Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

How to Know if Putin Is Going to Nuke Ukraine

| Dec. 15, 2022

In ascending order of predictive power, warnings of an imminent nuclear strike would come from Russian whistleblowers, the U.S. intelligence community, and Putin himself.

Nuclear weapons have not been used in war since 1945, but their presence has loomed large over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On December 7, Russian president Vladimir Putin addressed Russia's Human Rights Council, stating:

In terms of the threat of nuclear war, you are right, such threat is increasing. … As for the idea that Russia wouldn't use such weapons first under any circumstances, then it means we wouldn't be able to be the second to use them either—because the possibility to do so in case of an attack on our territory would be very limited.

While Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons left behind after the Soviet collapse, many Russians see the current conflict as one with NATO. And Russian leaders, diplomats, and commentators have not shied away from advocating for nuclear use, frequently referencing Russia's arsenal.

These threats have drawn international condemnation, but they have also influenced policy. Russia maintains approximately 6,000 nuclear warheads, including hundreds of short-range "tactical" weapons. Putin has used the risk of escalation both to limit Western military aid and—with the exception of a few drone strikes on Russian territory—to ensure that the war is fought in Ukraine. Russia's nuclear threats ensured that Western assistance was initially limited to defensive systems, and escalation risks still underpin decisions to deny Ukraine access to weapons capable of striking Russia.

But is Putin actually close to ordering a nuclear strike? Probably not. Despite Russia's abysmal conventional performance, Putin would still risk more than he could gain by using nuclear weapons. Neither Ukraine nor its Western allies seem likely to abandon the war effort following a limited strike, with Kyiv viewing the conflict as an existential struggle. A broader nuclear strike might have a significant effect on the battlefield, but it would come with equally great escalation risks. Perhaps most importantly, any nuclear use might alienate India and China, Russia's key remaining trading partners....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Minchin Allison, David.“How to Know if Putin Is Going to Nuke Ukraine.” The National Interest, December 15, 2022.

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