As Russia’s war against Ukraine continues to stretch on longer than the Kremlin reportedly expected, various experts and government officials have expressed concern that Russian President Vladimir Putin could eventually resort to using nuclear weapons out of desperation.
Putin began his invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and many expected Russia’s military to quickly squash Ukrainian resistance. But on March 13, Viktor Zolotov, the head of Russia’s National Guard, publicly acknowledged that “not everything is going as fast as we would like.” Weeks later, Russia suffered significant setbacks, including a retreat from Kyiv, in an embarrassing turn of events for Putin.
“Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks that they’ve faced so far, militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons, “CIA Director William Burns said on Thursday during a speech at Georgia Tech.
Burns’ warning is not a new concern from US officials. In 2018, the Department of Defense’s nuclear posture review — which documents the role of nuclear weapons and security — stated Russia could use a “limited first use” nuclear weapon in a scenario that would “de-escalate” a conflict on terms favorable to Russia. “
Should Putin use a nuclear device, even a small tactical weapon, he does so at the risk of igniting a full-on war. In a mid-March interview with the BBC, Polish President Andrzej Duda said Russia using any weapon of mass destruction could result in a response from NATO.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has also warned Russia about the use of nuclear weapons.
“NATO is there to protect and defend all allies and we convey a very clear message to Russia that a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought,” Stoltenberg said during a March 23 press conference. “Any use of nuclear weapons will fundamentally change the nature of the conflict, and Russia must understand that a nuclear war should never be fought and they can never win a nuclear war.”
Despite the warnings, Putin may already be feeling the pressure to resort to such tactics as the invasion drags on. A senior US Air Force officer working on nuclear weapons told Newsweek in a previous story that the intelligence community is worried Russia could use Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles.
“The use of nuclear weapons is inconceivable, but the Russians are getting more desperate, and its primary tactical nuclear system is now a proven weapon,” the officer said. “That’s often a deciding factor in a decision-maker’s mind — the promise of tactical success.”
Russian Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told CNN on March 22 that there could be situations where Russia would justify the use of nuclear warfare.
“Well, we have a concept of domestic security, and it’s public,” Peskov said. “You can read all the reasons for nuclear arms to be used. So if it is an existential threat, a threat for our country, then it can be used in accordance with our concept.”
Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and current deputy chairman of the country’s security council, told The Guardian last month four situations in which Russia would be justified in turning to its nuclear arsenal.
“Number one is the situation, when Russia is struck by a nuclear missile. The second case is any use of other nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies,” Medvedev said to the newspaper. “The third is an attack on a critical infrastructure that will have paralyzed our nuclear deterrent forces. And the fourth case is when an act of aggression is committed against Russia and its allies, which jeopardized the existence of the country itself, even without the use of nuclear weapons, that is, with the use of conventional weapons. “
The US has reportedly already begun preparing for the event of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction being used in Ukraine by Russia. The New York Times reported in March that the Biden administration put together a team of national security officials to map out a response should Putin turn to chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
Efforts are still ongoing for the conflict to end before such weapons are used. Bloomberg reported on Sunday that Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch and Putin ally, is reportedly attempting to resume peace talks between Russia and Ukraine. Discussions between the two countries stalled in recent weeks following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claiming Russia targeted Ukrainian civilians and its troops were committing acts of “genocide.”
The Ukrainian leader is also among those who have publicly addressed the threat of Russia using nukes.
Referencing Burns’ comments about not taking the nuclear threat lightly, Zelensky told CNN, “We should not wait for the moment when Russia decides to use nuclear weapons … We must prepare for that.”
Newsweek reached out to the Russian Foreign Ministry for comment.