Will Putin actually use nuclear weapons? Here's what you need to know 1 year ago

Will Putin actually use nuclear weapons? Here's what you need to know

"I’m more worried than I was a week ago," one expert said.

Vladimir Putin on Sunday ratcheted up concerns around Russia's invasion of Ukraine by ordering the country's nuclear forces to a "special regime of combat duty".


The president's announcement came just five days after he launched a multi-pronged attack, and as commentators suggested it wasn't going to plan with Ukrainians putting up considerable resistance.

So, how worried do we need to be about Putin's nuclear threat?

What did Putin actually say, and what's behind the announcement?

Putin ordered Russia's military to put its deterrence forces on "special alert".


These deterrence forces include nuclear weapons.

He said this was because of "aggressive statements" by NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) countries, as well as the west increasing severe sanctions against Russia and him personally.

The Kremlin said Putin's decision came after comments made specifically by UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss amongst others. On Sunday, Truss said if Russia was not stopped, other states may be threatened and it could end in conflict with NATO.


In a televised address, Putin said: "As you can see, not only do Western countries take unfriendly measures against our country in the economic dimension - I mean the illegal sanctions that everyone knows about very well.

"But also the top officials of leading NATO countries allow themselves to make aggressive statements with regards to our country."

The escalation came after an earlier threat last week in which Putin warned anyone who tries to "hinder us" would see consequences “you have never seen in your history".


What's the response been?

The US called Putin's move a "totally unacceptable" escalation, The Guardian reported, and NATO's secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, described it to CNN as “dangerous rhetoric", adding: "This is behaviour which is irresponsible.”

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said Putin's decision to put Russia's nuclear forces on high alert is an attempt to distract people from "what's going on in Ukraine".


Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Wallace said the Russian president was engaged in a "battle of rhetoric" by trying to "remind the world" he had a deterrent.

Beijing, which has nurtured close ties with Moscow, has refused to condemn Russia and state media in China have taken a pro-Russian viewpoint in its coverage of the conflict.

How worried should we be?

A senior US defense official told the FT Putin's move is "potentially putting at play forces that, if there’s a miscalculation, could make things much, much more dangerous".

Caitlin Talmadge, a nuclear policy expert at Georgetown University, said: "There’s a real possibility Putin could turn to nuclear weapons if he continues to experience military setbacks and sees the diplomatic and political situation crumbling."

“The entire picture to him looks pretty bleak. If he wanted to use tactical nuclear weapons to achieve [his aims] in Ukraine, he could do that," she added.

Experts who spoke to Vox when Russia first invaded Ukraine said a nuclear strike was unlikely but still a cause for concern during what is the largest military operation in Europe since WW2.

But since Sunday's announcement, some have changed their minds, like Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. He told Vox: "I’m more worried than I was a week ago."

“Putin has now taken yet another step that unnecessarily escalates the situation to what appears to be a direct nuclear threat," he said.

Paul Hare, senior lecturer in global studies at Boston University, told Vox that Putin's goal is to "swallow Ukraine" and restore the historical power of imperial Russia, "not bring the world to nuclear war".

However, he added: “We do of course hope that Putin is still a rational actor.”

Has Putin used nuclear weapons before?

While any talk of nuclear weapons is cause for concern, it is worth remembering Putin has never used them. In fact, the only time in history that they've been used in combat is when the US used them against Japan in August 1945. The Soviet Union did, however, successfully test its first bomb in 1949.

But Putin still has plenty of atrocities to answer for, such as annexing Crimea, starting a war in the Donbas, and now, invading Ukraine.

On 4 February 2000, while Putin was serving as Russia's acting president, Russian forces devastated the village of Katyr Yurt in the Chechen-Russian conflict despite it being a safe zone for refugees. It is considered one of the most savage atrocities since WW2. Putin even bombed buses brought in to ship civilians out.

Local witnesses told The Guardian they counted at least 363 corpses of people from the village - piled two or three high in the street before Russian troops dumped them in a mass grave.

Putin consistently denied human rights abuses in Chechnya and the following month he was voted the official president of Russia.

What weapons is Putin already using in Ukraine?

Russian troops are already using some of their most devastating weapons in Ukraine.

Footage captured by CNN reporters showed a TOS-1 heavy flamethrower being transported to the Ukrainian border on Saturday.

It is one of the most feared weapons systems in Russia's conventional armoury and fires thermobaric rockets by using surrounding oxygen to create high-temperature explosions.

Russian forces have already used the BM-21 “Grad” multiple launch rocket system during the invasion. These have 40 launching tubes for 122mm rockets.

Terrifying footage which circulated social media last week showed missiles raining down on Ukrainian cities - with one appearing to crash into a Ukrainian airport which then burst into flames.

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, told The Guardian that the Russian military has shown a "blatant disregard for civilian lives by using ballistic missiles and other explosive weapons with wide-area effects in densely populated areas".

Russia's use of weapons such as the T-72 tank, BMP3 armed fighting vehicles, Mi8 and Ka-52 helicopters in Ukraine is considered conventional.

Kalibrs, which can travel over 1,500 miles before impact and can be fired from ships, aircraft, and submarines, have also reportedly been used.

What kind of arsenal has Putin got?

As of early this year, Russia has approximately 5,977 nuclear warheads in its arsenal, according to the Federation of American Scientists. Around 1,500 of these are retired (but still largely intact) warheads that are waiting to be dismantled.

Russia has not signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The UK has just 225. Ukraine was persuaded to give up its nuclear warheads after the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, after the US, Russia, and Britain said they would refrain from attacking the nation. The US has the second most nuclear warheads, with 5,550. Combined, the two countries, have 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads.