Is Vladimir Putin preparing to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine?

Russian president puts atomic deterrence on standby ahead of talks with Kyiv

Vladimir Putin meets with his defence minister and chief of the general staff in Moscow
Vladimir Putin meets with his defence minister and chief of the general staff in Moscow
(Image credit: Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin has ordered Russia’s military to put its nuclear deterrence forces on “high alert”, ramping up fears that he could be prepared to deploy weapons of mass destruction in an effort to bring the war in Ukraine to a swift end.

With the Kremlin facing “dogged” Ukrainian resistance and an “increasingly aggressive Western response” to its invasion, The Telegraph said that the move to ready atomic weapons could be an attempt to “avoid the humiliation” of withdrawing his troops without toppling President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government in Kyiv.

The announcement does not mean that he is intending to use the weapons, but rather that they are put “into a special mode of combat service”, Putin said yesterday. The move is being made in response to the West’s “unfriendly steps”, he added.

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Extreme measures

Russia has more than 1,500 warheads deployed and almost 3,000 in reserve, according to an assessment published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Friday.

The Kremlin has also “invested in a variety of ways to employ those warheads”, The Wall Street Journal said, “including land-based ballistic missiles that could reach the US, submarine-based missiles, and bombs and missiles that could be deployed from aircraft”.

Four days after Putin launched a three-pronged attack on Ukraine, “Russia’s advance has become bogged down and its troops repelled after fierce fighting in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and in Kharkiv, its second city”, The Telegraph reported.

Military analysts yesterday claimed that Russia had suffered its “worst day” since the outbreak of fighting, the paper added. Moscow “admitted for the first time on Sunday that it had suffered casualties but insisted Ukraine’s claims of 4,300 soldiers killed was inaccurate”.

As it becomes clear that “Putin’s assault on Ukraine has failed to yield the quick victories he had anticipated”, nations around the world have also moved to impose “unprecedented new measures” against Russia’s economy, The Guardian reported.

These sanctions have become “a form of economic war”, said the BBC’s economics editor Faisal Islam, and are “designed to push the whole of Russia in to as deep a recession as possible, with the added chaos of bank runs”.

He continued: “These measures make the rouble a one-way downward bet in today’s currency markets. The exclusion of the top Russian domestic retail banks from the Swift messaging system at the same time creates some domestic uncertainty.”

Announcing that Russia’s nuclear deterrent was being put on “high alert”, Putin described the measures taken against the country as “illegitimate sanctions”.

In a televised broadcast from the Kremlin, he said: “I order the defence minister and the chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces to put the deterrence forces of the Russian army into a special mode of combat service.

“You see that Western countries are not only unfriendly to our country in the economic sphere – I mean illegitimate sanctions,” he added. “Senior officials of leading Nato countries also allow aggressive statements against our country.”

Mass destruction

The invasion of Ukraine has already “left hundreds dead”, The Guardian said. “Russia has launched missile strikes against buildings in Kyiv, Kharkiv and other major Ukrainian cities” and is threatening “an all-out assault not seen since the Second World War”.

Peace negotiations are to be held at the border of Ukraine and Belarus, with a statement posted by Zelenskyy on the Telegram messaging app stating that “diplomats would meet without preconditions at an unspecified location”, The Independent reported.

But Putin’s atomic intervention has “raised the abhorrent spectre of a nuclear option”, said Sky News’ security and defence editor Deborah Haynes.

“Nuclear weapons are designed to pose the ultimate deterrence,” she continued, the thinking being that “a state would never use them against another nuclear power or its allies because it would mean mutually assured destruction as they would fire back”.

If Ukraine “does not back down”, Putin “could in theory launch a limited – in relative terms – nuclear strike to inflict such punishing damage as to force a victory”. But launching atomic weapons may be “a sign of desperation”.

The “invasion is not going to plan” and the Russian military appears “to be incurring significant losses”, she added. But Putin “cannot afford to fail or else he knows his time in power will almost certainly be over, leaving a legacy of humiliation and defeat”.

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