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The Dangerous Dimension in the Russia-Ukraine War: The Nuclear Threat

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The “New Cold War” period, which started with the withdrawal of the United States of America (US) from the Missile Defense System (ABM) Convention in 2002, and the armament process, which reached a much more dangerous dimension compared to the Cold War period, continues rapidly. Both the US and Russia have entered a rapid and dangerous nuclear arms race involving hypersonic cruise missiles. As a matter of fact, the bells of a nuclear war that could result in the destruction of the entire world have been ringing more and more every day.

Nuclear weapons, which entered our lives through the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, are essentially identified with the Cold War. In this process, especially the developments until the Détente Period were shaped according to the principles of nuclear deterrence. In this period, names such as Bernard Brodie, Herman Kahn and Thomas Schelling in the US came to the fore as important scientists working on nuclear deterrence and nuclear strategy. The peaceful resolution of the Cuban Crisis has brought the world back from the brink of nuclear war.

Nuclear weapons and the danger of nuclear war, which started to partly move away from the agenda of the international public opinion with the Détente Period, and which had almost no place on the agenda after the Cold War, became one of the most important agenda items with the Russia-Ukraine War. The fact that Russia resorted to the threat of using nuclear weapons in order to prevent the possibility that Western states such as the US and England would actually intervene in the war in favor of Ukraine, brought the concept of nuclear deterrence, which was one of the most popular concepts of the Cold War, back to the agenda.

The new era nuclear deterrence move of the Moscow administration was realized gradually within a certain program. One of the most important steps of this process is the introduction of the next generation strategic weapon systems, which was defined as invincible by Russian President Putin on March 1, 2018. It is noteworthy that Putin stated that these weapon systems were developed in response to the Washington administration’s withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Convention and to the missile defense systems that the US established both in its own territory and in areas close to Russia’s borders.[1] Thus, Putin laid the first foundations for the new era nuclear deterrence policy.

In the following process, the principles of Russia’s nuclear weapons policies were set forth in the document called “Basic Principles of State Policy on Nuclear Deterrence of the Russian Federation”, which was approved by Putin on 8 June 2020 and entered into force.[2] The document in question clearly emphasized that Russia’s nuclear weapons are a deterrent factor.

The conditions under which Russia can resort to nuclear weapons, as stated in the document in question, are listed as follows:

  • Obtaining reliable information that a ballistic missile has been launched to attack the territory of Russia or its allies.
  • An attack on Russia or its allies by a hostile state with nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.
  • An attack by a hostile state on Russia’s critical government or military facilities; elimination of the response capability of nuclear troops.
  • Attacking Russia with conventional weapons in a way that endanger the survival of the state.

The principles of this doctrine were expressed by Russian officials at all levels during the Ukrainian War. Officials have stated, either explicitly or implicitly, that Russia would use nuclear weapons if the West intervenes in the war. As a matter of fact, one of the first important moves came from Putin. In his speech on February 24, 2022, Putin stated that the activities of the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) now threaten the national existence and survival of Russia, implying that one of the conditions specified in the concept of using nuclear weapons is actually met.[3] Already at the very beginning of the war, on February 27, 2022, Putin gave the order to raise the alarm level of the state’s nuclear weapons.[4] Even before the war was in its second month, Russia tested the SARMAT missile, which is considered to be the most powerful nuclear weapon of the new era.[5]

On the other hand, Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitri Peskov, in an interview with CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour on March 22, 2022, stated that if Russia’s survival was threatened, it could resort to nuclear weapons and threatened the possibility of the West’s military intervention in the Ukraine War. In a sense, Peskov referred to the document that entered into force in 2020 on the conditions under which nuclear weapons will be used.[6]

While the Moscow administration hardened its rhetoric over time; it openly threatened the states that support Ukraine. As a matter of fact, a Russian state television openly threatened England during the broadcast about SARMAT, claiming that the weapon in question could reach London in two minutes and wipe England off the map.[7] On the other hand, the Russian media implied that a SARMAT weapon could destroy an area as large as the state of Texas or the whole of France, thus intimidating the US and France.[8]

In the statements made by the Russian authorities regarding the claims of the Western states that Russia could use nuclear weapons in the Ukrainian War, it was noteworthy that the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons began to be emphasized. As a matter of fact, Alexander Trofimov, Head of the Disarmament and Arms Control Department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, argued at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York that the allegation that Russia threatened to use nuclear weapons to win the Ukrainian War is not true. As stated in the Nuclear Weapons Doctrine, he stated that Russia could resort to these weapons only if it was exposed to any weapon of mass destruction or conventional weapon attack.[9]

Again, the Russian Defense Minister stated that there is no need to use nuclear weapons to win the war in Ukraine and that they can win the war with conventional troops; he underlined that nuclear weapons are a deterrent factor, saying that they will only resort to nuclear weapons in self-defense.[10] Maria Zakharova, Spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs right after, stated that nuclear weapons would only be used in emergencies and in response to any attack. The spokesperson added that it is not in Russia’s interest for Russia to confront NATO and the US directly.[11]

Russia’s Deputy Chairman of the National Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, who is at the center of the discussions regarding the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Facility, warned that the disintegration of nuclear powers like Russia could result in doomsday, and openly implied that moves aimed at harming Russia’s political integrity would lead to a nuclear war.[12]

