Three days into 2022, the world’s top nuclear powers issued a joint statement declaring that their city-busting weapons were no longer aimed at one another and reaffirming their post-Cold War commitment to avoiding an apocalyptic Third World War. “We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” said the U.S., China, France, Britain and Russia. “As nuclear use would have far-reaching consequences, we also affirm that nuclear weapons—for as long as they continue to exist—should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.”
On Sunday, less than two months later, Russian President Vladimir Putin abandoned the spirit of that pledge, publicly directing Russia’s nuclear forces to go on a high alert status following his Feb. 24 invasion of neighboring Ukraine. Facing unexpected resistance from Ukrainians and global condemnation for the unprovoked assault, Putin said in a televised meeting with his two top military officials that he was putting the military on a “special combat readiness,” in response to what he called “aggressive statements” by the U.S. and its European allies.
This announcement was made ahead of the expected negotiations between Ukrainian and Russian officials. It appeared that it was purely for entertainment. U.S. government and independent analysts said it brought no immediate change in the status of Russia’s strategic arsenal. However, the international community was reminded by the nuclear saber-rattling that every crisis, regardless of its size, can have catastrophic results if nations are armed with the thermonuclear arsenals. Now, the Biden Administration must decide how to prevent Russia from escalating and maintain deterrence in concert with allies of North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
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Although the U.S. and NATO have avoided the Ukraine fighting, the United States and NATO have been increasing military support to Ukraine in recent days. Ukraine is currently under constant attack from Russia’s air, land, and sea forces. The White House and the European Union have also implemented a sweeping package of economic sanctions that targets Russia’s financial institutions, major enterprises and individuals in Putin’s power hierarchy. Putin’s nuclear forces order came less than 24 hours after the most severe sanctions were announced.
“We believe this is not only an unnecessary step for him to take, but an escalatory one,” said a senior U.S. defense official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “It’s unnecessary because Russia has never been under threat by the West or by NATO. It is escalatory because it’s potentially putting in play forces that that could—if there’s a miscalculation—make things much more dangerous.”
It is unclear from a tactical standpoint what changes Putin made to the order. U.S. intelligence had yet to see any operational changes on how Russia’s nuclear triad of bombers, submarines, and missiles were postured, the defense official said. “We have no reason to doubt the validity of this order, but how it’s manifested itself, I don’t think is completely clear yet,” the official said.
Jeffrey Lewis, an analyst with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies, said many of Russia’s nuclear forces are already on day-to-day alert so this could be Putin’s way of turning on certain command-and-control systems or simply raising the readiness of his forces—or it could all be for show. “The fact that he announced it, however, leads me to think he’s just a big peacock spreading his feathers,” Lewis says.
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Olga Oliker, the International Crisis Group’s director for Europe and Central Asia, said there are a variety of reasons why Putin might have made the nuclear declaration. This could be because he wanted to discourage the Western powers’ support for Ukraine, or to gain leverage during the ceasefire negotiations. This seems to be a desperation act by someone who has run out of options. “Presumably, none of these would be issues if the military operation was going better for Russia,” Oliker said.
According to a senior defense official, Russia’s advance on Ukraine has been slower than U.S. intelligence predicted. The military is facing logistic problems, while the Ukrainian forces are putting up a stiff fight. Moscow is yet to conquer any large Ukrainian city. Although Russian fighter planes are predicted to quickly take control of the airspace above Ukraine, it is still contested.
According to the Pentagon, the Russian military used siege tactics in the vicinity of Chernihiv (northeast of Kyiv). The Russian military has launched over 320 missiles. Most of these were short-range. Now, they are also using unguided launchers to hit targets. It is likely that this will increase civilian casualties. “We don’t know if it’s a failure in planning or a failure in execution,” the official said.
Russian missiles also struck the Kyiv location of a radioactive disposal facility. A day before, an electrical transformer was damaged at a nuclear waste disposal facility near Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there was no evidence of radioactive releases. “These two incidents highlight the very real risk that facilities with radioactive material will suffer damage during the conflict, with potentially severe consequences for human health and the environment,” Agency Director General Rafael Grossi said.
Since 1945, when the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima/Nagasaki in Japan, no nation has ever used nuclear weapons in conflict. Russia’s and America’s nuclear arsenals have been capped at 1,550, according to a bilateral agreement known as New START. Each country has smaller tactical weapons which can be used on a limited basis.
The Pentagon refused to comment Sunday on whether the alert status of U.S. nuclear forces had changed due to Putin’s announcement. U.S. intelligence networks include sensors, overhead surveillance, and a huge network of antennas to detect signs that Russian strategic components have altered their nuclear posture. If forces begin to arm bombers or ready missiles, a constellation of school bus–sized satellites will likely capture the deviations.
For some observers who have been closely following the conflict in Ukraine, it was not surprising that there had been no apparent Russian military movement. One former U.S. official saw in Putin’s comments an alarming shift in rhetoric concerning the world’s most powerful weapons. “If you hold up a store armed with a gun, you’ll be charged with armed robbery,” the former official said. “What Putin did today was nuclear-armed robbery.”