In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
ICBM

Clues From Views: Will Russia Resort to Nukes in Ukraine?

April 28, 2022
RM Staff

This blog post is part of a new “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.

The words in the news: Speaking about the war in Ukraine to Russian lawmakers on April 27, President Vladimir Putin again raised the specter of nuclear war, warning that, “if anyone decides to interfere … and creates risks of a strategic nature for Russia that are unacceptable to us, they must know that our retaliatory-offensive strikes will be lightning fast.” Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, also sent ominous signals this week, saying the risk of nuclear war is “very substantial” and that “the danger is … real” and “must not be underestimated.”

Putin’s Plan A has failed: Despite deploying up to 150,000 troops to attack Ukraine at once from north, east and south on Feb. 24, the Kremlin has failed to topple the government in Kyiv, capture the capital or take over left-bank Ukraine. This has prompted President Vladimir Putin to reorganize the command of his “special military operation” and narrow its focus to a potential pincer maneuver from the east and south. A key goal of this Plan B, as described by some Russian commanders and political insiders, is to maximize land grabs in Ukraine’s southeast. As of April 28, however, Russian forces remained far from achieving this, recent advances in eastern Ukraine notwithstanding.

What if Plan B fails too? Both in the West and in Ukraine, prominent analysts and top officials—including prescient CIA chief William Burns—worry that too many failures could push Putin to use nuclear arms in general and non-strategic nuclear weapons in particular. Some Kremlin insiders share these concerns, according to Bloomberg.

Putin and Lavrov are not alone in their foreboding remarks: Other Russian officials, as well as experts, have talked of prospects for nuclear war lately. Below we have gathered some of their comments, many from Russian-language sources, to let our readers draw their own conclusions about the likelihood of Putin ordering a nuclear strike first. The Russian leader has made it clear he believes the West is waging war on Russia—and he’s recently seemed to misinterpret or ignore warnings about the significant costs of his actions in Ukraine, reportedly limiting his circle of advisers to a “handful of hawks.

Caveat: Some of the hint droppers quoted below made misleading and/or misinformed statements about Russian plans for Ukraine prior to the Feb. 24 invasion, scoffing, for example, at the idea that Moscow would attack its neighbor.

WHO SAID WHAT – RUSSIAN OFFICIALS

President Vladimir Putin

  • Announcing the military operation, Putin made a statement interpreted in the West as a nuclear threat: “No matter who tries to stand in our way, or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”
  • Putin told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff chief Valery Gerasimov on Feb. 27: “You see that Western countries are not only taking unfriendly economic actions against our country—I mean the illegitimate sanctions of which everyone is well aware—but top officials of the leading NATO countries are indulging in aggressive statements directed at our country. Therefore, I order the defense minister and chief of the General Staff to put the Russian Army’s [nuclear] deterrence forces on high combat alert.”
    • Putin later clarified that “the top officials of the leading NATO countries” whose statements apparently prompted him to order the alert included the U.K.’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.  
  • Russian strategic documents signed by Putin also help understand his thinking on conditions under which Russia could resort to first use of nuclear weapons:
    • Both Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine and its 2020 policy on nuclear deterrence say that Russia reserves “the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” However, neither document specifies what such an existential threat could be.

Dmitry Medvedev, ex-president, now deputy secretary of Putin’s Security Council

  • Once considered a dove among Putin’s closest allies, Medvedev in March accused the West of “revolting, criminal” behavior toward Russia and warned that Washington’s attempts to humiliate and destroy the country could end in a “big nuclear explosion.”
  • He also described the conditions under which Russia would use nuclear weapons. Somewhat reassuringly, his description matched Moscow’s aforementioned military doctrine and nuclear deterrence policy. The conditions, “as I recall them,” Medvedev said, include: (1) when Russia has been subjected to a nuclear missile attack; (2) any other use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies; (3) “an attack on critical infrastructure that has paralyzed our nuclear deterrent”; and (4) “when an act of aggression is carried out against the Russian Federation or its allies and, as a result, the very existence of the country is endangered, even without the use of nuclear weapons—that is, with the use of conventional weapons.”

Dmitry Peskov, deputy head of the presidential administration and Kremlin spokesman

  • Peskov, who has been Putin’s press secretary, also cited Russia’s “public” strategic documents, telling CNN in March: “You can read all the reasons for nuclear arms to be used. … If it is an existen[ti]al threat for our country, then it can be used.”
  • About a week after the CNN interview, Peskov told PBS Newshour that “no one [in Russia] is thinking about using, about—even about idea of using a nuclear weapon” in Ukraine. “Let's keep these two things separate,” he said, “I mean, existence of the state and special military operation in Ukraine. They have nothing to do with each other.”

Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov…

  • …also stuck to the strategic-document script, saying in June 2021 that Russia “reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened.”

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

  • Lavrov, who’s described Russia’s conflict with the West as “a total hybrid war,” would not give an unequivocal answer this month when asked if Russia might resort to using non-strategic nuclear weapons in Ukraine. After an interviewer on India Today TV cited Zelensky’s claim that “Russia plans to use tactical nuclear weapons,” Lavrov replied: “He says many things, depending on what he drinks and what he smokes.” When the interviewer pressed him, asking explicitly whether Russia would use “tactical nuclear weapons,” Moscow’s top diplomat said: “We never mentioned this; he [Zelensky] mentioned this.” The journalist would not relent: “So nuclear is off the table?” Lavrov did not answer yes or no, referring instead to Russia’s previous efforts—first with the U.S. and then within the P5—to secure commitments that a “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”   
  • Asked on April 25 whether today’s situation is as dangerous as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Lavrov called the risk of a nuclear war “very substantial,” though he wouldn’t want it to be “artificially inflated. … The danger is serious, real. It must not be underestimated.”

Dmitry Polyansky, Russia’s deputy envoy to the U.N.

  • Asked in March by Sky News whether Putin was right to hold the prospect of nuclear war over the rest of the world, Polyansky said: “If Russia is provoked by NATO, if Russia is attacked by NATO, why not? We are a nuclear power. … I don’t think it’s the right thing to be saying. But it’s not the right thing to threaten Russia, and to try to interfere. So when you’re dealing with a nuclear power, of course, you have to calculate all the possible outcomes of your behavior.”
  • In April Polyansky lamented “that one has to hear provocative insinuations from the mouths of irresponsible Western politicians and experts about the allegedly possible use of nuclear weapons by Russia during the special military operation in Ukraine. These insinuations do not have the slightest rational basis and are meant to target a public that is not familiar with the basics of Russian security and defense policy, which is purely defensive in nature.”  

Vladimir Medinsky, Putin’s aide and Russia’s chief negotiator with Ukraine

  • Medinsky, who has long worked on official Kremlin efforts to glorify Russia’s past, said in March that “the very existence of Russia as a Russian civilization is at stake today. I see few analogies to this moment in history.” If this is the Kremlin’s position, Medinsky’s statement may be among the most worrying of all—hinting at the existential threat identified in Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine and its 2020 nuclear deterrence policy as a condition for the country to use nuclear weapons first.

WHO SAID WHAT – RUSSIAN EXPERTS

Sergei Karaganov, a former adviser to the presidential administration

  • “We are fighting a war of survival. This is a war with the West and people are regrouping around their leader,” Karaganov told an Italian daily in April. “I know that officially under certain circumstances the U.S. could use nuclear weapons for the defense of Europe and they allegedly could fight for the defense of Europe against a nuclear superpower. There is a 1% chance this might happen, so we have to be careful.” But any American president would be “insane” to make such a decision, Karaganov added, considering the “devastating response” it would invite.
  • In a separate April interview he said: “Russia cannot afford to lose, so we need a kind of a victory.” 

Political scientist Pavel Luzin

  • said in March that it’s possible Russia’s leaders might dare to use a nuclear weapon, believing they can “control escalation and control nuclear weapons use.” But he was somewhat comforted by the fact that the chain of command for using non-strategic nukes is “longer than five people, as far as I can tell,” and each order in the chain needs confirmation before going forward. The officers involved are “far from stupid,” Luzin said, with a sense of “responsibility not just to their superiors but to their families.”

Military-affairs journalist Nikolai Poroskov…

  • wrote in March that, while some military analysts suggest that Russia may be saving its newest types of small arms for use in case of an invasion by NATO, “radical experts” believe the only effective response to such an invasion would be “strikes with the use of tactical nuclear weapons on troop concentrations and alliance bases in Europe.”

Vladimir Prokhvatilov, senior researcher, Russian Academy of Military Sciences

  • Prokhvatilov—whose academy is headed by chief of the General Staff Gerasimov—was quoted in March as saying that a no-fly zone over Ukraine, like the one Kyiv requested from its Western partners, would need to be enforced with air defense,  anti-missile defense and tactical aviation: “This means declaring war on Russia, attacking Russian troops and Russian aviation. NATO will not agree to this because there is a high degree of probability that [Russia’s] immediate response [would be] a strike with the use of tactical nuclear weapons.”

Historian Alexander Shirokorad…  

  • …predicted in a March article that one of Russia’s responses to a deployment of NATO offensive weapons systems close to its borders would be a “dramatic increase in the country’s combat capabilities, primarily tactical nuclear weapons.”

Photo by Aleksey Toritsyn shared under a Creative Commons license.