Would Vladimir Putin use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

March 24, 2022
Sarah Bidgood

This article is part of a larger Ukraine collection by CNS:
Putin’s War with Ukraine: Voices of CNS Experts on the Russian Invasion

The following is an excerpt from The New Statesman.

With Vladimir Putin engaged in ominous nuclear sabre rattling since the eve of his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, a vigorous debate has been raging among nuclear experts over whether and when he might make good on his threats. Some argue that the Russian president may consider using tactical, or nonstrategic, nuclear weapons — which are smaller and can be used over shorter distances — to overcome a difficult combat situation or to bring the conflict to an end on terms he considers favourable. Others see potential for him to launch a limited nuclear strike against the United States or a Nato country if they intervene militarily on Kyiv’s behalf.

Although most experts agree that the overall risk of nuclear weapons being used in this conflict remains low, one of these scenarios appears more likely than the other. If Putin’s objective is the occupation of at least some parts of Ukraine, it is hard to see how the use of a nuclear weapon on the country serves his interests. The prospect for a limited nuclear strike against the United States or Nato seems, relatively, greater. Indeed, Putin has promised that anyone who stands in his way will face consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history”.

It is, therefore, essential to understand the precise red lines the West would need to cross to elicit a nuclear response from Moscow. With few concrete answers available, some analysts have looked to the documents that lay out the circumstances under which Russia says it would or could use nuclear weapons (known as a country’s declaratory policy) for clues.

Continue reading at The New Statesman.

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