What Putin’s latest threats mean for the risk of nuclear war

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“In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a speech Wednesday. “This is not a bluff.”

When a nuclear-armed state says it’s willing to use “all weapon systems available to us,” it is impossible not to take the threat seriously. For everyone involved in the war in Ukraine — Russia, Ukraine, and the West — Putin, at least rhetorically, raised the stakes of the conflict he started.

But for Russia watchers and nuclear experts, Putin’s warning about protecting Russia’s “territorial integrity” also added a new degree of unpredictability. Russian-backed officials in four Ukrainian regions partially occupied by Russian troops will soon hold referenda on formally joining Russia. Western countries backing Ukraine have already said they won’t recognize these sham votes. The Russian army also does not have full control over any of these territories — Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson — but Moscow will almost certainly use these referenda as a pretext for formally annexing the territories. If that happens, as it’s expected to, some experts fear that Moscow will interpret any Ukrainian efforts to retake these lands as bringing the fight directly against Russia.

And so the question now is: what does Putin, exactly, consider a threat to Russia’s territorial integrity? And would he actually move to use nuclear weapons to defend it?

Only Putin, of course, knows the answers. But Vox reached out to Andrey Baklitskiy, senior researcher in weapons of mass destruction at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, to get a better sense of Russia’s military doctrine, where its nuclear arsenal fits in, and how Putin’s threats of territorial integrity may have broadened the circumstances of nuclear use.

As Baklitskiy pointed out, the threat of using nuclear weapons — not actually using them — may be the most powerful tool nuclear states have.

“Nuclear weapons have almost this mystical status; once they’re used, that’s the end of the world,” he said. But, he said, imagine if you do use one — like a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine — “and it doesn’t change any political calculus on the ground. What then? How much have you lost in that moment? All of a sudden, you’re not one of the countries who have this power to destroy worlds, and everybody has to bend before you. You’re just a country which has big bombs which can explode.”

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Jen Kirby

Can you explain what Russia’s nuclear doctrine has traditionally been?

Andrey Baklitskiy

Russia does not have a dedicated nuclear doctrine; unlike the United States, there is no document called “Russian Nuclear Doctrine.” There is a military doctrine, which is encompassing everything from land forces to maritime forces to what have you. Then there’s a couple of paragraphs on nuclear.

Those have been the main texts from which we get information about Russian nuclear doctrine. Those are not updated really often. The last time Russia issued a nuclear doctrine was in 2014, so almost a decade ago. Before that, it was 2010. Before that, it was 2000.

The latest iteration of Russian military doctrine — what it said about the nukes — it was diminishing, to some extent, the role of nukes in Russian military strategy. It didn’t change the condition for use. Those are three main issues generally: an attack against Russia, with WMD, or nuclear weapons, so Russia would retaliate; an attack against Russian treaty allies with nuclear or WMD; and then the third one is a conventional attack against Russia when the very existence of the state is under threat (if enemy tanks are rolling into Moscow, Russia might consider using nuclear weapons).

But also, it’s specifically stated that those are not ironclad. The final decision to use nuclear weapons lies with the president. Those are just conditions, maybe red lines, that Russia tells the world not to do if they don’t want to get nuked.

But in this 2014 military doctrine, for the first time, Russia also says they have nuclear deterrence, but also they are contemplating non-nuclear deterrence. That was against the backdrop of Russian conventional military getting stronger in 2014. After Ukraine, after Georgia, after Syria, Russia was getting more and more comfortable with saying, “Look, we don’t really need [nukes], only for extreme cases, but we can handle everything.”

Jen Kirby

Okay.

Andrey Baklitskiy

But in recent years, there has been some broadening of the conditions under which Russia might consider using nuclear weapons. Again, those are not new military doctrines, but for example, in 2020, Russia issued a Foundations of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Area of Nuclear Deterrence. This is not on nuclear use. It’s only on deterrence. This is specifically stated there.

But it deciphers a little bit what those conditions are. For example, it confirmed that the launch of ballistic missiles against Russian territory would be considered an attack, and by proxy, as a possible avenue to use nuclear weapons before [those missiles] hit Russia — before it will be confirmed that it was nuclear and not conventional. That was one. The second one was that if Russia is attacked with conventional weapons, and it will be targeting its command and control, its leadership, trying to take out Russia’s ability to use nuclear weapons, that will also be considered a possible nuclear use.

It was not introducing really new things — even during the Cold War, there was this understanding between the Soviet Union and United States that you don’t want to target each other’s leadership and command and control because it probably wouldn’t end well. It wasn’t said out loud, but it was generally the understanding. But still, you see that some things other than nuclear attack, or tanks in Moscow, were starting to be said out loud.

Jen Kirby

It sounds like Russia’s nuclear doctrine is a bit amorphous: it adjusts and changes, and isn’t necessarily written down in stone, at least for the past 20 years or so?

Andrey Baklitskiy

Every country’s nuclear doctrine is amorphous to a certain extent. You don’t want your doctrine to be super clear and say: “Here are only those conditions under which we will use our nuclear weapons.” Because if you said that, it would mean that anything else can be done, and that’s fine. There’s always wiggle room in US nuclear doctrine, in other countries’ nuclear doctrines.

Russia, in that sense, was actually quite clear — I would say, even more clear than the United States. There are these tendencies because nuclear doctrine is not a binding document on the country. Nuclear doctrine is mainly what you channel to the world to say: “Hey, don’t do this, or we’ll nuke you.”

Jen Kirby

Gotcha. And then Vladimir Putin gave this speech on Wednesday.

Andrey Baklitskiy

President Putin, in his speech, said that the territorial integrity of Russia would also be protected by nuclear weapons. You can say that the comment still maybe falls under [the condition that] the very existence of the state is under threat — that if you are losing your territorial integrity, that your state is under threat. You can kind of shoehorn it into that part of the doctrine.

But we see that it’s getting broader and broader. It’s not only if something unimaginable happens — because it’s really hard to imagine a nuclear strike out of the blue against Russia, or NATO tanks or any other tanks rolling into Moscow. There’s very few scenarios in the world in which that could happen, and for that reason, nuclear weapons were mostly something you would never use, right? They are protecting you from non-existing threats, and they are themselves becoming nonexistent to a certain extent.

But can some part of Russia — or some part of territory which Russia believes itself to be — be taken from it? Well, yes. Those things are getting closer and closer to something which could actually happen in real life. That’s a new beat, I would say.

Jen Kirby

And it sounds like Putin wasn’t exactly clear what that “territorial integrity” element meant?

Andrey Baklitskiy

There are currently quote-unquote “referenda” being held in four regions [Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia] of Ukraine, with the goal to join them to Russia, and his speech presentation was very open that if those referenda go along, Russia will consider them and will let [those regions] into Russia. That would mean the borders of Russia would change, at least according to Russia, which would raise the question: are those new territories covered with nuclear protection? There was nothing in his speech that would suggest otherwise; he didn’t say, “Citizens of Russia, be sure our territorial integrity would be protected by nuclear weapons, except for those new territories which might be joining in a week.”

This actually puts everybody in a very uncomfortable position, Russia included. Because even President Putin, in his speech, was mentioning that some NATO countries are threatening Russia with nuclear weapons, and Russia is ready to retaliate. All of these things about territorial integrity, they’re sandwiched between his claims that if NATO or if anybody comes with nuclear weapons and tries to threaten [Russia], we have something to respond. The only real possibility to a threat of Russian territorial integrity would be ongoing conflict with Ukraine.

That raises a lot of questions. Because in most cases, nuclear weapons generally are [threatened] against nuclear-weapon states. You don’t have to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states. That’s not their main purpose. It’s hard to see how a non-nuclear state can do something to you which would require you using nuclear weapons.

