Analysis & Opinions - The Hill

Why Do We Think Putin Won’t Use ‘The Bomb’?

| Apr. 10, 2023

Recently, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told Congress that the odds Russia would use nuclear weapons are low: “I don’t think they’re likely to do so.” The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War reported in March that “Russian invocations of nuclear threats … do not represent any material Russian intent to employ nuclear weapons.”

Why do we think Vladimir Putin will not use “the bomb” when there is so much evidence that he will?

Russia’s war in Ukraine has created many strategic risks, none more important to America than the possibility of a nuclear weapon. Western leaders wonder what “red lines” Putin might be watching and how to avoid crossing them while supporting Ukraine. But Putin is not waiting for a misstep by the West. He has been building the conditions for nuclear use since early in the war and is ready to use a nuclear weapon whenever he decides. He has done all this in the open, so there can be no doubt that he is serious about the nuclear threat.

In the first three months of 2023, Putin has taken several public steps to make his nuclear threats real. In February, he signed a law “suspending” Russia’s participation in the strategic nuclear arms treaty, START. In March, Putin announced he will “place tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus,” where nuclear capable Iskander missile systems are already deployed. These steps come as Putin and his inner circle continue their threats to use nuclear weapons.  

When asked the odds that Putin might use a nuclear weapon in the current struggle, we opine “not likely” or “less than 50 percent.” Similar assessments were wrong about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. We can’t afford to be wrong about nuclear weapons now.  

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ryan, Kevin.“Why Do We Think Putin Won’t Use ‘The Bomb’?.” The Hill, April 10, 2023.