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War in Ukraine: Can Putin really press the nuclear button?


In a blinding light, a gigantic mushroom rises above Serpents’ Island, a Ukrainian rock located in the Black Sea, about fifty kilometers off the Danube delta. Determined to reverse the course of the war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has just broken a historical taboo by detonating an atomic bomb. For the United States, an unacceptable limit has just been crossed. Its president, Joe Biden, gives the green light to a muscular response: a rain of missiles destroys the troops responsible for the attack.

This nightmarish unfolding is for the time being fiction. But Washington is working on it with the utmost seriousness, even sketching out, at the end of September, in the New York Times, this possible riposte to respond to a Russian nuclear explosion. Because more than seven months after the invasion of Ukraine, nothing seems to stop Vladimir Putin’s headlong rush. After the debacle of his troops in the Kharkiv region, the Russian president responded with a “partial” mobilization of hundreds of thousands of men. On September 30, he signed the attachment of four Ukrainian regions, following puppet referendums condemned by most of the international community.

This annexation – illegal – raises the threat a notch. The former KGB officer said he was ready to use “all means” to protect Russia and its people. Will he dare to use nuclear weapons to prevent kyiv from regaining control of its lost territories? To dissuade him, the United States multiplied the warnings, behind the scenes, “at high level”, revealed the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. “It is very important that Moscow hears us and knows that the consequences would be horrible”, hammered the head of the American diplomacy, Antony Blinken. Unheard of since the Cold War.

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Several options on the table

“The risk of nuclear escalation between Russia and the West has not been so high for several decades”, summarizes Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, based in Washington. Experts fear in particular the use of short-range nuclear weapons, known as tactics, whose power could be comparable to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. “A single strike would cause considerable damage within a radius of several kilometers around the impact”, specifies Jean-Louis Lozier, former head of the nuclear forces division of the French general staff and adviser to the French Institute of relations international (Ifri).

Putin has several options. The first is to target the Ukrainian army. “But the Ukrainian theater of operations extends over an extremely vast area; obtaining real tactical effectiveness on the battlefield would require several strikes”, continues Jean-Louis Lozier. This would not be without risks for Moscow, whose troops could be exposed to dangerous radioactive fallout, as could the civilian populations living near the Ukrainian border. In addition, this would drastically reduce the economic interest of the affected areas, whose homes and factories would be destroyed, and agricultural land contaminated for many years.

Another possibility: “a demonstration strike over the Black Sea”, indicates Rose Gottemoeller, former NATO Deputy Secretary General. This would allow Moscow to limit collateral damage, while sending a powerful signal aimed at bending Ukraine and intimidating Westerners. However, there is no guarantee of such a decline. “It is difficult to imagine that nuclear strikes will allow Russia to break Ukraine’s will to resist,” warned the head of the Ukrainian armed forces, Valeri Zaluzhny.

Incalculable consequences

Conversely, the consequences could be catastrophic for Russia. “Such an action would not go unanswered by the United States and its allies, believes Jean-Louis Lozier. Western strikes would be very likely on Russian military forces or installations, in Ukraine, or even directly in Russia. ” These would probably not be nuclear, to limit the risk of an uncontrollable escalation, but they could undermine an already tottering Russian army.

A Russian tank on fire in the Izium region (eastern Ukraine) on September 14, 2022

A Russian tank on fire in the Izium region (eastern Ukraine) on September 14, 2022

afp.com/Juan BARRETO

Above all, by breaking the atomic taboo, seventy-seven years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Moscow would alienate all the countries that have remained neutral since the invasion of Ukraine, becoming a real pariah. “Even Russia’s friends would find it hard to understand that a nuclear weapon could be used in these circumstances, confirms Yohann Michel, researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). And in particular China and India, which have no interest in a collapse of Russia. However, it cannot alienate the two Asian giants who buy its hydrocarbons from it.

A nuclear strike on Ukraine could also weaken the head of the Kremlin politically. “Many people gravitating around Putin would seriously question his judgments, advance Daryl G. Kimball. Which, ultimately, could increase the probability of a coup d’etat.” For the moment, the United States and NATO have not observed any movement in this area: the nuclear warheads, stored in secure bunkers, do not seem to have been loaded onto medium-range missiles to make them weapons. out-of-the-box tactics.

What Russian nuclear doctrine?

Officially, Russia has not drawn a line under the respect of its nuclear commitments: on August 1, Vladimir Putin affirmed that there “can be no winner in a nuclear war” and that it “must never be triggered”. “Russia continues to apply the New Start Treaty [de réduction des armes stratégiques, NDLR] and tries to resume the joint inspections stopped by the Covid-19 epidemic”, notes Rose Gottemoeller, negotiator of the agreement, American side.

Nor would the Russians have reviewed their doctrine on the triggering of atomic weapons. “We do not see a lowering of the threshold for the use of a nuclear strike in the strategic signals emitted by Moscow, notes Benjamin Hautecouverture, researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS). The Russians are planning a nuclear response in the event of a existential threat to their country. But they have never asserted that a direct attack on territory they consider Russian, such as annexed areas, amounts to an existential threat.” The bombardments carried out by kyiv on Crimea, annexed in 2014, and in particular the destruction of an air base, did not trigger nuclear reprisals. All of this is true…until today.

“Who knows what may be going on in his head with the Russian president?, continues this expert. It is not known, for example, whether he could consider a retreat of his troops in the annexed regions as an attack on the vital interests of Russia, or he confuses his personal interest with that of the Russian state.” As we ignore the room for maneuver of a Russian president whose credibility has been damaged by his military rout, and whose option, until now, has always been to headlong. So many questions that can feed the fear of a nuclear one-upmanship.


Clement Daniez and Paul Véronique


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