Will Putin push the nuclear button? Threat is real but difficult, analysts say

ASSOCIATED PRESS – The president of Russia, Vladimir Putinwill pull the nuclear trigger? For Kremlin pundits trying to figure out if the Russian leader’s nuclear threats are just bluffsthere is no question more urgent – or difficult.

For a while, most cautiously suggest that the risk of Putin using the world’s largest nuclear arsenal still seems low.. The CIA says it has seen no signs of an imminent Russian nuclear strike.

Still, his promises to use “all means at his disposal” to defend Russia as he fights war in ukraine are being taken very seriously. And your statement on Friday that the United States “set a precedent” by dropping atomic bombs on 2nd War further increased the nuclear stakes.

File photo taken from a video provided by the Russian Ministry of Defense Press Service on February 19, 2022 shows a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile being launched from an airfield during military exercises.
File photo taken from a video provided by the Russian Ministry of Defense Press Service on February 19, 2022 shows a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile being launched from an airfield during military exercises. Photograph: Russian Defense Ministry via AP

THE White House warned of ‘catastrophic consequences for Russia’ if Putin uses nuclear weapons. But whether that will be in Putin’s hands is anyone’s guess.

Kremlin observers acknowledge that it is impossible to have any clues as to what he is thinking or even if he is rational and well-informed enough.

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The former agent of KGB demonstrated an appetite for risk and arrogance unusual for someone in his position. It is difficult, even for Western intelligence agencies with spy satellites, to say whether Putin is bluffing or really intends to break the nuclear taboo.

“We don’t see any practical evidence today in the US intelligence community that it is approaching actual use, that there is an imminent threat of using tactical nuclear weapons,” CIA Director William Burns told CBS News.

“What we have to do is take this very seriously, watch for signs of real preparations,” Burns said.

Kremlin observers are dubious in part because they don’t see how nuclear force could do much to help reverse Russia’s military losses in Ukraine.

Ukrainian troops are not using large concentrations of tanks to regain ground, and combat sometimes takes place in places as small as villages. So what could Russian nuclear forces aim for to achieve victory?

“Nuclear weapons are not a magic wand,” said Andrei Baklitski, a senior researcher at the UN Disarmament Research Institute who specializes in nuclear risk. “They’re not something you just use and solve all your military problems.”

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Analysts hope taboo surrounding nuclear weapons will put a brake on Putin. The horrific scale of human suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the United States destroyed Japanese cities with atomic bombs on August 6 and 9, 1945, was a powerful argument against the repeated use of such weapons. The attacks killed 210,000 people.

Since then, no country has used a nuclear weapon. Analysts assume that even Putin may find it difficult to become the first world leader since US President Harry Truman to drop a nuclear bomb on an adversary.

“It’s still taboo in Russia to cross that line,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation, an American think tank, and a former analyst of Russian military capabilities at the US Department of Defense.

“Taking this step would be one of the biggest decisions in Earth’s history,” Baklitskii said. The backlash could turn Putin into a global pariah.

“Breaking the nuclear taboo would, at the very least, impose complete diplomatic and economic isolation on Russia,” said Sidharth Kaushal, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London who specializes in defense and security.

Long-range nuclear weapons that Russia could use in direct conflict with the United States are in readiness for use. But its stockpiles of shorter-range warheads — the so-called tactical weapons Putin may be tempted to use in Ukraine — are not, analysts say.

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“All these weapons are in storage,” said Pavel Podvig, another senior researcher specializing in nuclear weapons at a UN disarmament study center in Geneva. “You have to get them out of the bunker, load them onto trucks, and then pair them up with missiles or other launch systems,” he said. “This takes a few days, and none of this has happened so far.”

Russia has not released a complete inventory of its tactical nuclear weapons and capabilities. Putin could order a smaller amount to be prepared several times for surprise use.

But openly removing the weapons from its stockpile is also a tactic Putin could employ to increase pressure without using them. He would hope that US satellites would detect the activity, and he would hope that showing his nuclear teeth could scare Western powers into reducing support for Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks through binoculars with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu nearby during the joint strategic exercise of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus Zapad-2021 at the Mulino training camp in Nizhny Novgorod region, Russia , on September 13, 2021
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks through binoculars with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu nearby during the joint strategic exercise of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus Zapad-2021 at the Mulino training camp in Nizhny Novgorod region, Russia , on September 13, 2021 Photograph: Sergei Savostyanov/Sputnik/Kremlin via AP

“That’s exactly what the Russians would be betting on, that each escalation provides the other side with a real threat, but also an outlet to negotiate with Russia,” Kaushal said.

He added: “There’s a kind of grammar to nuclear signaling and intelligence, and a logic to it that’s more than just, you know, a madman one day decides to go ahead with this sort of thing and push a button.”

Analysts also expect further escalations before an actual nuclear launch, including Russian attacks on Ukraine using non-nuclear weapons.

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“I don’t think there will be a nuclear lightning strike out of nowhere,” said Nikolai Sokov, who participated in arms control negotiations when he worked for the Russian Foreign Ministry and is now at the Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation in Vienna.

Analysts are also struggling to identify targets on the battlefield that would be worth the enormous price Putin would pay. If a nuclear strike didn’t stop Ukrainian advances, would it strike again and again?

Podvig noted that the war does not target “large concentrations of troops”. Attacking cities, hoping to shock Ukraine with surrender, would be a terrible alternative.

“The decision to kill tens and hundreds of thousands of people in cold blood is a difficult one to make and to justify,” he said.

Putin may be hoping that threats alone will reduce Western arms supplies to Ukraine and buy time to train the additional 300,000 soldiers he is mobilizing, sparking protests and an exodus of service-age men.

But if Ukraine continues to reverse the invasion, and Putin finds himself unable to secure the territory he has seized, analysts fear a growing risk that he will decide his non-nuclear options are running out.

“Putin is really blowing up a lot of bridges behind him right now, with mobilization, annexing new territory,” said Dara Massicot, senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation.

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“This suggests he’s betting everything on winning on his terms,” ​​she added. “I’m very concerned about where this takes us – and it could include, in the end, a kind of nuclear decision.”

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