Nuclear Weapon Use Risk in Ukraine

Asked (on 16 June at a conference in St Petersburg) how he felt about the case for using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine which some Russian military “experts” have been making of late, President Putin replied:

“My feelings are negative. This use of nuclear weapons is certainly theoretically possible. For Russia, this is possible if a threat is created to our territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty, the existence of the Russian state. Nuclear weapons are created in order to ensure our security in the broadest sense of the word and the existence of the Russian state. We do not have such a need [in current circumstances].”

This is a less troubling statement than the two which President Putin made in September 2022 (see below) in that it principally reserves the use of nuclear weapons for circumstances in which the very existence of the Russian state is threatened.

Ukraine is incapable of threatening the very existence of the Russian state and to date, at least, NATO has shown no inclination to do so.

That said, in the latest declaration, as in the statement of 21 September 2022, there remains a reference to ‘territorial integrity’. A threat to Russia’s territorial integrity seems still to be in President Putin’s mind as a circumstance that could justify the use of nuclear weapons.

That sets the threshold for nuclear weapon use much lower than the threshold set by threats to the sovereign existence of the Russian state. This should be seen throughout the world as a cause for concern, given the potential for limited nuclear weapon use to result in escalation and end in a multi-year Nuclear Winter that would kill off from starvation most of those members of the human species who had survived blasts, fires and radiation from the use of thousands of Russian and NATO nuclear weapons.

Moreover, it is unclear how President Putin views Crimea and other Ukrainian provinces that Russia annexed in 2022. In his mind do they all form an integral part of Russian territory; or do some, e.g. Crimea, but not others, e.g. Kherson; or do none? It seems more than possible that he regards Crimea, at least, as an integral part of Russia. Yet a Ukrainian attempt to retake Crimea, supported by NATO, cannot be ruled out, not least because the Ukrainian government is under US pressure to achieve a conspicuous victory in order to suggest to US and European publics that the economic costs of sanctions on Russia and military supplies to Ukraine have yielded cause for rejoicing.

In these circumstances the path of prudence is for the global community to urge the earliest possible ceasefire.

President Putin’s September 2022 statements and Russian doctrine on nuclear weapon use.

On 21 September 2022 President Putin declared: “If the territorial integrity of our nation is threatened, we will certainly use all the means that we have to defend Russia and our people.”

And on 30 September, at the signing of treaties for the accession to the Russian Federation of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, and the Kherson and Zaporozhye Regions, he said: “We will defend our land with all forces and resources”, adding that the United States had created a precedent for nuclear use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Russia’s official military doctrine on nuclear weapon use reads essentially as follows: “The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, as well as in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation using conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened.”