Will Putin respond to counter-offensive with nuclear weapons? Expert weighs tricky question

There were hidden or open Russian threats not to shy away from the use of nuclear weapons in the war against Ukraine, even at the beginning of the raid. “Whoever tries to hinder us, let alone threaten our country, our people, must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will have consequences for you such as you have never had in your history.” The nuclear one Putin’s threat was thus on the table. Such threats have been heard again and again since then.

The June 2020 Russian nuclear doctrine provides for the use of nuclear weapons in the event of a nuclear attack on Russia and its allies, but also in the context of a conventional conflict in which the very existence of the Russian state is at stake. In autumn 2022, Putin implicitly stated that the use of nuclear weapons is also possible if Russia’s territorial integrity is threatened.

After the Russian leadership sees the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporizhia and Cherson as part of Russia, in violation of international law, the question arises as to whether a successful counter-offensive by the Ukrainian army could trigger a nuclear inferno in these regions.

Risk of nuclear escalation increases with reach of Ukrainian war targets

I don’t think so. However, the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons undoubtedly exists if the Ukrainian offensive would endanger Russian control of Crimea. So the risk of nuclear escalation increases with the range of actual Ukrainian war targets. The leadership in Kiyv declares the reconquest of all territory lost since 2014 as a war goal; it includes the recapture of Crimea. In this maximalist war aim, Ukraine is also supported by the Northern and Eastern European countries.

A loss of Crimea and the port city of Sevastopol would probably go hand in hand with Putin’s fall. Putin wants and must therefore absolutely avoid such a military disaster of his attack. In such a scenario, the use of tactical nuclear weapons becomes entirely possible, although not likely. This risk of escalation must be dealt with and taken into account by Western politics.

Behind the scenes in the West there is indeed a dispute

Those who support Ukraine’s maximalist war goal downplay the threat of nuclear escalation. The Russian side is only bluffing and wants to create fear and insecurity in the populations of Western countries. The West should not deter itself, ie limit its support to Ukraine for fear of a nuclear escalation. It may be that these voices are right. But given the catastrophic consequences of using nuclear weapons, isn’t it unacceptable to let the Russian leadership bluff? I think no.

In such a constellation, it is quite respectable to fear a catastrophic escalation and therefore only support Ukraine’s more moderate war aims – such as pushing the Russian invaders back to the front line before the war unleashed in 2022. Western states always say unanimously that only Ukraine can and should determine the war aims in this defensive struggle. That sounds understandable and necessary at first. Behind the scenes, however, there is a dispute in the West about which war goals Ukraine should be able to achieve with which Western weapons. Ultimately, it is the West that decides on the achievable war goals. He should be aware of his responsibility.

However, it should be emphasized that, apart from the verbal threats, there are currently (!) no indications of the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Not a single one of these weapons was taken out of their storage and moved. If that happens then the risk of using these weapons would increase. Russia could still only bluff with it. But who, who bears political responsibility, wanted and should take the chance?

Jean Harris

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