If this is a message to a non-nuclear weapon state, then it’s unusual. And if that’s something that Russia is willing to put out, and to say that’s how we plan using our nuclear forces, would Russia have to come through with those statements to say territorial integrity is always protected by its nuclear weapons? Putin himself said, “This is not a bluff.” How would that work out? That’s not so clear.

Jen Kirby

Putin has attached the question of territorial integrity to the nuclear conversation in a way that he hasn’t before. Then you have these sham referenda in these four territories. The big question really is: What happens if Ukraine, with Western weapons, attacks or continues its counteroffensive, in these areas?

Andrey Baklitskiy

That would be my biggest concern in all of this.

We’ve seen shelling of territories, which Russia controls, or considers part of its territory, or has always been parts of its territory, in Kursk, in Belgorod, in Crimea. Ukraine has been launching attacks on Russian territory. But before that, there was no way to connect this to any use of nuclear weapons because there was clearly no threat to the existence of the state from some village in Belgorod being shelled.

Now, if you say the territorial integrity of Russia, [is threatened], if Russia doesn’t respond, what does that mean for other Russian statements? Frankly, I’m not sure why you would want to go there and put yourself in that position.

Jen Kirby

You said earlier that [countries] don’t normally threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, Ukraine obviously being one of them. I wonder why you interpret the nuclear threat specifically toward Ukraine, and not necessarily to NATO, or the West?

Andrey Baklitskiy

There were no names called in the speech. Even when President Putin said some Western officials are threatening Russia with nuclear weapons, I’m not sure what exactly he was referring to. And again, Ukraine was also not named in this nuclear part.

The whole focus was that “we are almost fighting with NATO, and so those NATO countries must know that if they tried to use nuclear weapons, we have our own.” However, as I said, the most realistic scenario under which Russian territorial integrity would be under threat or under which the borders of the Russian Federation — as the Russian Federation sees them — would be [threatened is] the condition when Russia accepts those four regions of Ukraine, if that happens.

But, at this very moment, if Russia believes that those regions are part of Russia, Ukrainian forces would be, in fact, according to Russia, occupying Russian territory. Would that prompt nuclear use? Not necessarily. Has Russia just said that it could consider nuclear use conditions? Yes, it did.

Jen Kirby

I know you can’t get inside Putin’s head, but Ukraine needs Western support and Western weapons to defend itself and reclaim territory. If you’re a NATO official, would those links to Ukraine — I’m specifically thinking weapons here — be a source of concern?

Andrey Baklitskiy

We obviously don’t know. We only had nuclear use twice in 1945, against a country which didn’t have nuclear weapons, by the way. But it’s a tricky question. Every time you consider using nuclear weapons, you have to also consider the response from the country which you attacked.

So Fred Kaplan, in his book [The Bomb], was detailing one of the tabletop exercises the Obama administration was holding. In the tabletop exercises, Russia used its tactical nuclear weapons against a NATO installation. So I think it was the Principals Committee who had to come up with a response: NATO was attacked with nuclear weapons, what do you do? But if you attack mainland Russia, Russia would probably respond in kind. In that scenario, they decided to nuke Belarus, even though Belarus had nothing to do with this. But you had to send a message, and you also didn’t want to escalate it where there would be a full-out nuclear exchange.

When you think of nuclear employment, especially if you’re doing it first, and especially if you don’t plan an all-out [attack], you probably don’t want to use it against someone who can retaliate. I don’t even know that you would want to use it against populated areas. I mean, this is all like crazy, right? We’ve been discussing using weapons which haven’t been used in more than 70 years with destructive capabilities—

Jen Kirby

This is total conjecture, for sure!

Andrey Baklitskiy

You’re going down all the possible rabbit holes here.