Finally, while Putin announced a “partial mobilization” after the news that a referendum would be held in the Donbas region on the accession to Russia; he claimed that the West was blackmailing Russia to use nuclear weapons. In addition, the Russian leader stated that they would use all the weapons at their disposal, including nuclear weapons, to protect the territorial integrity of his country against the West, which aims to destroy Russia, and emphasized that this was not a bluff.[13]

On 1 August 2002; in other words, the sudden threat of nuclear war by Putin, who stated in a letter he sent to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference a short time ago that Russia does not want nuclear war and there will be no winner such a war, is an issue that can be evaluated from different perspectives. But the truth is that; nuclear weapons and nuclear war have become a clear threat.

As a result, Russia sees the moves of the West, especially the developments in Ukraine, as a threat to its national existence and survival, and states that it can use nuclear weapons to protect its survival, as stated in the document published in 2020. The issue of nuclear weapons, on which the international public has turned to cooperation rather than competition, has been on the rise again since the Détente Period. Perhaps since the Cuban Crisis, the threat of nuclear war has never been more clearly articulated by leaders. Therefore, the threat has now become much more serious and bigger. The Cold War, which ended with the contributions of Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union at the time, resurrected with the death of Gorbachev, and nuclear deterrence once again found its place on the agenda of the international public opinion.


[1] “Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly”, Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/page/286, (Date of Accession: 18.09.2022).

[2] “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence”, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, https://archive.mid.ru/en/web/guest/foreign_policy/international_safety/disarmament/ /asset_publisher/rp0fiUBmANaH/content/id/4152094?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_rp0fiUBmANaH&_101_INS ANCE_rp0fiUBmANaH_languageId=en_GB, (Date of Accession: 18.09.2022).

[3]“Russia’s Nuclear Weapon Use Policy”, The Bulletin, https://thebulletin.org/2022/03/read-the-fine-print-russias-nuclear-weapon-use-policy/, (Date of Accession: 18.09.2022).

[4] “Putin Signals Escalation as He Puts Russia’s Nuclear Force on High Alert”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/27/vladimir-putin-puts-russia-nuclear-deterrence-forces-on-high-alert-ukraine, (Date of Accession: 18.09.2022).

[5] “Rusya’nın Nükleer Silah Kullanma İhtimali Arttı mı”, Habertürk, https://www.haberturk.com/son-dakika-rusya-nin-nukleer-silah-kullanma-ihtimali-artti-mi-3415838, (Date of Accession: 18.09.2022).

[6] “Putin Spokesman Refuses to Rule Out Use of Nuclear Weapons if Russia Faced an Existential Threat”, CNN, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/03/22/europe/amanpour-peskov-interview-ukraine-intl/index.html, (Date of Accession: 18.09.2022).

[7] “Putin Confirms Sarmat Ballistic Missile Deployment-How Powerful is the ‘Satan 2’ Rocket”, Express, https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1628895/putin-sarmat-ballistic-missile-deployment-powerful-evg, (Date of Accession: 18.09.2022).

[8] “Russia is Planning to Flight Test New Missile with a Range of 6,200 Miles and Capable of Destroying an Area the Size of France”, Daily Mail, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9110579/Russia-planning-flight-test-new-missile-capable-destroying-area-size-France.html, (Date of Accession: 18.09.2022).

[9] “Russian Delegation Rejects Accusations of Threats to Use Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine at UN”, TASS, https://tass.com/politics/1488461, (Date of Accession: 18.09.2022).

[10] “Russia Has ‘No Need’ to Use Nukes in Ukraine, Putin’s Defence Chief İnsists, as Zelensky Calls for Fresh Sanctions Over Attacks on Nuclear Power Plant”, Daily Mail, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11115789/Russia-no-need-use-nukes-Ukraine-Putins-defence-chief-insists.html, (Date of Accession: 18.09.2022).

[11] “Russia Says Nuclear Weapons Use Possible Only in Emergency Circumstances”, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russia-says-nuclear-weapons-use-possible-only-emergency-circumstances-2022-08-18/, (Date of Accession: 18.09.2022).

[12] “Russian Official Issues Stark Nuclear Warning to US: ‘Chess Game’ of Death”, Newsweek, https://www.newsweek.com/russian-official-issues-stark-nuclear-warning-us-chess-game-death-1739674, (Date of Accession: 18.09.2022).

[13] “Putin Drafts up to 300,000 Reservists, Backs Annexation Amid War Losses”, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/09/21/putin-speech-annexation-ukraine-russia/, (Date of Accession: 18.09.2022).

Doç. Dr. Şafak OĞUZ
Doç. Dr. Şafak OĞUZ
In 2019, Şafak OĞUZ received his Associate Professor title and retired in 2021 after 23 years of service in the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF). Having worked for the United Nations (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) during his service, OĞUZ works on Weapons of Mass Destruction, Terrorism, International Security, International Organizations and Peace and Conflict Studies. OĞUZ is currently a faculty member at Cappadocia University, Faculty of Economics, Administrative and Social Sciences, Department of International Relations. He is fluent in English and German.