Putin put his nuclear forces on the highest alert. Would he really press the button?

February 28, 2022, 3:43 PM UTC

On Sunday, Vladimir Putin put his nuclear forces on special alert due to “aggressive statements” from the West. The U.S. called it “yet another escalatory and totally unnecessary step” in Putin’s war on pro-Western Ukraine.

But could Putin really push the button? Multiple experts say yes—and if an attack is imminent, the targets would most likely be the European countries that are racing to arm Ukraine.

“Putin’s words sound like a direct threat of nuclear war,” Novaya Gazeta chief editor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov told the BBC. “This is a threat that if Russia isn’t treated as he wants, then everything will be destroyed.”

“It’s a real threat,” Hermitage Capital Management CEO Bill Browder, a longstanding Putin critic and driving force behind the Magnitsky Act, said in a Sunday webinar with South Africa’s Daily Maverick. “Vladimir Putin is a man who can’t back down, who only escalates, who knows no boundaries.”

Or if we turn to a Sunday broadcast by Russian TV anchor Dmitry Kiselyov, one of the main faces of the Kremlin’s domestic propaganda: “Our submarines alone can launch more than 500 nuclear warheads, which guarantees the destruction of the U.S. and NATO for good measure. The principle is, Why do we need the world if Russia won’t be in it?” This last phrase echoed comments made by Putin in 2008, regarding Russia’s right to respond to threats of annihilation.

“It’s psychological warfare, but we have to see what’s really coming out of this,” Joachim Krause, academic director of the Institute for Security Policy at Germany’s Kiel University, told Fortune on Monday.

Russia always has nuclear-tipped strategic missiles ready to head for the U.S., so the change to look out for now would be the nuclearization of nonstrategic missiles that are intended for regional use, Krause said: “If, for instance, in the European theater, Russia is loading medium-range cruise missiles and bombers with nuclear weapons, then we have to react, and the U.S. has to react.”

European arms are currently pouring into Ukraine via Romania, Poland, and Slovakia. France is sending defensive weapons; the Dutch are sending sniper rifles and Stinger missiles; Belgium is sending machine guns; the Czechs are sending light weaponry and other unspecified arms; the Brits sent anti-tank weapons relatively early in the crisis; Sweden is now also sending anti-tank weapons—and on the weekend, Germany finally abandoned its longstanding rule about not exporting arms to war zones, pledging rocket-propelled grenades, armored personnel carriers, and a collection of old East German howitzers. Even the European Union itself just said it would send Ukraine (probably Soviet) fighter jets.

Here’s what is likely on Putin’s increasingly paranoid-seeming mind when it comes to nukes.

Escalate or retreat?

According to Krause, Putin’s decisions will be guided by the success of his Ukraine invasion—and as things stand, that’s not going very well. The Russian army is suffering serious logistical issues around fuel and ammunition, and the Ukrainians are fighting back harder than Moscow seems to have anticipated. Four days into the all-out assault, Russia still hasn’t captured a major Ukrainian city.

Putin’s army pummeled the city of Kharkiv with rocket attacks that reportedly killed dozens on Monday—perhaps a sign that he is starting to turn to the indiscriminate bombardments of civilian areas that marked his actions in Chechnya and Syria.

“Putin is in a situation where his original war aims have not materialized and where he has to decide either to give in or to escalate the war,” Krause said. “Part of an escalation strategy could be to punish the European member states of NATO, which are delivering arms to the Ukraine. This might involve putting nonstrategic nuclear forces in and around Europe on alert and possibly even using single strikes with conventional ammunition to underscore the threat.

“However, this would bring Article 5 of NATO into the game, which might deter him from such an act,” Krause added, referring to NATO’s collective defense doctrine. “Here the question comes in: How far is Putin still rational? Or is he devoted to a policy of nuclear brinkmanship?”

Putin is playing a game of brinkmanship, argues Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the Berlin-based European Council on Foreign Relations—but “nothing more.”

“When it comes to the nuclear threat, Russia is not doing anything unexpected at this point. It’s all laid out in Russia’s principles of nuclear deterrence policy,” Gressel said in an emailed statement, adding that the aim was to “influence public opinion and political decision-making in other countries.” The threat, he concluded, was “certainly not a game-changer.”

Russian threats

On Monday, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the statements that triggered Russia’s nuclear warning had come from Liz Truss, the British foreign secretary.

It is unclear which specific statements he was referring to, but Truss said Sunday morning that “if we don’t stop Putin in Ukraine we are going to see others under threat—the Baltics, Poland, Moldova, and it could end up in a conflict with NATO.” She has also publicly backed the idea of British people individually heading to Ukraine to fight alongside Kyiv’s forces.

However, Putin has invoked Russia’s nuclear options in an announcement ahead of Thursday’s invasion: “Even after the dissolution of the USSR and losing a considerable part of its capabilities, today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states. Moreover, it has a certain advantage in several cutting-edge weapons. In this context, there should be no doubt for anyone that any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences should it directly attack our country.

“To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside—if you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history,” Putin said at the time.

If Putin does decide to go nuclear, could anyone in Russia stop him? Few believe his officials would stand up to the president, with Muratov noting in his comments to the BBC that “Russia’s political elites are never with the people.”

“My only hope is the military will take over and kill him,” said Krause. “But I don’t know whether there is any likelihood of that.”

This report was updated soon after publication with Gressel’s comment.

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