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Putin and nuclear weapons: can he use them and how this process occurs


Nadezhda Verbitskaya

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Since the start of a full-scale war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, as well as many Russian officials, politicians and propagandists, regularly threaten the West with nuclear weapons. Sometimes they talk about it directly, sometimes in a veiled way. Once again, Putin discussed this topic on September 21, in his statement on partial mobilization. “Medusa” spoke with Maxim Starchak, an expert on Russian nuclear policy, a research fellow at the Center for International and Defense Policy at Queens University in Canada.

— Does the world have at least some kind of system of counterbalances in the event that nuclear weapons (NW) end up in the hands of people who are aggressive and unwilling to make concessions? Is such a system possible in principle?

— I would say no. Theoretically, Putin can do almost anything. The status of a nuclear power opens up scope for military impunity.

There is the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. According to it, the use of nuclear weapons (NW) by one of the parties against the other, which has a comparable number of nuclear warheads, will lead to a retaliatory strike, that is, the complete destruction of both the attacker and the defender.

On this basis, relations between the USSR and the USA were built, and now it is the basis of military security between the Russian Federation and the USA. And even if the parties are not equal in their nuclear potential, the threat of a retaliatory nuclear strike deters aggression against a nuclear country. Example: US-DPRK relations.

But this is in relations between nuclear powers. And if a nuclear power wants to launch a nuclear attack on a non-nuclear state, it can do it. Yes, there will be international condemnation, but there are no actual obstacles.

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At the same time, non-nuclear NATO countries are protected by Article XNUMX alliance charter (an attack on one is an attack on all). Some other countries can only count on assistance through bilateral channels. In particular, there are bilateral mutual defense agreements between the United States and Japan and South Korea. Russia, within the framework of the CSTO and the Union State [with Belarus in theory], also ensures the security of the respective states.

Otherwise, nothing will happen. All-round diplomatic pressure must be exerted. It seems that not only the West is putting pressure on Putin, but also India and China, and other members of the SCO, as the summit in Samarkand showed.

If you think about whether one unbalanced leader can start a nuclear war, then this is possible, but difficult.

In the United States, only the president can order the launch of nuclear missiles.

But any unruly president alone will not be able to make such a decision. If the president is unwell, the vice president, with the support of other members of the government, can take over. In any case, the president (or acting) must go through the process of identifying himself through the exchange of codes, his order must be confirmed by the secretary of defense, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is contacted, who, in turn, gives the order to the National Military Command Center and headquarters US Strategic Command to launch nuclear missiles.

During the Trump era, this issue was relevant. Then the head of the strategic command said that he would not carry out the order if he considered it illegal. In the event of a first nuclear strike, its legitimacy will be determined by necessity in terms of whether or not the US Congress has declared war on any state.

In Russia, the president must transmit a code signal to unlock nuclear weapons and thereby authorize their use.

This signal is transmitted through a portable "nuclear suitcase" control system. The Minister of Defense and the Chief of the General Staff have the same devices. The actual possibility of a nuclear strike is feasible if permission comes from all three devices.

Then the signal goes to the special service of the General Staff, which, in turn, transmits the order to the specific command in whose location the nuclear forces are located. After that - from the command to the specific officer responsible for the actual launch. In addition, the president is always accompanied by a group of General Staff officers responsible for the "nuclear suitcase."

The chain is long enough, so there seems to be foolproof protection. On the other hand, if, for example, the president and the Ministry of Defense are unavailable, there is no communication with them, the chief of the General Staff may well make a decision on a nuclear launch on his own.

As for non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons, the chain is even longer there. There is no tactical warhead in the troops. It must be taken from the centralized storage warehouse, transported, media prepared, loaded, and instructed by the military. This is a long chain, and at each stage there may be doubts whether we really want this. [Besides] it's all tracked. US and NATO intelligence will quickly discover this.

- Can Putin's order be disobeyed? Or is it a fantasy scenario?

