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Can Russia-Ukraine conflict escalate to nuclear proportions?

In light of Putin’s rhetoric on the nuclear option, what choices do Ukraine, and the US have? 

Can Russia-Ukraine conflict escalate to nuclear proportions?
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that Moscow was technically ready for nuclear war and US troops in Ukraine would be considered a significant escalation of the conflict.

Such rhetoric, which came ahead of the 15-17 March election that he won by a landslide, was one of the many instances of Moscow’s threats to use nuclear weapons in the context of Ukraine.

Putin and others in Moscow, including former president Dmitry Medvedev and Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov have issued warnings in the past to the US and Ukraine.

The Russian president did not explicitly threaten nuclear action but spoke about technical preparedness.

“From a military-technical point of view, we are, of course, ready,” Putin, when asked whether Russia was really ready for a nuclear war, told Rossiya-1 television and news agency RIA on 13 March.

Putin said the US understood that if it deployed American troops on Russian territory—or to Ukraine—Moscow would treat the move as an intervention.

Moscow has annexed four regions of Ukraine and says they are now fully part of Russia.

“(In the US,) there are enough specialists in the field of Russia- America relations and in the field of strategic restraint. Therefore, I don’t think that here everything is rushing to it (nuclear confrontation), but we are ready for this,” Putin was quoted as saying by Reuters.

We should note that Putin stated that deployment of American troops in Ukraine would be treated as an “intervention.” He did not exactly say that if something happens, he will use nuclear weapons, but there was an implication to that effect.

While Putin did not explicitly threaten nuclear action, his remarks hinted at such a possibility. Spokesperson Peskov later clarified that Putin was discussing scenarios where nuclear weapon use might become inevitable, rather than issuing direct threats.

“This was deliberately taking something out of context. Putin made no threats about the use of nuclear weapons in this interview. The president was just talking about the reasons that could make the use of nuclear weapons inevitable,” he said.

Generally speaking, the issue has not been properly deconstructed. We need to raise more than one question in this regard:

  • Did Putin threaten the use of nuclear weapons in a specific context by issuing an ultimatum?
  • If Moscow issues an ultimatum, how will Washington respond?
  • What is the Russian nuclear doctrine?
  • Is it the case that whenever Moscow has mentioned nuclear weapons in the context of Ukraine, the Russian military was on the backfoot?

Coming to question 1, there has not been so far any specific ultimatum from Moscow. An ultimatum can take the following form:

“The Ukrainian forces advancing from such and such a place in the direction towards Russia (or Ukrainian territory Moscow claims is now part of Russia) should start reversing in 24 hours with effect from such and such hour failing which Russian military will take consequential  action.”

On question 2, the US has not yet spelt out how it would react. This non-response is wise on Washington’s part as any categorical response runs the risk of escalating the war of words.

US President Joe Biden touched upon this issue in a guest essay in The New York Times on 31 May 2022:

“I know many people around the world are concerned about the use of nuclear weapons. We currently see no indication that Russia has intent to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, though Russia’s occasional rhetoric to rattle the nuclear saber is itself dangerous and extremely irresponsible. Let me be clear: Any use of nuclear weapons in this conflict on any scale would be completely unacceptable to us as well as the rest of the world and would entail severe consequences.

Washington is caught in a difficult situation because the grim reality of mutually assured destruction with Moscow prevents it from considering direct nuclear retaliation. Putin might choose to use a mini nuke in Ukraine, but any response in kind would expose New York and San Francisco to Russian nuclear strike. Would an American president take such a catastrophic risk?

Coming to question 3, the Russian nuclear doctrine does not have the ‘no-first use’ clause like the Soviet Union did.  A 2020 Kremlin statement lists all the conditions under which Russia might use nuclear weapons:

On receipt of reliable data about the launch of ballistic missiles against Russia or its allies; or the use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) against Russia or its allies; or attacks against Russian nuclear command, control, and communications infrastructure; or aggression against Russia with conventional weapons that threatens “the very existence” of the Russian state.

The answer to question 4 is yes. Russia has issued nuclear threats whenever it found itself challenged. The latest Putin threat came after European Union leaders unanimously agreed on 1 February to extend €50 billion ($54 billion) in aid to Ukraine. Two weeks later, the US Senate passed a $95 billion foreign aid bill that includes $60 billion for Ukraine, although it has not been put to vote before the House of Representatives.

To conclude, it is rather unlikely that Russia will resort to a nuclear strike unless its ‘very existence’ is threatened. That sort of threat will not originate from any action by the US.

However, Washington lacks control over what Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy might do. A series of missile/drone attacks on Russia—in this context including Crimea—might provoke Russia to issue a specific ultimatum, in which case Biden might be compelled to ask Zelenskyy to stop provoking Russia.

In short, by issuing an ultimatum threatening nuclear strikes, Putin can get what he wants without any actual nuclear strike.

It might be  in the best interest of Ukraine to agree to talks right now before it loses more territory as a variety of aid fatigue becomes a contagion in the US and Europe.


KP Fabian is a diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune. More

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