The United States and Russia account for more than 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons, but only a fraction of them are deployed, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Russia, which calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation,” has failed to achieve any obvious objectives five days after launching its invasion, with no cities under Russian control, no Russian dominance of airspace, and some Russian troops running out of fuel and supplies.
Putin is also confronting a wave of unprecedented economic and diplomatic isolation from the West, which is channelling hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons to Ukraine’s military to fight Russian forces.
BACKED INTO A CORNER
Jon Wolfsthal, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama on arms control, said the United States had long been concerned about Russia’s nuclear weapons.
“We have to be very careful about what we do and don’t do when you have one country that is backed into a corner, has nuclear weapons and is actually talking about their possible use,” said Wolfsthal, currently with Global Zero, which advocates eliminating nuclear arms.
Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Moscow and fierce Putin critic, wrote that it would be a mistake to dismiss Putin’s message on nuclear arms.
“The people who know Putin the best – people I know in Russia – are worried about his recent nuclear statement. The people who know him the least are saying it’s cheap talk,” he wrote on Twitter.
A 2020 Russian revision to its nuclear doctrine suggested it might launch a nuclear response during a broader range of circumstances, including attacks on nuclear command and control, CRS, a nonpartisan research arm of Congress said in a report.
Robert Soofer, a former Pentagon nuclear policy adviser during the Trump administration, played down the risk that Russia would use nuclear weapons to address battlefield setbacks in Ukraine.
“The only way this is going to become a problem is if the war spills over into NATO,” said Soofer, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
Francois Heisbourg, a senior adviser at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), suggested Putin’s threats should be taken seriously.
“People who say he is bluffing have only their gut feeling to rely upon. Whereas those who say he isn’t bluffing can draw on a rich trove of circumstantial evidence,” Heisbourg said.
“Because as far as Ukraine goes, he has not been bluffing. He doesn’t do bluffing. He has been upfront in terms of what he wants.”