While Putin appeared to refer to conventional precision-guided weapons when he talked about possibly mimicking the US strategy, he specifically noted that the US hasn’t ruled out the first use of nuclear weapons.
“If the potential adversary believes that it can use the theory of a preemptive strike and we don’t, it makes us think about the threats posed by such ideas in other countries’ defensive posture,” he said.
In Washington, advisers to President Joe Biden viewed Putin’s comments as “saber-rattling” and another veiled warning that he could deploy a tactical nuclear weapon, according to a US official who was not authorised to comment and spoke on the condition of the anonymity.
The official noted that Russian military doctrine has long stated that Moscow reserves the right to first use of a nuclear weapon in response to large scale military aggression.
Putin was asked Wednesday at a Kremlin conference whether Russia could commit to forswearing a first strike and responded that such an obligation might prevent Russia from tapping its nuclear arsenal even if it came under a nuclear attack.
“If it doesn’t use it first under any circumstances, it means that it won’t be the second to use it either, because the possibility of using it in case of a nuclear strike on our territory will be sharply limited,” he responded.
He elaborated on that answer Friday, saying Russia’s nuclear doctrine is based on the “launch on warning” concept, which envisions nuclear weapons’ use in the face of an imminent nuclear attack spotted by its early warning systems.
“When the early warning system receives a signal about a missile attack, we launch hundreds of missiles that are impossible to stop,” he said, smiling. “Enemy missile warheads would inevitably reach the territory of the Russian Federation. But nothing would be left of the enemy too, because it’s impossible to intercept hundreds of missiles. And this, of course, is a factor of deterrence.”
Russia’s nuclear doctrine states the country can use nuclear weapons if it comes under a nuclear strike or if it faces an attack with conventional weapons that threatens “the very existence” of the Russian state.
Since sending Russian troops into Ukraine in February, Putin has repeatedly said that Moscow was ready to use “all available means” to protect its territory and has rejected Western criticism of nuclear saber-rattling.
“I understand that ever since nuclear weapons, the weapons of mass destruction have appeared, all people – the entirety of humankind – have been worried what will happen to the planet and all of us,” he said.