— Such scenarios can be. And they can be different. As I said, the chain from order to execution can be long. And at the level of command, and at the level of officers carrying out a practical launch. I would like to tell the following story. During the Caribbean Crisis of 1962, the Soviet submarine B-59 was bombed by US anti-submarine aircraft. A submarine that did not have operational communications with the high military command had the right to make an independent decision on a nuclear strike. But this required the consent of the captain and two more officers. Being bombed, the captain thought that a nuclear war had begun, and with the consent of his deputy, he wanted to give the order to open fire. But the third senior officer vetoed it.

So the decision on a nuclear strike is still the decision of the people. I want to believe that rationality will win over emotions.

- The USA and the USSR (and then the Russian Federation) concluded a number of treaties on the limitation of strategic and offensive weapons. How effective have they been, viewed from where we are now?

- In general, any arms control agreement can be seen as a boon. Unless, of course, it is observed by all parties. For example, CHB-3 made it possible to reduce the number of warheads from about 2500 on each side to 1550 units. A slightly smaller effect was associated with the reduction of deployed nuclear weapons carriers from 882 to 686 units in the United States (at present). In Russia, the number has practically not changed - as it is modernizing weapons and introducing new carriers to replace obsolete ones. According to the latest data, she has 526 deployed carriers, although the treaty allows up to 700 units.

The 10-year agreement with the possibility of a five-year extension entered into force in 2011. In February 2021, it was extended until 2026. The US would like to conclude a new treaty. Even under the current conditions, the US is sending signals that it would like to resume negotiations on strategic arms.

However, the sides are too far away in their starting positions. The US would like to include the entire arsenal of nuclear weapons in the negotiations. Russia is not ready to talk about its non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons until the United States removes its nuclear weapons from Europe to the national territory. US nuclear weapons in Europe give NATO a nuclear status, and to abandon it, especially in the context of Moscow's aggressive foreign policy, she also did not want and will not want to.

There are a host of other problematic issues hindering a possible future arms control agreement. Overall, arms control is in a big crisis. Apart from START-3, there are no such important existing agreements in the field of arms control. All this requires a large negotiation process, which was planned in 2021, but was stopped by the war in Ukraine.

The context of Ukraine will influence the possibility of agreements for a long time to come. Any agreements with Moscow, even the possibility of them, will now have opposition among parts of the US political and military establishment. It will be difficult to achieve even the opportunity to sit down at the negotiating table. There was no trust between the parties before the war, and there is none now. This can go on for as long as you like.

- Vladimir Putin threatens nuclear weapons already in a fairly ordinary mode. Have there been situations like this in recent history? How did they get out?

— Even during the Cold War, there was no such rhetoric aimed at the possible use of nuclear weapons. Then everyone understood that nuclear weapons existed and could be used. There was a serious understanding that a nuclear strike by one side would lead to a retaliatory nuclear strike, and this would lead to mutual destruction. And no one ever mentioned it again.

Putin's nuclear rhetoric has long shocked Western and Eastern states alike. But nothing can be done about it. It is probably out of desperation that the world and Russia's relations with this world are not developing the way it wants. This somewhere disappoints foreign leaders or shocks, but is already perceived as Putin's terrible nature. Nothing new.

- What will happen if Putin does hit - for example, on Kyiv? How will other countries react?

- If up to this moment Kyiv and government facilities have not been subjected to significant rocket fire, then it is strange to expect the destruction of Kyiv by nuclear weapons. If there will be a strike on Kyiv, then for now it will be high-precision non-nuclear weapons.

Neither the US nor NATO wants a direct military clash with Russia and hope that nuclear weapons will not be used. But in the event of a strike, there will be a military reaction. The public in Western countries expects that the use of nuclear weapons cannot go unpunished. There will be demands to punish Russia.

The United States is probably already developing options for its response to such a development of events. There may be several. The entry of NATO forces into Ukraine, a non-nuclear strike against Russian troops in Ukraine, a strike by US tactical nuclear weapons against Russian troops, and so on. I think that such scenarios have already been communicated to Putin and should, first of all, become a deterrent against a nuclear strike.

