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Will Putin Go Nuclear?

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

In a televised address to the Russian people on September 21, Putin explicitly raised the specter of a nuclear conflict. Despite being regarded as a very low likelihood scenario, Wikistrat contacted six prominent experts on Russia and asked them what the potential implications of such a scenario for Russia could be and whether such implications would deter Putin from taking such action



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Background

In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, US President Joe Biden was asked what he would say to Russian President Vladimir Putin if he considered using tactical nuclear weapons. His response was “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. It would change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.” In a televised address to the Russian people on September 21, Putin explicitly raised the specter of a nuclear conflict by saying, “Those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them.”

Despite being regarded as a very low likelihood scenario, Wikistrat contacted six prominent experts on Russia and asked them what the potential implications of such a scenario for Russia could be and whether such implications would deter Putin from taking such action.

The following report provides the responses of the experts and some strategic insights resulting from their answers.


Insights

  • The majority of the experts believe that the possibility that Putin will use a tactical nuclear weapon is low but is growing. As Putin runs out of options and feels worried about losing the war, the threat of nuclear escalation rises.

  • Some of them assessed that such an event is quite probable as a means of sending the Ukrainians a signal they should stop fighting and start talking, if not capitulate entirely. The experts assessed that the only reason Putin would take such a drastic action would be to force Kyiv to stop fighting and agree to Russian conditions.

  • However, some of the experts believed such a possibility remains highly improbable. According to them, “the Russian leadership has very little to gain from a military standpoint and everything to lose with regards to strategic consequences.”

  • In addition, the experts view such a possibility as a complete sea change in the course of the war. It would embolden the Ukrainian population even more, potentially shift opinions in Russia itself, and lead the international community into uncharted territory regarding the proper response. Some of the experts argued that such a decision would drastically diminish, if not eliminate, the remaining support Russia has in Europe and the world.

  • The experts believe that Putin is aware of the consequences of such a decision and is not deterred from using such a weapon. As one expert put it, Putin “is almost completely sure that the Western powers will never strike Russia with nukes because of the war in Ukraine,” and is therefore undeterred by a Western response.


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The Experts’ Responses


Prof. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev, Founder and Director, Centre for Post-Industrial Studies; Chair for World Economy and International Trade, Moscow State University’s School of Public Governance; Professor, National Research University –Higher School of Economics.


What could be the potential implications of Putin choosing to use a tactical nuclear weapon against Ukraine?

No one knows whether Putin will use the tactical nuclear bomb against Ukraine, but I would say such a move seems quite probable. The situation on the front is deteriorating, and there are good reasons to expect some new Ukrainian offensives at different parts of it. The Russian army is losing its fighting mood and isn’t able to keep the regions it had already occupied, the command is totally disorganized by contradictory orders from the Kremlin, and the inflow of mercenaries and criminals poses a lot of concerns inside the military. Therefore, one may expect that Putin will use a tactical nuclear weapon as a means of sending the Ukrainians a signal they should stop fighting and start talking, if not capitulate (by the way, the only use of such weapons by the Americans happened for just the same reason, and the people in the Kremlin have this point in mind all the time).

The most probable scenario is that the Russians may detonate such a device over the Black Sea close to the Ukrainian coast or use it against some huge group of Ukrainian military positioned outside large, populated areas. The only reason would be to force Kyiv to stop fighting and agree to the Russian conditions. I exclude any chance for the massive use of nukes during the war as well as for targeting the Ukrainian capital or other big cities. Anyway, such a move might be a result of either 1) a significant Ukrainian assault on Crimea entering the peninsula from “continental” Ukraine or blowing up the Kerch Bridge, or 2) a rapid Ukrainian advance into Luhansk and Donetsk republics (I would say that the Russians now, in one way or another, agree the Kherson oblast will be lost, but Putin is strongly committed to keeping the “people’s republics” under full control).

Many experts used to argue that Putin was misled by his FSB subordinates about the ease of the Ukraine war prior to February 24, coming to the conclusion that he acted rationally but made his decisions based on false estimates. Even if that’s so, the longer the war continues, the less rational Putin becomes. Several sources point out he is really confident about the capabilities of his army to fight, insists that the military industry can replenish the lost armory in months, etc. He also becomes angry and unpredictable – and no one can seriously influence him these days. Therefore, I would say there is only one chance the nukes are not used if Putin decides to do … [and that is if] at some point in the chain of military command, someone disobeys his order. It may happen, but I disagree with the idea that Putin himself will never give such an order.


In your opinion, would Putin be deterred from using nuclear weapons, knowing the consequences of his actions?

