Russian President Vladimir Putin has twice now made veiled threats of nuclear war. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 23, Putin has taken steps to remind the world that the Kremlin has access to nuclear weapons.
On Sunday, Putin announced that Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces were moving to high alert as a response to NATO aggression. “Western countries aren't only taking unfriendly economic actions against our country, but leaders of major NATO countries are making aggressive statements about our country,” Putin said in a televised address. “So I order to move Russia's deterrence forces to a special regime of duty.”
On Feb. 23, in a statement announcing the invasion of Ukraine, Putin told the West not to intervene in the conflict. The consequences of doing so, Putin said, “will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.” Experts took this as a veiled reference to nuclear war.
The world hasn’t experienced a threat like this in decades. VICE News spoke with nuclear deterrence experts to ask the question currently on many minds: Just how likely is the threat of a nuclear war with Russia? How likely is an actual nuclear exchange and what, exactly, does it mean for the Kremlin’s deterrence forces to be at a heightened state of readiness?
“The overall thing is that some nuclear weapons are always kept on alert.”
The specifics of Putin’s threat are unclear, but they take place at an incredible time of instability. Experts VICE News spoke with agreed that the threats were unique, but that the West shouldn’t respond and should seek to de-escalate tensions.
“The overall thing is that some nuclear weapons are always kept on alert,” Emma Claire Foley, a senior associate in policy and research at Global Zero, a nonprofit that seeks the elimination of nuclear weapons, told VICE News. She said that both the U.S. and Russia have intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that are always ready to launch. “That threat is constant, and there’s a very short decision time for whether that kind of attack will be launched.”
Both countries also rely on something called the nuclear triad: In addition to ICBMs, the U.S. and Russia have submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and strategic bombers capable of firing nuclear weapons at a moment’s notice. But the reason no one will use a nuclear weapon is not because they’re not ready but because governments are afraid of the real possibility of another nuclear-armed country retaliating—that’s the theory behind nuclear deterrence.
The triad is important because it would allow nuclear-armed countries to strike back should one leg of the triad be knocked out. That is to say, if the U.S. took down all of Russia’s ICBM silos, the country could still theoretically strike back with bombers and submarines.
“We’ve seen with Putin now that this is not a weapon they use to protect their own country. It’s a weapon they use to be able to do whatever they want to other countries.”
To understand what Putin actually means by putting his deterrent forces on high alert, Foley said that the movement of these submarines and bombers should be watched closely in the coming days. “For example, there could be a bomb loaded on a plane rather than having them stored separately,” she said. “More submarines could be sent out to sea so that they’re able to attack if necessary.”
Unfortunately, Russian command and control—the process by which the Kremlin decides to use nuclear weapons—is mostly a mystery. “The level of readiness of the Russian forces is very, very poorly understood in the West,” Hans Kristensen, director of nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists, told VICE News. “But he’s obviously using this as a clear nuclear threat.”
That information also hasn’t been totally necessary in quite some time. The Cold War ended more than 30 years ago and, since then, there’s been a slow de-escalation of nuclear tensions. But the past five years have witnessed a reversal: Russia is working on new types of nuclear weapons, America deployed a new kind of nuclear warhead for the first time in decades, Britain said it wants to build new nuclear weapons, and various arms control agreements are in tatters.
“It's pretty grim, in the sense that we're seeing the largest nuclear-armed state on the planet that has a leader who's willing to throw threats like these out and take military steps without there being any direct threat from NATO or the United States,” Kristensen said. “NATO has not rattled a nuclear saber explicitly in Russia's face.”
Instead, Kristensen noted that Putin is using the threat of nuclear war to respond to Western sanctions and aid to Ukraine. “That is just not a level to nuclear signaling,” he said. “This is not a level of attention where that should be a factor. It makes me worried that he’s willing nonetheless.”
Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, agreed. “It’s an extremely dangerous situation,” she told VICE News. “We’ve seen with Putin now that this is not a weapon they use to protect their own country. It’s a weapon they use to be able to do whatever they want to other countries. Deterrence isn’t used to protect the country. Deterrence is used to be like, ‘I will do whatever I want with Ukraine and you are just going to be able to watch.’”
Fihn also said she thought it would be incredibly dangerous for NATO to respond by increasing its own deterrence levels. “We need to de-escalate the nuclear rhetoric immediately,” she said. “The higher the alert, you open yourself up to mistakes, accidents, and misunderstandings… long term, we have to work on multilateral nuclear disarmament. We’ve seen now over almost a decade of undermining arms control agreements, violating arms control agreements, undermining international law, discarding multilateralism, that’s when you end up in situations like this when countries and leaders feel like they can do whatever they want and get away with it.”
The dark logic of nuclear deterrence theory assumes that no one would ever strike first with nuclear weapons. It also asserts that the implied threat of nuclear destruction wouldn’t be used for conventional war. But, unfortunately, that can be a big assumption. “That’s the big weakness of nuclear deterrence: It assumes that everyone is rational,” Fihn said.
Stephen Schwartz, a nonresident senior fellow at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, agreed. “I think the people that have been most enamored [with] nuclear weapons have said they’ve kept the peace, that they’ve prevented nuclear war,” he said. “I think they are going to have to, at the very least, recalibrate their arguments, if not rethink them entirely. Do we allow ourselves to be checkmated by nuclear weapons and what does that mean for the future of the world and the future of Russia and Europe?”
“If you think it's slightly insane that Putin and the West are holding hostage the lives of millions of men, women, and children to bargain over the fate of Ukraine and the future of Putin's rule in Russia, you just might be a nuclear deterrence skeptic.”
Another wrinkle here is that the U.S. and other Western countries constantly monitor Russia for changes in its nuclear posture. If something had changed, Putin didn’t have to announce it on TV. That he did says something important.
“The fact that he announced it is kind of sad,” Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at Middlebury Institute of International Studies and a nuclear weapons expert, told VICE News. “Putin is trying to project power and intimidation. This isn't so different from Richard Nixon's ‘madman’ alert in 1973, although Nixon didn't announce it. The Soviets shrugged at Nixon's gambit; we should shrug at Putin's, too.”
Lewis is painfully aware that nuclear weapons are also pointed at Russia. “While, yes, Putin could kill millions of other people, he's not stupid. He also knows that the United States, United Kingdom, and France also possess nuclear arsenals. This is what deterrence looks like,” Lewis said.
The tensions also laid bare the madness of nuclear weapons.
“Now, if you think it's slightly insane that Putin and the West are holding hostage the lives of millions of men, women, and children to bargain over the fate of Ukraine and the future of Putin's rule in Russia, you just might be a nuclear deterrence skeptic,” Lewis added. “Pull up a chair, we're a nice group of people.”