President Vladimir Putin, who warned that Russia will use “all means at its disposal” to defend its territory. However, analysts suggest that Putin’s words should be seen as a cautionary warning to other countries to avoid escalating tensions in Ukraine, rather than a signal of Russia’s intention to use nuclear weapons.
Despite the presence of nuclear weapons for nearly 80 years, many nations still view them as a necessary means of ensuring national security. According to the Federation of American Scientists, Russia is estimated to have 5,977 nuclear warheads, including about 1,500 that have been retired and are awaiting dismantlement.
Of the remaining warheads, most are classified as strategic nuclear weapons, such as ballistic missiles or rockets, capable of targeting distant locations. These are typically the weapons that come to mind when thinking of nuclear war. Additionally, Russia has a smaller number of less powerful nuclear weapons for use in short-range scenarios, such as on battlefields or at sea.
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It is important to note that while Russia has thousands of nuclear warheads, only an estimated 1,500 of them are considered to be “deployed,” meaning they are stationed at missile and bomber bases or on submarines.
In comparison to other nations, nine countries possess nuclear weapons: China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Out of these nations, China, France, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom have signed and are party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). This treaty requires them to reduce their nuclear armaments and, in principle, work towards complete disarmament. The number of nuclear warheads in these countries has decreased since the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, India, Israel, and Pakistan never joined the NPT, with North Korea leaving in 2003. Israel is the only country among the nine that has not officially acknowledged its nuclear program, but it is widely believed that the country possesses nuclear warheads. Ukraine does not possess nuclear weapons, and there is no credible evidence to support claims made by President Putin that the country has attempted to acquire them.
Nuclear weapons are engineered to cause catastrophic damage.
The amount of destruction they cause is influenced by various factors, including the size of the warhead, the altitude at which it detonates, and the local environment. Even the smallest of these weapons is capable of causing extensive loss of life and long-term consequences. For example, the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II, which claimed up to 146,000 lives, was carried out using a 15-kiloton warhead. Today, nuclear warheads can be larger than 1,000 kilotons. In the event of a nuclear explosion, little is expected to remain intact in the immediate vicinity. A bright flash is followed by a massive fireball and a blast wave capable of flattening buildings and structures for several kilometers.
The concept of “nuclear deterrent” refers to the idea that the possession of nuclear weapons would prevent other nations from attacking you.
This concept is based on the premise that the ability to completely destroy one’s enemy would act as a deterrent to any hostile actions. This idea became famously known as “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD). Despite numerous nuclear tests and the ever-increasing technical sophistication and destructive power of these weapons, they have not been used in armed conflict since 1945.
In line with this philosophy, Russian policy regards nuclear weapons solely as a deterrent.
The Russian military lists four conditions under which they would consider using nuclear weapons:
• In the event of a ballistic missile attack on the territory of the Russian Federation or its allies.
• If nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction were used against the Russian Federation or its allies.
• If an attack on critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation jeopardizes its nuclear capability.
• In the event of aggression against the Russian Federation using conventional weapons, if the very existence of the state is at risk.
The prospect of utilizing nuclear weapons is highly improbable.
The threat of nuclear weapons has been a constant presence in this conflict since its inception, a calculated maneuver by Vladimir Putin. He has brought up the use of these weapons when he was facing challenges, such as after his initial plan to swiftly overthrow the Ukrainian government failed in February, and now again when Ukrainian forces have gained the upper hand.
Putin’s objective is to intimidate and deter his opponents with the ominous reminder of the destructive power of nuclear weapons, leading them to reconsider their level of aggression. Additionally, there is a domestic concern – the Russian population may feel anxious about the mobilization of troops and Putin’s claims that NATO poses a threat to Russia. Mentioning nuclear weapons serves to reassure the public that despite the current situation, the country remains capable of protecting itself.
According to Russian military doctrine, nuclear weapons will only be employed if the Russian state itself is under threat. Putin presented their use as a defensive measure in response to what he perceived as Western nuclear threats.