On September 28, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, claimed the U.S. was spreading false information about Russian nuclear threats.
“U.S. officials continue to escalate the situation, intimidating the American and international public with sham Russian ‘nuclear threats’. Such rhetoric twists the statements of the Russian leadership,” Antonov wrote in the magazine The National Interest.
That is false. In fact, veiled and not-so-veiled threats to strike with nuclear weapons have spilled out from Russian President Vladimir Putin and his minions ever since Ukrainian forces started regaining ground in the war last month.
Russia has previously stated that it would only use strategic nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear strike. Now, it appears less destructive tactical nuclear weapons might be OK in Ukraine.
What’s going on? Let’s trace it back a bit.
On April 21, 2000, Putin approved a military doctrine which stated that Russia could use nuclear weapons only if A) “nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction” were used against it or its allies, or B) “in response to large-scale aggression with the use of conventional weapons in situations critical to the national security of the Russian Federation.”
The doctrine also said that Russia could not use nuclear weapons against Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) states that do not possess such weapons – unless those states attacked Russia jointly along with a state that did have nukes.
Ukraine became a party to the non-proliferation treaty in 1994 after voluntarily giving up a massive nuclear arsenal accumulated under the Soviet Union.
On June 7, 2003, Putin signed the law, "On the Ratification of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SOR) between the Russian Federation and the United States." Under that treaty, the countries pledged to slash their strategic nuclear arms to under 2,200 warheads each.
Note that, in general, strategic nukes are big bombs and ballistic weapons that can level whole cities, while tactical nukes are battlefield versions that do smaller-scale damage.
In a recent interview with CNN, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the former commander of U.K. & NATO Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Forces, spelled it out:
“It is all about scale – strategic nuclear weapons are basically Armageddon. Russia and the West (including the United States, Britain and France) both have almost 6,000 warheads each, according to the Federation of Nuclear Scientists, which is pretty much enough to change the planet as we know it. This is called Mutually Assured Destruction, with the rather ironic acronym MAD. …
“Tactical nuclear weapons, meanwhile, are much smaller warheads with a yield, or explosive power, of up to 100 kilotons of dynamite – rather than roughly 1,000 kilotons for strategic warheads.”
By comparison, the nuclear bomb dropped by the United States on Hiroshima, Japan, in the Second World War had an explosive yield of about 15 kilotons.
On February 5, 2010, Putin approved a new military doctrine. It stated that Russia could use nuclear weapons in response to weapons of mass destruction being used against it or its allies, as well as in response to an aggression against Russia using conventional weapons that endangered “the very existence of the state.”
The revised military doctrine also omitted the prohibition on nuking NPT member states.
In “The World Order 2018,” a film based on an interview with Russian state TV presenter Vladimir Solovyov, Putin said that Russia would use nuclear weapons only if the country's very existence were threatened.
“This is called a retaliatory strike. If this is a decision to destroy Russia, then we have a legitimate right to respond,” Putin said then.
In October 2018, Putin also confirmed that Russia would only launch a nuclear strike on another country if Russia was hit by a nuclear weapon.
“Our nuclear weapons doctrine does not provide for a pre-emptive strike. … Our concept is based on a reciprocal counter-strike. … Why do I say ‘counter’? Because we will counter missiles flying toward us by sending a missile in the direction of an aggressor. …
“Yes, it looks like we are sitting on our hands and waiting until someone uses nuclear weapons against us. Well, yes, this is what it is,” Putin said.
Another Putin decree, "On the Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence," signed in June 2020, said Russia would use nuclear weapons if attacked with them, or if a non-nuclear military strike threatened "the very existence of the state."
The posture began to change further when Putin launched his all-out invasion of Ukraine on February 24 after massing an estimated 150,000 troops along the border while denying plans to attack.
Putin placed Russian nuclear forces on "special alert," conducted atomic weapons exercises and made oblique threats to go nuke.
“If anyone intends to intervene from the outside and create a strategic threat to Russia that is unacceptable to us, they should know that our retaliatory strikes will be lightning-fast,” he said on April 27.
Then in September, after the Ukrainian military forced Russian troops in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region to retreat from an area of about 3,000 square miles, the threatening rhetoric sharpened.
In a September 21 address Putin suggested a threat to Russia’s “territorial integrity,” not just to Russia’s existence, could justify retaliation that most took to mean nuclear:
“In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us…,” he said. “Those who are using nuclear blackmail against us should know that the wind rose can turn around.”
The same day, Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and now deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council, clarified Russia's position.
Medvedev said that Russia would view even attempts by the Ukrainian army to liberate captured territory in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region as enough to use nukes.
After Russia held referendums to join Russia in occupied Ukrainian regions, the Kremlin would consider those regions de facto Russian territory.
“The protection of all the territories that have joined will be significantly strengthened by the Russian armed forces. Russia announced that not only mobilization capabilities but also any Russian weapons, including strategic nuclear weapons and weapons based on new principles, could be used for such protection,” Medvedev wrote on his Telegram channel.
On October 1, Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, whose troops are part of the Russian force fighting in Ukraine, said that Moscow should consider using low-yield nuclear weapons in response to the Ukrainian army's offensive.
“It is necessary to take more drastic measures, up to the declaration of martial law in the border areas and the use of low-yield nuclear weapons,” Kadyrov wrote on his Telegram channel.
Rod Thornton, a security expert at King’s College London, told Forbes that even tactical nuclear weapons can have devastating consequences from radiation exposure: death or long-term health problems. Europe and Asia could expect radioactive fallout.
On September 25, U.S. President Joe Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the United States had warned Russia of "catastrophic consequences" if it used nuclear weapons.
On October 2, former CIA Director David Petraeus told ABC This Week that the U.S. and its NATO allies could sink Russia’s the Black Sea Fleet and destroy Russian troops in Ukraine if Putin made good on his nuclear threats.