Would Putin Use Nuclear Weapons?

Nuclear Weapons
Mushroom cloud of ‘Gadget’ over Trinity, seconds after detonation.

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Would Putin Use Nuclear Weapons?

In a speech yesterday to the Russian nation, Vladimir Putin warned the West he would use nuclear weapons to defend Russia. He even emphasized his warning was “not a bluff.” Still, it’s unclear what Putin means when he refers to the use of nuclear weapons. Would he use them in Ukraine or actually attack the United States directly? Nobody should take the threat lightly. Russia possesses a greater number of warheads than any other country. However, the United States has more warheads presently deployed. Moreover, the nuclear triad means the United States has greater flexibility to deploy those weapons.

Still, nobody wants a nuclear war. Neither side will “win.” The destruction will greatly exceed anything in historical memory. Moreover, the environmental, economic, and political effects will linger on for generations. At the same time, Putin cannot simply get his way, because he threatens nuclear annihilation. The precedent will empower aggressive nuclear powers and encourage widespread nuclear proliferation.

But is Putin bluffing? Clearly, Putin has some red lines where he would use nuclear weapons as a last resort. Any effort that threatens the survival of the Russian state would certainly precipitate nuclear war. However, nobody dares to take the war this far. The fear is he will regard recently occupied parts of Ukraine as Russia itself. Upcoming referendums will provide him a flimsy legal justification.

Nonetheless, it’s unlikely Putin plans to use nuclear weapons yet. China has already expressed concerns about the war. A realistic prospect of nuclear war may sever the relationship entirely. Moreover, the draft of 300,000 reservists implies that he intends to progress with conventional tactics. Indeed, it risks destabilizing Russian domestic politics through protest and emigration. It is unlikely he takes this step if he plans to use nuclear weapons soon.

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