Putin implies a nuclear attack if the West interferes in Ukraine. Why it’s not just an empty threat

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s implied warning that he could launch nuclear weapons against any country interfering with his military campaign in Ukraine raises questions about how seriously the West should take such threats.

And while NATO allies, including the United States, have assured that they will not engage militarily in Ukraine, some experts suggest that the Russian president’s comments should not be seen as empty threats.

“It’s not something he says casually because he’s kind of trying to just look tough,” says James Cameron, assistant professor of political science at the University of Oslo, where he is a member of the Oslo Nuclear Project specializing in weapons. control.

“There is justification. There is logic there.”

Putin’s threat of ‘such consequences’

Speaking from the Kremlin on Thursday morning as he launched the Russian military’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin said Russia would react instantly if an outside force tried to intervene.

“Anyone who tries to hinder us, and even more so, to create threats for our country, for our people, must know that Russia’s response will be immediate. And that will lead you to such consequences as you have never encountered in your story,” the Russian president said.

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Asked whether Putin’s use of the phrase “consequences you have never encountered in your history” amounted to threatening that Russia would use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine conflict, French Foreign Minister Jean -Yves Le Drian, replied that it was well understood as such.

However, he said it should be clear to Putin that NATO also has nuclear weapons.

“Yes, I think Vladimir Putin must also understand that the Atlantic alliance is a nuclear alliance. That’s all I will say about it,” Le Drian said Thursday on TF1.

No real possibility of Western military intervention

Cameron said Biden and other leaders had been very clear that there was no real possibility of military intervention in Ukraine.

“And so in a sense … this is not a situation where he directly confronts NATO with the possibility of nuclear use.”

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However, Cameron said the implied threat of nuclear retaliation from Putin is not completely meaningless, as it is part of his overall strategy “in the sense that there is clear coordination”.

For example, over the weekend Putin oversaw strategic nuclear exercises involving the launch of hypersonic ballistic missiles and other weapons.

Putin’s comments are therefore a “calibrated part of the overall plan” – undertaking such drills, making veiled threats – to leave open the possibility of a nuclear strike, Cameron said.

In this photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry’s press service on February 19, 2022, a Russian military technician checks a MiG-31K fighter, carrying a Kinzhal hypersonic cruise missile, parked at an airfield. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/Associated Press)

Moreover, Cameron said, Putin probably feels some doubt that NATO members are saying they won’t use military intervention.

“He’s trying to dispel that doubt by casting that kind of nuclear shadow over what he’s doing in Ukraine.”

Not Putin’s first nuclear threats

Gerhard Mangott, a professor of international relations at the University of Innsbruck who focuses on US-Russian relations, said this was not the first time Putin has made such threats.

During the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russian nuclear forces were also put on high alert, he said.

As he did in 2014, Putin “signals that Russia is even ready to intensify the use of nuclear weapons”.

Mangott said that if the West decides to employ military intervention, there is a real risk that Russia will use strategic nuclear weapons.

“It’s not a real risk,” he said, because the West won’t allow that to happen.

Residents of Sevastopol, Crimea, affix a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin to a balloon on March 18, 2021, during a celebration of the anniversary of Crimea’s annexation to Ukraine in 2014. The sign stands reads ‘Another has given us back the cradle of baptism. March 18, 2014.’ (The Associated Press)

Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank specializing in US defense strategy and the use of military force, said he believed Putin’s nuclear threats were integral to his vision , its methods and its vision of the world.

“He views Ukraine as central enough to Russian interests to have launched this war in the first place, so the nuclear threats come as no surprise, especially in light of the fact that he has made them before in more elliptical terms and generals,” he said in an email to CBC News.

He said that since the West did not plan to fight to defend Ukraine, Putin’s nuclear threats were less of a concern.

“I see them more as a reconfirmation of the nature of the bully we’re all dealing with now, and otherwise not particularly significant.”

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Nuclear arsenals

Currently, Russia’s nuclear arsenal consists of about 4,500 nuclear weapons, including 1,550 deployed on delivery vehicles, according to Mangott.

“Russia has nuclear weapons of all kinds. It has different means of using them, with cruise missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, medium-range ballistic missiles, long-range ballistic missiles,” he said. -he declares.

“Thus, Russia is indeed capable of escalating into an all-out nuclear war.”

WARNING | This photo gallery contains graphic images:

Cameron said that while it’s hard to say exactly how many nuclear weapons Russia has operationally, it certainly has nothing to do with Cold War numbers. Still, he said, “they’re more than enough to do any amount of damage they want to do.”

He said that Russia and the United States had roughly the same number of nuclear weapons that could hit each other. But Russia has more short-range weapons that could wipe out America’s European allies.

“Even the use of one of these weapons would be a world-changing event,” he said.

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