He might be – but the problem comes from a simple fact that no one seems to be deterring him. To my mind, no Western leader has voiced his or her intention to retaliate with a nuclear strike against Russia if the Kremlin uses nukes in Ukraine. PM Liz Truss has said that she will press the button “if needed,” but nobody knows what this could mean. I would say Russia should assault a NATO member state and advance significantly in its war against it for the prospect of a global nuclear war to become realistic. As [far as] I know, nobody in or around the Kremlin believes the Western powers will strike a nuclear attack on Russia if it uses a nuclear device in Ukraine (and I should admit that I agree with these people – if one looks at American awareness concerning the supply of long-range weapons to Ukraine, there is no reason to expect the West will unleash a nuclear Armageddon because of the annihilation of Kherson after it’s retaken by Ukrainians). So, Putin simply does know the consequences of his actions – and this fact explains much of his boldness in recent years.

The main problem with deterring Putin is that he – unlike the Soviet leaders – doesn’t care at all about the interests of his country or the needs of his people. He is almost completely sure that the Western powers will never strike Russia with nukes because of the war in Ukraine – and the collapse of the Russian economy or the declining well-being of either ordinary people or oligarchs isn’t what he cares about. The only way to deter Putin is to put it very straightforwardly: if he uses nukes, he will be immediately designated a terrorist and the United States will strike all his known hiding places all over Russia and will not stop until he is killed in one way or another, as Osama bin Laden was. There is nothing Putin cares about more than his personal safety, and if someone informs him that precisely this decision was made by the Western leaders, he might become more accountable – but nothing else will bring him to terms with reality. The West has talked so much and done so little for years that Putin is very skeptical about its methods of “deterrence,” and the Western policymakers should not forget this.




Dr. Robert Dalsjö, Director of Research at the Swedish Defence Research Agency.

What could be the potential implications of Putin choosing to use a tactical nuclear weapon against Ukraine?

Any Russian use of tactical nukes in Ukraine would be strategic in purpose and effect – to scare Ukraine into giving up resistance (think Hiroshima) and scare the West into backing off. As Putin’s Russia strongly believes in the efficacy of force and fear, just a symbolic use would hardly do the job, and the use might be brutal, involving a lot of deaths, to show that he means business. Thus, the choice of the target might be counter-value (a city) rather than counter-force (military units or installations). My gut feeling is that Ukraine would be stunned, but then mad as hell and wouldn’t give up. The West would also be stunned, but also perplexed and chattering divided along many lines (public, politicians, countries, doves-hawks, etc.). Some kind of stance and non-nuclear counteraction will result (hopefully prepared in advance), but I guess it would be measured to signal restraint as well as to demonstrate determination and capability.


In your opinion, would Putin be deterred from using nuclear weapons, knowing the consequences of his actions?

If Putin is seriously considering using nukes to shoot himself out of the corner he has painted himself in, it need not have to do with anything the West has done or is doing but with the fact that his dream of resurrecting the Russian empire is failing and turning to ashes around him. Hoping to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat and thereby rescue himself, his regime, and his legacy, he would already be well off any reasonable decision matrix and obsessed or delusional, like the man in the bunker. What might still matter to him by then is that, by opening Pandora’s nuclear box, he would be starting something he cannot hope to control and that could destroy him, his regime, and Russia. And with that, his epitaph might be not the gatherer of Russian lands but the spoiler and the breaker. Also, Putin would not make such a fateful decision or implement it alone, so the West should also take steps and measures that might not deter Putin but could have an effect on Shoigu and Gerasimov, other of his key advisers, and down the chain of implementation. Moreover, as the dynamics of such a situation are largely out of our hands, we should not only focus on deterrence or prevention of nuclear use but also on mitigation of the consequences if nukes are used. Actual use against a population target would be a brutal and heinous crime, but not the end of the world.




Mathieu Boulegue, Senior Research, Fellow Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House


What could be the potential implications of Putin choosing to use a tactical nuclear weapon against Ukraine?

Using a tactical weapon against Ukraine is a cost-benefit calculus the Kremlin is unlikely to consider at this stage. The Russian leadership has very little to gain from a military standpoint and everything to lose with regards to strategic consequences.

From a tactical-operational perspective, using a tactical nuclear weapon will not represent a “game changer,” allowing Moscow to accomplish its current military goals. The advantage would be limited in effect (for instance, destroying a small urban center or a military base) as well as in nature – it will not change the tide of the war from the ground. Also, negative consequences – such as cascading effects coming from risks of nuclear fallout, water and food contamination, etc. – are something Moscow would struggle to deal with.

However, from a strategic and political perspective, using tactical nuclear weapons would represent a complete sea change in the war. First, it will not break Ukraine: a tactical nuclear weapon will not achieve the destruction of the political leadership or the military command and control. It would embolden the Ukrainian population even more. Second, it would potentially shift opinions in Russia itself, with risks to political stability among the elite. Third, it would lead the international community into uncharted territory regarding the proper response: here, the Russian regime has everything to lose.