Yes, during the Trump era, US nuclear strategy allowed for a limited nuclear strike to end a conflict or restore strategic stability. But this is hardly the case even now, especially in relation to another nuclear power. No one wants a nuclear war, and a real military response will be cautious and limited.

- That is, the beginning of the third world is unlikely even in the case of the use of nuclear weapons?

- It will depend on how Putin will be answered, how he will be answered. This is impossible without the direct involvement of NATO. I hope even NATO's limited military response does not escalate into a world war. But in this scenario, it is impossible to predict how events will develop.

- The use of nuclear weapons is, obviously, a rather high escalation. What steps theoretically should precede it?

- I think that the choice of mobilization is a kind of salvation from a nuclear strike. Having chosen mobilization, Putin seems to be saying that he will solve the issue of Ukraine with manpower. If the conditional 300 don't help, the next step could be either the second stage of mobilization or full mobilization. Russia has a multimillion-dollar mobilization reserve - in relation to Ukraine, this may be enough. I do not think that the solution of the issue of Ukraine through a nuclear strike is considered seriously. In addition to nuclear weapons, Putin has another advantage over Ukraine - a population of 140 million.

If there is a goal to destroy the country to the ground, then for a quick victory it is necessary to destroy power plants. Without electricity, it is impossible to carry out any military, industrial and human activity. But even during World War II, German troops did not destroy power plants, as they planned to use them by their occupation administration. Probably, in the same way, Russia has the goal of seizing territories for further use.

It is believed that the next level before the use of nuclear weapons is the use of high-precision weapons, which are considered an alternative to nuclear weapons. Russia is already using it, but they lack quantity and quality.

Before using nuclear weapons, Russia could attack Kyiv and government facilities. But I am sure that such a scenario has been worked out by Ukraine and will not greatly affect the military situation. Shooting weapons in Kyiv, you do not allow them to be used in the theater of military operations in the Donbass, Kherson and Zaporozhye. The effectiveness of such actions is not obvious. Taking Kyiv without a large number of missiles is not possible, and the impact of this on the general situation at the front is doubtful.

Also, Russia can attack the supply lines of Ukraine, the points of transfer of Western weapons.

This could lead to the killing of NATO personnel, which is likely to be enough for a direct response from the alliance. The level of escalation will increase. But, perhaps, it will remain at a stable level if, after a single response from NATO forces, a Russian response does not follow. In my opinion, this will not happen if the NATO response includes the transfer of its forces to Ukraine. The high risks of NATO being drawn into the conflict do not allow Moscow to act according to this scenario.

If NATO enters the war on the side of Ukraine, the level of escalation rises. But the threat of direct NATO intervention is appalling in both Moscow and Washington. On the one hand, there is no direct reason for the use of nuclear weapons, on the other hand, there has not yet been a direct military clash between Russia and NATO. Whether the nuclear powers can refrain from using nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict is unclear. Nobody wants to know this.

Apparently, Moscow's main concern is to prevent NATO or the United States from entering into direct hostilities with Russia on the side of Ukraine. Nuclear exercises before the war, bringing the deterrence forces into a special mode of alert. All this is a containment policy aimed at preventing NATO and the United States from interfering.

Therefore, strikes are not carried out on Kyiv, the points of transfer of weapons for the Armed Forces of Ukraine - although, it should be noted, there were threats to both. There were threats in general with regard to NATO weapons supplied to Ukraine, which should have been a red line. But since there was no response and the threats were not perceived, Moscow did not risk drawing NATO into the implementation of these threats. Probably, the threat of participation of NATO forces could even become a peace enforcement factor. But the parties are afraid of each other. For example, NATO took Putin's threats and did not close the sky over Ukraine. That is, the parties agreed that direct NATO intervention is unacceptable and impossible. Although formally there is no talk of nuclear weapons, the parties are afraid to take risks.

