Key questions after Putin’s nuclear announcement

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order on Sunday to place Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert is part of a trend of escalating tensions following its attack on Ukraine, Western experts have told Reuters. ‘AFP, but this decision is probably another dangerous bluff.

What are deterrents?

Western powers, including the United States and NATO, protested strongly after Putin said in a televised address that the country’s nuclear “deterrents” had been placed “in a special mode of combat duty”.

The UN called the idea of ​​using nuclear weapons ‘inconceivable’, while the Ukrainian government said it viewed the move as an attempt to intimidate, as delegations from both countries prepared to meet for exploratory talks.

Just like in NATO, some of Russia’s nuclear weapons are constantly ready and “can be launched in 10 minutes”, said Marc Finaud, nuclear proliferation expert at the Geneva Center for Security Policy.

“Either the warheads are already mounted on missiles, or the bombs are already on board” bombers and submarines, he explained.

In a Friday article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, experts Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda wrote that Russia maintains nearly 1,600 warheads deployed.

“Since Russian strategic forces are still on high alert, the real question is whether (Putin) deployed more submarines or armed the bombers,” Kristensen wrote on Twitter Sunday.

Why increase the alert level?

Most analysts have suggested wielding the nuclear option is a desperate move stemming from Russia’s military setbacks since attacking Ukraine on Wednesday.

“Russia is frustrated with the Ukrainian resistance,” said David Khalfa of the Paris-based Fondation Jean Jaurès, a left-wing think tank.

Rather than a quick victory with armored assaults claiming swaths of territory, Moscow now faces “urban guerrilla warfare, with a high probability of casualties among Russian soldiers”, he added.

Eliot A. Cohen of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington said Russian leaders expected an easier campaign.

“The fact that they haven’t had air superiority for four days is quite telling,” he told AFP.

“You start to see the weaknesses on the battlefield…the fact that they weren’t able to occupy a city and hold on to it, that tells you something.”

Why announce publicly?

With Western aid pouring into Ukraine and economic sanctions raining down on Russia and its elites, Putin’s public statement could be an attempt to divide his enemies.

The Russian leader “is sort of a gambler and a risk taker,” Cohen said. “What he’s trying to do is mentally beef us all up.”

Khalfa agreed that “the psychological side of things is vital”, with Putin “wanting to dissuade the West from going further with economic sanctions”.

“Everyone is rallying behind the Ukrainian flag, and it has the will to drive a wedge between the (NATO) alliance governments and public opinion in Western countries,” he said. .

But Khalfa also recalled that “in the opinion of everyone who met Putin, he isolated himself, locked in a paranoid logic… his strategy is indecipherable”.

Abandon the Russian doctrine?

Putin’s nuclear threat is all the more puzzling because it departs from established Russian doctrine of nuclear deterrence.

In 2020, Putin approved “basic principles” with four cases where Moscow could use nuclear weapons.

It was when ballistic missiles were fired into Russian or allied territory, when an enemy used nuclear weapons, an attack on a Russian nuclear weapons site, or an attack threatening the existence of the Russian state.

None of these criteria have been met in the current conflict.

Moreover, Russia joined the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council in January to sign a document stating that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.

Putin’s latest verbal salvo shows “the ambiguity, even the hypocrisy, of this type of statement”, Finaud said.

“If we were to apply the doctrine (of the joint declaration), there would be a massive disarmament effort. While we see that relatively little has been done in this direction.”

For now, “there is still a very high risk of slippage or misinterpretation” or even deliberate manipulation that could trigger a nuclear exchange, he added.

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