In your opinion, would Putin be deterred from using nuclear weapons, knowing the consequences of his actions?

I think self-deterrence is the strongest safeguard against using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Putin himself might be self-destructive, but he is not suicidal. He probably clearly understands that using such weapons would be a losing bet – very few actual results on the battlefield but extremely high international consequences. The Putin regime is too attached to the stability and survival of the system to use such wild cards.

However, just because it seems improbable does not mean it is not possible. If Western policymakers are worried about the possibility of Russia using a tactical nuclear weapon, it is paramount to model scenarios about it and anticipate the consequences. This will not only lead to better pathways to effective deterrence against the Putin regime but also, if deterrence fails, to a swifter and united international response. The international response will have to balance a strong and united policy course without escalating to dangerous levels.

Other, less rational, factors to consider are Putin’s state of mind and physical health. Depending on these two factors, Putin’s decision-making process may be altered and lead to more extreme, less calculated moves. So far, Moscow has remained “rational” in its decisions, but rationality may be impaired depending on Putin’s mental and physical health. Out of desperation that Russia is losing ground in Ukraine, Putin might grow frustrated enough to consider such an option.


Natia Seskuria, Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and an Associate Professor in Russian Politics at Business and Technology University.


What could be the potential implications of Putin choosing to use a tactical weapon against Ukraine?

As Russian forces are increasingly struggling to gain considerable advantage in Ukraine and, on the other hand, the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region led to an impressive success, the temptation for the Kremlin to use its last resort is growing. Russia has been shelling civilian cities in Ukraine, committing war crimes, and destroying Ukrainian cities, yet the brutality of war in Ukraine so far has not served as a red line for the West to directly intervene in the war. The threat of a nuclear escalation may serve as a turning point. US President Joe Biden sent a clear message to Russia that any use of tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine would lead to heavy consequences for Putin’s regime. The Biden administration deliberately pursues a policy of strategic ambiguity on how the US is planning to respond to a Russian nuclear attack in order to deter the Kremlin from choosing the most extreme measure of warfare.

Although the probability of a nuclear escalation still remains low, there are different scenarios on how Putin may use nuclear weapons. The intensity of the Western response will be largely determined by the scale of the Russian attack, the number of civilian casualties, and the damage inflicted by it. Yet, should Russia cross the nuclear red line, the Western response must be tough, coordinated, and rapid.

Putin may use a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon to target a military site and send a message to the West and, most importantly, force the Ukrainian government to surrender. The Western response to a highly irrational decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin would still be rational, and it is unlikely that NATO allies will engage in a direct nuclear war with Russia. Depending on the scale of the damage, NATO may impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine and target Russian military units used for the launch of a nuclear attack. The allies may use conventional weapons against Russian military assets, such as the destruction of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

The potential nuclear escalation will also have a global implication and would lead to international condemnation. Putin’s regime will become not just a threat to the Western democracies, it will rather be perceived as a global existential threat. Russia will become the first country since 1945 to use nuclear weapons. This would highly likely lead to the complete global isolation of Russia. Countries that have remained neutral and abstained from joining sanctions since the beginning of the war in Ukraine may come to terms that the use of nuclear weapons represents a red line and would join global sanctions against Russia. Important actors such as China and India would be forced to stop playing a balancing act and distance themselves from the world’s most hostile actor. In light of the sanctions, relations with China became of particular strategic importance for the Kremlin. Yet, China has a “no first use” nuclear policy and is unlikely to support Russia.

With the decision to go nuclear, Putin is unlikely to gain domestic support either. Firstly, despite propaganda efforts, Putin will no longer be able to portray the war as a “special military operation.” Seven months since the beginning of the war, the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine would be a demonstration of weakness rather than strength, indicating that the aims set for the “special military operation” have failed.


In your opinion, would Putin be deterred from using nuclear weapons, knowing the consequences of his actions?

The threat of a nuclear escalation has been part of the Kremlin narrative throughout the current war in Ukraine and even in 2014 during the annexation of Crimea. Such threats have been issued to intimidate the West and deter the support for Ukraine – particularly military aid – due to the fear of a nuclear escalation. So far, the West stands united in supporting Ukraine, and Russia’s “escalate-to-de-escalate” strategy has been failing. Although NATO allies are not directly intervening in the war, the supply of modern weapons to Ukraine has already demonstrated that it can change the dynamics of the military escalation in favor of Ukraine. As Putin runs out of options and feels threatened about losing the war, the threat of nuclear escalation rises.

The Western standing would have a crucial impact on Putin’s decision-making. Should Russia feel threatened that the US and NATO are serious about responding to the Russian nuclear attack with an unprecedented and highly costly response, he is highly unlikely to embark on a suicide mission. The desperate move to use nuclear weapons is likely to be caused by Putin’s fear of losing the war. In the event of a Western retaliation, Russia will end up more humiliated and weak, unable to achieve its goals even through the use of extreme measures.

