink, a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analysis who has studied Russian nuclear doctrine. The decision has been driven in large part by what the Russian military sees as a vast gap in conventional weapons technology.

“For Russia, nuclear weapons, in particular non-strategic nuclear weapons, are really intended to counterbalance what they see as U.S. and NATO conventional superiority,” Fink says.

Today, Russia is believed to have the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, including 1,000-2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, says Hans Kristensen, head of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington think tank. While the public often imagines tactical nukes as smaller weapons, Kristensen says the Russian arsenal is diverse. “They have a very wide range of explosive yields, going up to a couple of hundred of kilotons – so much more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb,” he says.

Rattling the Saber

At the start of the Ukraine conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin put his nuclear forces on a “special mode of combat duty.” It was later determined that the move did little more than boost staffing at nuclear weapons sites. Still, as the invasion began, it was a clear reminder to the West of Russia’s powerful nuclear deterrent.

To a certain extent, that classic nuclear deterrence has been effective at containing the Ukraine war, says Olga Oliker, the Director of Europe and Central Asia for the International Crisis Group.

“We have seen nuclear deterrence work, on the part of both Russia and Western countries,” she says. So far NATO troops are not fighting inside Ukraine, and Russia isn’t attacking neighboring NATO countries either.

But as Russia’s war has stalled, thanks in large part to supplies from the West, Putin has renewed his nuclear threats. During a speech in late September, as he annexed Ukrainian land, Putin said more directly that he might be willing to consider a nuclear strike in the current conflict.

“In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us,” he said. “This is not a bluff.”

Oliker says in part, the renewed talk of nuclear weapons may be an effort to compel the West to reduce or stop its shipments of supplies to Ukraine. In other words, Putin is seeking to push his nuclear deterrence to do more. “Russia keeps trying to have the deterrence go a little bit further,” she says.

But the statements also hint that Putin may be trying to expand the territory he can defend with nukes. Russia recently annexed four regions of Ukraine. Fink says Russia’s official policy is that it would only use nuclear weapons to defend its own territory:

“The big question is, ‘Are the parts of Ukraine that Russia has attempted to join to itself Russian territory or not?'”

Nuclear use

Fink says that she still believes that Putin is unlikely to take the war nuclear. As the drone and cruise missile strikes of the past week illustrate, Russia has plenty of powerful conventional weapons it can use to attack Ukraine.

“There’s other ways to make a point to the Ukrainians that don’t have to do with the use of nuclear weapons,” she says.

But Matthew Kroenig a professor of international relations at Georgetown University thinks that the conflict is moving in a way that may push Putin closer to making that fateful choice. With Ukraine on the offensive, Russia’s conventional military forces depleted and a chaotic conscription process underway at home, he says, Putin is likely to face more and more domestic political pressure.

“I think as his position gets more dire, the more willing he might be to gamble for resurrection with nuclear use,” Kroenig says.

If Russia did decide to respond with a nuclear strike, most experts agree they wouldn’t use their weapons in an attack against frontline Ukrainian troops. Tactical nukes were originally designed to take out big juicy Cold War-era targets: such as columns of armored tanks, or aircraft carriers. Ukraine’s forces are spread out. Putin would have to use a bunch of little nukes, which would create a radioactive mess his troops would also have to deal with.

More likely, says Fink, is that Russia would decide to use a single nuclear weapon to try and freeze the conflict. That weapon could be used as a demonstration, over the Black Sea or even at a test site inside of Russia. Or it could be against any one of a number of fixed targets inside Ukraine, such as those the Russian military has hit with cruise missiles and drones in recent days.

Podvig worries that given the resolve of Ukraine and the West, Putin will choose to do something more extreme.

For the use of a nuclear weapon to be shocking, “You really need to make it clear that you are willing to target civilians, and that means, to put it bluntly, killing a lot of people,” he says.

Kroenig says that if Russia did use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, he believes the U.S. would have to respond with force, otherwise “we essentially teach Putin and the world that nuclear coercion pays.” He believes a conventional strike, perhaps on the military unit that launched the nuke, would send a powerful message.

