U.S. officials, experts aren't clear on what's going on with Putin and his vague nuclear threats

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sunday he has ordered his top military officials to put "the Russian Army deterrence force on special combat readiness," a command generally understood to put Russia's nuclear arsenal on higher alert to warn the West to stay out of its Ukraine war. The Biden administration criticized the announcement as needlessly and unacceptably "escalatory" but did not announce any nuclear escalation of its own.

Still, nobody seems quite sure what Putin meant or hopes to accomplish with this move.

"We've never heard announcements like that before," Pavel Podvig at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research told Defense One. "I don't have absolute certainty what it means. My best guess is that he was referring to the way the command-and-control systems operate." Whatever he meant, "a deficit of rational thinking in certain quarters" raises the risk of an inadvertent nuclear war, Podvig told the Financial Times. "People said invading Ukraine was crazy and irresponsible — this is an order of magnitude higher."

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Current and former U.S. officials raised similar concerns. Putin has "gone off the rails" and it's "very worrisome," former Defense Secretary Bob Gates told CNN on Sunday. "This behavior is different than he has been in the past."

James Acton at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Defense One he isn't sure Putin "knows exactly what he wants us to do in his own mind, and that's kind of concerning for me." He suggested "we have to try and find a face-saving way for Putin to extricate himself from this crisis."

Russian state TV interpreted Putin's comments as a threat. "Our submarines alone can launch more than 500 nuclear warheads, which guarantees the destruction of the U.S. and NATO for good measure," one host said Sunday, BBC News notes. "The principle is: Why do we need the world if Russia won't be in it?"

The U.S. is refraining from escalating the nuclear saber-rattling, "but the longer-term U.S. response will almost certainly depend on what the Russian nuclear forces do in the next several days, as the commanders of the Russian strategic forces try to demonstrate that they are responding to Mr. Putin's vaguely worded order," The New York Times reports. "A vast nuclear-detection apparatus run by the United States and its allies monitors Russia's nuclear forces at all times," and "a deviation from usual practice would almost certainly be noticeable."

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.