May 6 (Reuters) – At the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted at the possibility of a nuclear strike against anyone intervening in the conflict.
Below are some of the key questions surrounding the possibility – considered remote by many Western analysts and diplomats – that Putin could actually use nuclear weapons.
WHAT DID RUSSIA SAY ABOUT NUCLEAR WEAPONS DURING THE UKRAINE WAR?
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In a speech announcing the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Putin gave a veiled but unequivocal warning that if the West intervened in what he called a “special military operation”, he could use nuclear weapons. in response.
“No matter who tries to stand in our way or…to create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will react immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your whole story,” he added. said according to a Kremlin translation.
Three days later, on February 27, Putin ordered his military command to put Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces on high alert, citing what he called aggressive statements by NATO leaders and sanctions. Western economies against Moscow. Read more
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a veteran diplomat, also spoke of the risk of nuclear war, although he said Moscow was doing everything possible to prevent it.
“I wouldn’t want to artificially increase those risks. Many would like that. The danger is serious, real. And we shouldn’t underestimate it,” he said last week, prompting the US State Department to qualify his remarks as “the height of irresponsibility”. “.
While Washington has seen no action to suggest Russian nuclear forces are on high alert, Western experts and officials have cautioned against dismissing the comments as bluster given the risk that Putin could use weapons. nuclear weapons if he felt he was stuck in Ukraine or if NATO went to war.
WHAT HAS THE WEST SAID ABOUT PUTIN’S VEILED THREATS?
US officials were quick to call Putin’s comments about putting Russian nuclear forces on alert as dangerous, escalating and totally unacceptable, while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg slammed them as aggressive and irresponsible.
However, US officials also immediately indicated that they had seen no signs that Russian forces had changed their nuclear posture and the US military said it saw no need to change its.
On February 28, US President Joe Biden told Americans not to worry about a nuclear war with Russia. Responding to a shouted question about whether American citizens should be worried about a nuclear war breaking out, Biden answered “no.” Read more
WHAT ARE THE CHANCES FOR RUSSIA OF USING NUCLEAR WEAPONS?
Biden’s comment appears to reflect a widely held view among American pundits and Western officials that the chances of Russia using nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine are extremely low.
“Since 1945, every leader of a nuclear power… has rejected the use of nuclear weapons in combat for excellent reasons,” Gideon Rose, the magazine’s former editor, wrote last week. Foreign Affairs.
“Putin will be no exception, acting not with a soft heart but with a hard head. He knows extraordinary retaliation and universal opprobrium would ensue, with no remotely comparable strategic advantages to justify it,” he said. -he adds.
The primary goal of Russia’s elliptical nuclear strike threats appears to be to deter Washington and its NATO allies from direct involvement in the war, Western experts and diplomats have said.
“They are not credible,” said a Western diplomat who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. “He’s trying to scare the West.”
HOW COULD RUSSIA USE A NUCLEAR WEAPON?
While Western nations have dumped weapons into Ukraine since the invasion, Biden said last year that sending US troops on the ground to Ukraine was “not on the table.” Read more
The United States and its allies have no desire to engage in a conventional shooting war with Russia, let alone do anything that might trigger a nuclear exchange.
If Russia were to use nuclear weapons, experts saw a range of possibilities, ranging from a detonation over the Black Sea or an uninhabited part of Ukraine to demonstrate its capabilities to a strike against a target Ukrainian military or on a city.
However, the use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine could endanger Russian troops and cause radioactive backfire on Russia itself.
HOW COULD THE WEST RESPOND?
Some analysts have said Washington may opt for a conventional military response rather than a commensurate nuclear counterattack, which could harm US allies or lead to further nuclear escalation that endangers Europe or the American homeland.
“What I would suggest instead is that the United States and NATO respond with overwhelming conventional military, political and diplomatic force to further isolate Russia and seek to end the conflict without escalating to all-out nuclear war” said Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association, a nonprofit group that seeks to educate the public about arms control.
HOW COULD A RUSSIAN STRIKE CHANGE THE NUCLEAR LANDSCAPE?
NATO may seek to redesign its US-built ballistic missile shield in Poland and Romania to shoot down Russian rockets in the future. NATO has long said the current design is aimed at countering missiles from Iran, Syria and rogue actors in the Middle East.
It remains unclear whether a Russian strike could make other nuclear states such as India and Pakistan more likely to use such weapons. If it led to global condemnation, experts said it could reduce the chances of others using nuclear weapons.
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Reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Saint Paul, Minnesota and Robin Emmott in Brussels; Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Brussels; Editing by Mary Milliken and Andrew Heavens
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