Olga Olikar says such a strike would carry huge risks.

“I think the Russians would see a conventional attack on their nuclear capacity, as effectively a nuclear attack,” she says. Things could escalate further from there.

But Oliker points out that all of this is still highly theoretical. She hopes that the two sides will still find a way to begin de-escalating the conflict.

“If I try to tell myself a story of how to get there, it requires a whole bunch of leaps and jumps,” she says. “But the path to global thermonuclear war also has some leaps and jumps.”

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Transcript :

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signaled that he might be willing to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Speaking on CNN last week, President Biden warned that to do so would risk escalation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Miscalculation could occur. No one can be sure what would happen, and it could end in Armageddon.

CHANG: Well, experts who study Russian nukes say that a dangerous game of escalation is already underway in Ukraine. And as NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel reports, they see plenty of possibility for trouble ahead.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Russia and the West have thousands of nuclear weapons. They’ve been used to create a bright line. Neither side can start a direct war with the other. Olga Oliker is with the International Crisis Group. She says that line still exists in Ukraine.

OLGA OLIKER: We have seen nuclear deterrence work on the part of both the Russians and Western countries because both Moscow and all the Western capitals are avoiding direct conflict with one another.

BRUMFIEL: So far, NATO troops are not in this fight, and Russia isn’t attacking neighboring NATO countries either. But for Russia, the clear line about when to use nuclear weapons may be starting to get blurry. As its war is stalled, thanks in large part to weapons supplied by the West, Putin has stepped up his nuclear threats. Oliker says it’s an attempt to take the old rules of nuclear deterrence and stretch them.

OLIKER: Russia keeps trying to have the deterrence go a little bit further.

BRUMFIEL: It may also be trying to expand the territory it can defend with nukes. Russia recently annexed four regions of Ukraine. Anya Fink studies Russia’s nuclear doctrine at the Center for Naval Analyses. She says Russia’s official policy is that it would only use nuclear weapons to defend its own territory.

ANYA FINK: The big question is, are the parts of Ukraine that Russia has attempted to join to itself, are those parts Russian territory or not?

BRUMFIEL: Fink says Russia might be willing to use nuclear weapons in a conflict because it believes that Western non-nuclear weapons are far better than Russian ones.

FINK: For Russia, nuclear weapons, particularly non-strategic nuclear weapons, are really intended to kind of counterbalance what they see as U.S. and NATO conventional superiority.

BRUMFIEL: In other words, before this war even started, Russia was already thinking about how to use nukes in a conflict where it’s outgunned by Western anti-tank missiles and precision artillery, a war that arguably looks a lot like the clobbering the Russian army is getting today in Ukraine. Russia’s nuclear arsenal includes between 1- and 2,000 so-called tactical weapons. They can be smaller and are meant for the battlefield. But in Ukraine, it’s not clear how to use them.

PAVEL PODVIG: There are really no plausible military missions for these weapons, especially in this war.

BRUMFIEL: Pavel Podvig is with the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research. Tactical nukes were originally designed to take out big, juicy Cold War-era targets – stuff like columns of armored tanks or aircraft carriers. In this war, the troops are spread out. Putin would have to use a bunch of little nukes, which would create a radioactive mess his own troops would also have to deal with. More likely, says Podvig and others, is that Putin would opt for a single tactical nuke. The goal would be to make a bang big enough to get the West to think twice.

PODVIG: For that to be truly shocking, you really need to make it clear that you are willing to target civilians. And that means, basically, to put it bluntly, killing lot of people.

BRUMFIEL: There’s no guarantee it would work. The other side might not back down, and things would get a lot worse from there. But this is still all highly theoretical.

OLIKER: There’s a lot of question marks here.

BRUMFIEL: Olga Oliker of the International Crisis Group says it’s not clear how the two sides find a way out of this conflict.

OLIKER: If I try to tell myself a story of how to get there, it requires a whole bunch of leaps and jumps. But, you know, the path towards global thermonuclear war also has some leaps and jumps.

BRUMFIEL: For now, the U.S. government says Russia’s nukes remain locked up in storage. Oliker says she hopes they’ll stay there.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.