These are Putin’s options for nuclear war

Russia’s dictator repeatedly threatens the West and Ukraine with a nuclear strike. International experts assess what to make of it.

No, Vladimir Putin certainly did not skimp on the nuclear option. Whenever the west of the Ukraine he and his troops attacked jumped aside, the Russian dictator drew the nuclear card. And that has been the case quite often in the 15 months that the Kremlin’s illegal war of aggression has been going on.

Regardless of whether it was about sanctions, the delivery of tanks or, as recently, the possible delivery of F-16 fighter jets to Kiev, Putin threatened to use his nuclear arsenal every time. Of course, the sole ruler in the Kremlin doesn’t say it that clearly, but just enough to let the opponents know what’s at stake. Scaring is part of the standard repertoire of the former KGB agent, so it’s part of Putin’s DNA.

Vladimir Putin visits a military hardware factory in central Russia (archive photo). (Quelle: REUTERS/Alexei Nikolskyi/Sputnik/Kremlin)

Nuclear weapons expert Fabian Hoffmann, together with his US colleague William Alberque, wrote why a nuclear escalation of the conflict in Ukraine “is not in Putin’s interest” in an article in the Washington Post last year that is well worth reading. In response to the warnings against further arms deliveries, which are currently becoming popular again, especially from the left and from pro-Russian forces such as the AfD, the researcher from the Oslo Nuclear Project is now re-publishing his theses.

“Demonstrate readiness for nuclear escalation”

In the event of a nuclear strike, Hoffmann sees only three options for the Russian President:

  • a signal blast against uninhabited targets
  • a tactical nuclear strike against military targets
  • a beacon against inhabited targets

According to Hoffmann, the first option, the signal attack against uninhabited targets, could take place over the Black Sea, for example, and “would have the aim of demonstrating Russia’s readiness for nuclear escalation and breaking Ukraine’s will to defend the country.” However, Hoffmann does not believe that the Ukrainian government would be impressed.

Excerpt from a video of the Russian Ministry of Defense.  It is intended to show the launch of an intercontinental Sarmat missile.
Excerpt from a video of the Russian Ministry of Defense. It is intended to show the launch of an intercontinental Sarmat missile. (Quelle: Russian Ministry of Defense/IMAGO)

On the other hand, the economic and political consequences for the autocrat in the Kremlin would be high. Vladimir Putin would probably feel even more isolated within the world community, and he also risked turning away from Russia by important allies such as China or India. “Exclusion from the G20, loss of the UN Security Council seat, further economic sanctions, etc. The list of potentially dramatic consequences is long,” the researcher writes in a long post on Twitter.

Putin opened the door with his nuclear doctrine

In June 2020, the Kremlin published a revised nuclear doctrine. It specified the conditions under which the Russian state felt compelled to use nuclear weapons. One of these conditions would be, for example, “aggression against the Russian Federation through the use of conventional weapons, which would seriously endanger the existence of the state”.

Putin has already opened this door by linking the Ukraine question to the question of the existence of the Russian state as such, the researchers summarize in the Washington Post. By also having the Russian-occupied areas in Ukraine officially annexed and forcing the local population to accept Russian citizenship, the Kremlin ensured a geostrategic expansion of the combat zone. Basically, Russia could interpret any attack on Russian-held territory, for example in the Donbass, as an attack on Russia itself. But that has not happened so far.

Military expert Hoffmann is not surprised. A tactical nuclear strike therefore seems unlikely to him. This would allegedly be aimed at military targets with the intention of “smashing concentrations of Ukrainian troops, either to stop an enemy advance or to force an offensive breakthrough.” However, in his estimation, such a strike would not be decisive, since Ukraine itself does not have massive concentrations of troops at the front.


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