But use of nuclear weapons under pretty much any conditions, I would say, would be a political decision. It wouldn’t be a military decision to achieve specific military goals. You want to make a point with them. In that sense, you might not even want to kill anybody, you might just want to have a demonstration, you might want to detonate them over uninhabited territory, just to show your resolve and then make your demands. In that sense, starting any nuclear exchange with nuclear weapon states, I don’t think that’s the first thing which would come to mind to anybody planning that.

Jen Kirby

Since we’re down the rabbit hole, maybe stay there for a second. I feel like people throw out things like, “Oh, Putin will use a tactical nuke” or something like that — but I’m wondering, what does a nuclear strike even look like in 2022?

Andrey Baklitskiy

I’m not sure. I’m not a military planner. There’s been a lot of discussion because this topic has been raised since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. There have been a lot of people saying, “Well, you can detonate something over the Black Sea, or over Snake Island or somewhere you don’t hurt people,” but you show your resolve and say, “Hey, you have to lay down [arms], otherwise, the next strike would be over something more important to you.”

Nuclear weapons are not magic. They are a very, very destructive force, which also leave territory contaminated. This is all really, really bad. But they’re not magical. At the end of the day, they produce a certain psychological or certain military effect, but then it’s anybody’s guess how this all will continue.

Part of the strength of nuclear weapons is this fear. For the last 70-plus years, we’ve been living under the nuclear shadows. Nuclear weapons have almost this mystical status, like once they’re used, that’s the end of the world.

Imagine if you use them — as you said, a tactical nuclear weapon — and that’s not very impressive, and it doesn’t change any political calculus on the ground. What then? How much have you lost in that moment? All of a sudden, you’re not one of the countries who have this power to destroy worlds, and everybody has to bend before you. You’re just a country which has big bombs which can explode. How is changing every single thought about this world and how politics and international relations works, if it’s not the end of the world? If you can just use them and maybe they’re not giving you the result you want?

Again, this is all very speculative, but I think nuclear weapons give much more power to the governments which have them because they’re not used.

Jen Kirby

Okay, I’m basically trying to gauge your barometer on the likelihood of nuclear war? How do you feel today versus before Putin’s speech?

Andrey Baklitskiy

The threat of nuclear war is still incredibly low. There is a reason why we haven’t used them since 1945. I listed some of the reasons, one being if you use them, and maybe it’s not really good for you. But there are others. There is fear of escalation. There is fear of backlash. Environmental concerns — all of this is on Russia’s doorstep, so do you want that? What would other countries around the world think about it? It’s hard to construct a narrative of using your nuclear weapons first, and then somehow say it was a great thing to do.

I feel bad every time people start talking about nuclear weapons in any way, close to anything about actual use. For a person who studies them and who’s seen the videos of tests and read about the effects — this is so crazy, this is so irrational. Any talk about use which goes opposite the direction of putting them in the closet and locking them up and trying to get rid of them — any hint, any thought about using them is bad. And I still don’t think we are very close to any of this.

Jen KIrby

That makes me feel better. But what makes me feel worse is that maybe this depends on one guy — Putin — also agreeing with you.

Andrey Baklitskiy

That’s the nature of our reality. We created those weapons to be the weapons of last resort and we thought that when the last resort comes, you don’t have time to consult with anybody, so we give this power to one person in the country. Then, basically, we just hope that those people are sane, and they don’t want to go suicidal and take the world with them. That’s why every time President Trump said something, everybody’s like “Oh my God, why do we have this system? It’s crazy.”

Every time we are reminded that we can get our civilization destroyed if one of the nine people in the world, just don’t like it — that’s a very uncomfortable thought, right? But then again, that’s what we’ve been trying to do for the last 70-plus years; survive despite the fact that we can destroy ourselves. There has been a lot of stuff done: there are treaties, there are agreements, there are understandings, there are protocols or procedures, and we make the best out of it. And we’re still alive, and we still haven’t used them. The norm stays of non-use. Every day, it gets longer and longer and longer.





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