When Finland and Sweden decided to join NATO, Russia threatened far-reaching consequences,; yet soon, Putin declared the opposite, indicating that NATO enlargement to include Finland and Sweden does not pose any threats to Russia. So far, given the coherent warnings issued by the Biden administration and subsequent policy of sanctions against Russia, it is unlikely that Putin will risk underestimating the consequences of his actions. Putin is aware of the Western military and economic superiority over Russia, and as long as the West remains united, it is unlikely that Russia will directly confront NATO allies.




Valeriy Akimenko, Senior Research Associate at Conflict Studies Research Centre.


What could be the potential implications of Putin choosing to use a tactical weapon against Ukraine?

This remains highly unlikely. The potential for conventional escalation is very far from being exhausted, as is liable to be seen by Putin, even if in practice this, as is likely, proves ultimately ineffective.

In no particular order, it would mean that:

- Deterrence has failed as insufficiently effective.

- Putin has lost confidence in the ability of his military to win the war conventionally – an outcome that he would have to view as catastrophic.

- Putin sees value in the pursuit of nuclear coercion in practice even more widely.

If we accept that Putin is willing to go nuclear in Ukraine, we must also accept he’s willing to escalate further, once the “taboo” has been broken, including nuclear use beyond Ukraine, including against NATO. In extremis, Putin could opt for nuclear use against – as perceived – a weaker NATO member state rather than in Ukraine itself.

In either case, the liberal world would find itself confronted by an extremely dangerous, nuclear-armed fanatic who, in pursuit of his illusory aims, is willing to go to any lengths to secure them, from weaponizing food, energy, migration, and other global problems to a war of aggression and all the way to nuclear use.


In your opinion, would Putin be deterred from using nuclear weapons, knowing the consequences of his actions?

The question assumes that these consequences have been properly communicated – which, at best, is not entirely the case. At least in public, expressions of self-deterrence or, at best, ambiguity have been manifest. Assuming that they have, yes. However irrational as seen in the West, Putin’s actions in Ukraine are rational, as seen by him. The same could not be said about a decision to go nuclear under the present conditions.

In the present situation, it would also mean loss of face and an admission of weakness against a supposedly inferior adversary, albeit one backed and equipped by the West. In sum, it’s doubtful that he would want to go down in history as a gatherer not of lands, his mission, but of radioactive wasteland.




Daivis Petraitis, Independent researcher on Russia


What could be the potential implications of Putin choosing to use a tactical weapon against Ukraine?

According to my estimate and knowledge, the situation in Ukraine for Russia is not as drastic as it might appear. We are facing a modern war with an info war as a part of it being run on an unprecedented scale by both sides. Russia still runs its military in other military districts in a peacetime mode and has more than enough reserves, even without a mobilization, to continue to devastate Ukraine. Russia knows how to wage an attrition war with conventional arms and still has more than enough of those.

From a military rationale, the tactical nukes in this particular case are useless. Even if the smallest nuclear charge of 0.2-0.3 kilotons is used, it would not change the situation on the battlefield and would not force Ukrainians to surrender. The potential implication of Putin choosing to use a tactical nuclear weapon would be politically devastating for him and earn huge, if not absolute, sympathy for Ukraine and its forces. It would practically destroy Putin personally as a leader and Russia as a state. It would drastically diminish, if not eliminate, the remaining support Russia has in Europe and the world. I am hesitant even to say that North Korea would support this decision.

But most importantly, Putin using nuclear charges on the battlefield in Ukraine would make Russia more “dirty” than the US using nukes during WWII. All Russian narratives about “brutal and selfish” America being willing to nuke others would lose all grounds because the US did this against the enemy in the war and Russia would be a country that did that against a “brother nation,” as they say, and not in a war.


In your opinion, would Putin be deterred from using nuclear weapons, knowing the consequences of his actions?

He knows. According to my knowledge of what kind of leader Putin is, he knows for sure that even if he uses tactical nukes, the US would not respond with nuclear weapons. The motives deterring him from this step are not a fear to get the US nuclear response. What deters him more is that, after such a step, all Russian ideas to gain a proper place in the world community would be gone forever; he would lose existing Russian support in Russia and even his own military could revolt against him.

But most importantly, he understands that after this he (and Russia) would lose forever any chance to re-establish a dialogue with the USA. Wars come and go and countries heal wounds. Such a wound would never heal. And Putin needs the West. Recently, Putin met China’s president and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation leaders in Uzbekistan, and later China signed a railway contract with Kazakhstan and other Asian countries without Russia, finally proved to Putin that China takes him as a younger brother only and this is even worse than Ukraine.

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