In his mobilization speech, Putin declared his readiness to use all available means to protect the country's territorial integrity. This is a special ambiguous statement aimed at deterring NATO and the US. Russia's nuclear doctrine speaks of the possibility of using nuclear weapons in the event of aggression against it with the use of conventional weapons - when the very existence of the state is threatened. In a war with Ukraine, such a scenario is basically impossible. But Putin, as it were, artificially expands the concept of "the very existence of the state" and at the same time does not specifically talk about nuclear weapons. In his speech, he primarily focuses on the fact that Russia has nuclear weapons and is ready to use them in the event of NATO nuclear aggression. The readiness to use nuclear weapons first is not visible.

But another level of escalation Putin could take is to make a clearer public statement that if Ukraine succeeds in "capturing Russian territories" then Russia can use nuclear weapons to restore its territorial integrity. Of course, this statement will be a deterrent and not a realistic scenario, but no one wants to test it. Pressure on Moscow and Kyiv to negotiate will intensify. Perhaps this is what Putin is counting on.

- The use of non-strategic nuclear weapons is a whole range of opportunities for escalation. What exactly could Russia do?

- In Russian military theory, the first step in nuclear escalation is a demonstrative single strike on desert territories or water areas, on secondary military facilities.

Theoretically, this can be done over the Arctic Ocean - an understandable "desert" place, without great risks for its troops and citizens of any states. A nuclear explosion would have had a psychological impact regardless of the place of use and without exposing the population to radiation. But what's next? I do not think that this would have affected the resistance of Ukraine. But perhaps the diplomatic pressure on both Moscow and Kyiv would increase.

If this did not have an impact, the next step would be a demonstration-intimidation, when a nuclear strike is inflicted on some military facility in Ukraine. But again, it is not at all obvious what kind of object it should be. In theory, it is used against fortified areas and infrastructure facilities or significant enemy forces. In Ukraine, it is still necessary to look for such facilities so that the efficiency of using a tactical nuclear warhead would be high. Yes, such a blow can completely destroy the city, but this will not lead to the collapse of the Ukrainian army either.

The use of tactical nuclear weapons does not mean absolute victory. This will create radiation contamination of the area, which Russia will not be able to use for its own purposes. Therefore, the use of nuclear weapons on the territory of Ukraine is unlikely to have military value.

Such recklessness is possible according to the principle “if Ukraine cannot be mine, then don’t get it for anyone.” But then again, any nuclear strike is the risk of NATO or the United States being drawn into the conflict. Too risky for a person who is concerned about his health, interested in the practices of eternal youth and still expects those who want to meet him to go through quarantine.

- That is, tactical nuclear weapons give a purely psychological effect?

- Tactical nuclear weapons will not help Moscow in the defense of the occupied territories. It has no deterrent effect for Ukraine. It is inefficient to use it in the depleted environment of the current war. The psychological effect is more likely to have on the NATO countries than on Ukraine. Therefore, the possibility of its use, although it exists, is still low.

- If it is nevertheless being implemented, is it possible to do at least something for your own safety?

Don't be in the nuclear strike zone! Upon impact, you will be affected by five factors:

  • The air shock wave will destroy everything in its path: buildings, equipment, destroy people and animals. Ground nuclear strike also leads to seismic blast waves, which also have a destructive effect.
  • Light radiation will ignite combustible objects and cause burns of varying degrees.
  • Penetrating radiation will lead to radiation sickness. It is impossible to completely protect yourself from it, but it is possible to significantly reduce the effect if you take cover in special bomb shelters.
  • There will be radioactive contamination of the terrain, soil, air, various objects and equipment. For decades.
  • An electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear explosion will disable all electronic and radio devices, equipment and communications.

You can survive if you are in a special bunker and then left it in a radiation protection suit. Without protection, everything will depend on the strength of the explosion, the distance from the epicenter of the explosion and the time.

First, they die directly from the explosion. Then, for several months, from the concomitant factors of the explosion from radiation contamination. Within a few years after the event, the number of victims will increase manifold - from cancer and other concomitant diseases. Take care of yourself.

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