Could Russia Use the Nuclear Option?

May 16, 2022
Pyotr Topychkanov

This is a summary of an article originally published by The Moscow Times, with the subheading: "Using nuclear weapons is highly unlikely but not entirely ruled out."

The author, a senior fellow at SIPRI, writes:

  • “The threat of a nuclear strike on Ukraine is being hotly discussed in the media and social networks. But there are reasons to be both skeptical and wary of this threat. First of all, in an armed confrontation, threats of nuclear escalation, … play into the hands of the attacker as they keep the defenders and their partners from taking strong measures.”
  • “Second, speculation that Russia could commit a nuclear strike is not based on real-world data. In fact, there is even very little verified information in the public domain about what Russia’s goals are in Ukraine and more broadly in its rivalry with the West and how it intends to achieve them.”
  • “Russia continues to refer to the fighting in Ukraine as a special military operation. This status does not imply a general mobilization and it signals that, from Russia's perspective, there is no legal basis for the use of nuclear weapons. ... Based on the current situation, there is even less likelihood of Russian nuclear strikes against NATO member states, despite the Russian mass media's rhetoric.”
  • “Why would Russia use nuclear weapons as part of a special military operation in Ukraine? With a great stretch of the imagination, there are at least two scenarios that would make sense militarily. The first is to be able to conquer the urban centers and force Kyiv to sign a peace on Russia's terms … In the second scenario, it would be done if the general-purpose forces of Russia, the DNR and LNR are not enough to deter massive counterattacks by Ukrainian forces.”
  • “However, if the war goes badly for Russia and the likely possibility that hostilities might move to territories that Russia considers its own, such as Crimea, and that Russia would be completely isolated politically and economically, Moscow will have more serious arguments for at least nuclear blackmail.”

Read the full article at The Moscow Times.

This item is part of Russia Matters’ “Clues from Russian Views” series, in which we share what newsmakers in/from Russia are saying on Russia-related issues that impact key U.S. national interests so that RM readers can glean clues about their thinking.


Pyotr Topychkanov

Pyotr Topychkanov is a senior fellow at SIPRI.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo by Dmitriy Fomin shared under a Creative Commons license.