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Ukraine Invasion: Can Russia’s Putin actually use nuclear bomb?

Can Russia’s President Vladimir Putin use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war? The threat looks serious after Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear force to be in a state of readiness citing the West’s reaction over the invasion of Ukraine.

But Putin essentially answered this nuclear bomb question almost four years ago. Back then, Putin told a documentary maker, “If someone decides to destroy Russia, we have the legal right to respond. Yes, it will be a catastrophe for humanity and for the world. But I am a citizen of Russia and its head of state. Why do we need a world without Russia in it?”

This was March 2018. March 2022 may see how this threat pans out in the middle of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Words used in his directive to Russia’s defence minister and military chiefs have an uncanny similarity with his order to invade Ukraine on February 24. Putin branded the Ukraine invasion as a “special military operation” for bringing order to that country.

Now, Putin has asked his nuclear force to be on a “special regime of combat duty”. The use of the word “special” in his directives to defence staff is getting serious international attention. This has heightened the worry of the West that he might actually launch a nuclear weapon.

WHY?

Putin for long has viewed the Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) expansion in East Europe as a threat to Russia. He has justified his Ukraine invasion as retaliation against the West, whom he accused of breaking promises to maintain arms balance in Russia’s neighbourhood.

Putin pinned the blame for his directive to Russia’s deterrent force unit on the “aggressive statements” by the West, which condemned his Ukraine invasion and imposed a flurry of sanctions, including a ban on the use of European airspace by Russian aircraft.

Among measures used by the West to force Putin to stop his Russian operation in Ukraine are assets freezing of major Russian banks and influential people in Putin’s inner circle, financing of weapons for Ukraine and blackout of Russian state media outlets Sputnik and Russia Today from European Union territory.

Though Putin’s directive does not mean Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons, the US called Putin’s threat an “unacceptable escalation”.

HOW SERIOUS IS THE NUKE THREAT?

Announcing his Ukraine invasion, Putin warned the West saying whoever tried to come in Russia’s way in Ukraine would see consequences “you have never seen in your history”.

His reference to “never seen in history” was taken as a hint about nuclear weapons but was not interpreted with much seriousness. After all, there is an unsaid rule that nuclear weapons can’t be used against a non-nuclear-weapon country or if it is not used by the other side. This principle has held good for more than 75 years.

Unlike many other leaders, with the possible exception of Kim Jong-un of North Korea, Putin does not dissociate himself from nuclear warheads. In 2005, he was pictured watching the launch of a nuclear missile cruiser.

Analysts say a nuclear-power cruise missile is an “outrageous idea” that the US considered and rejected. But Putin in 2018 announced Russia is testing such a missile.

WHERE MAY PUTIN DROP A NUCLEAR BOMB?

One thing is becoming clear that it is not Russia’s but President Vladimir Putin’s war that the Russian military is fighting in Ukraine. Putin, not the Russian government, it seems, will decide if, when and where to use a nuclear weapon.
And Putin has made it clear that nuclear weapons are no longer just a theoretical proposition. Theories are being floated by defence analysts saying that Putin might not use a nuclear weapon in an inhabited region. Putin’s nuclear target could be “somewhere in the North Sea” possibly between Denmark and the UK.

Russia does not have a directing opening to the North Sea but is capable of using a vehicle or missile to drop a nuclear bomb there. Defence analysts have been quoted as saying that Putin’s war in Ukraine has not gone according to his plan and he is “left with little option” but to show his nuclear fangs.

DOES UKRAINE HAVE NUKE POWER?

This is one of the laments of Ukraine, where a lawmaker said while his country gave up all nuclear weapons, it was being attacked by a nuclear power. When the Soviet Union collapsed, three successor countries got nuclear weapons Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine in 1991.

At that time, Ukraine was estimated to have 1900 nuclear warheads, 176 inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM), and 44 strategic bombers. Through a series of agreements, Ukraine by 1994 agreed to give up its nuclear arsenal to Russia for destruction.

By 1996, Ukraine shifted all its nuclear weapons to Russia. In 2001, it destroyed its last nuclear weapon launch vehicle. In return, Ukraine got economic compensation from the US and Russia, and an assurance that its “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” would not be challenged.
So, now after over 20 years of complete de-nuclearisation, Ukraine is fighting to keep its sovereign identity alive even though its territorial integrity was broken first in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, and earlier in February, when Russia gave recognition to two breakaway regions in eastern parts.

CAN NATO USE NUKE AGAINST RUSSIA?

Technically, Nato can use a nuclear missile or bomb against Russia if Putin put his nuke threat into action. The US has had its nuclear weapons on the European continent since the 1950s.

Nato declares itself a “nuclear alliance” but it does not own any nuclear weapons. All its nuclear weapons are those belonging to the US, the UK and France. Among the three, France does not commit itself to using nuclear weapons.

So, only the US’s nuclear weapons are in pre-deployment state. These are kept at six air bases in five countries Belgium, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and Turkey.
Nato says that the United States maintains full custody of these weapons at all times. US President Joe Biden, who is practically the authority to decide the use of nuclear weapons by Nato, has appeared to play down the talks of a direct retaliation to Russia.

Biden has been emphasising that the US would not directly engage with Russia militarily and continue to escalate the economic cost of Putin’s war on Ukraine. Biden is known for his push for nuclear arms control.

His penchant for nuclear arms control was a key difference between former US President Donald Trump who threatened North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with a “bigger and more powerful” nuclear button “always on my table”, and Biden during the presidential election.

However, if Putin turns the Russia-Ukraine war into a nuclear conflict, given the West’s continued thrust on damaging Russia’s economy, Europe could become witness to greater devastation than seen in Japan, where the nuclear weapons were first, and the only time, used in 1945.