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Days after launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin ordered to put his country's nuclear deterrent forces on alert, effectively threatening the world with a nuclear war.
With the ongoing military invasion proving to be extremely costly for Russia, the key question now is whether Putin is bluffing.
When starting the invasion, Putin said that any outside country trying to interfere in the war in Ukraine would face “consequences that they have never seen in their history,” which can be interpreted as the threat of nuclear war.
Russia's decision to bolster its nuclear capabilities has allegedly affected NATO’s decision-making.
While U.S. President Joe Biden said that Americans should not worry about a possible nuclear threat, he has also demonstrated he is ready to go to great lengths to avoid escalation with Russia. While the U.S. has continued supplying weapons to Ukraine, it refused to supply fighter jets that Ukraine has been asking for, or to approve a NATO-imposed no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Biden defended these decisions by saying the U.S. wanted to avoid a "World War III."
However, it's now unclear whether the West’s reluctance to defend Ukraine mitigates the risk of nuclear war or actually increases it by emboldening Putin to commit further acts of aggression.
“Given Putin’s craziness, a nuclear war cannot be ruled out,” Ukrainian military expert Vyacheslav Tseluiko told the Kyiv Independent.
Putin has been repeatedly accusing Ukraine of developing nuclear weapons, while presenting no evidence.
In an address on Russia’s recognition of its proxies in Ukraine’s Donbas as independent states on Feb. 21, Putin claimed that Ukraine may develop nuclear weapons. In a Feb. 24 speech justifying the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin commented on the issue again, saying that Russia would prevent Ukraine from getting nuclear arms.
On March 5, Putin even threatened to annihilate the Ukrainian state itself, saying that Ukraine’s alleged plans to develop nuclear weapons jeopardize “the future of the Ukrainian state.” On March 16, he again repeated his claims that Ukraine had been planning to develop nuclear weapons.
Specifically, he has referred to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Feb. 19 statement that Ukraine may recognize the Budapest Memorandum as null and void.
Under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Russia, the U.S. and the U.K. pledged not to use military force against Ukraine in exchange for it renouncing the nuclear weapons it had obtained from the collapsed Soviet Union.
Despite that, Russia violated the memorandum by invading Ukraine in 2014.
Zelensky’s remark triggered speculation that Ukraine might develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent against Russian aggression. However, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Feb. 23 that Ukraine was never planning to develop nuclear weapons.
Russia’s obsession with nuclear energy was also manifested when its troops targeted civilian nuclear facilities in Ukraine.
Since Feb. 24, Russia has occupied the Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plants, the latter being shelled by Russian troops. Moscow has also shelled a nuclear reactor at Kharkiv’s Physics and Technology Institute.
Russian state propaganda has accused Ukraine of trying to create a dirty bomb, a device to disperse radioactive material over a large area, inside its nuclear facilities.
Meanwhile, some observers have voiced fears that Russia may turn the captured nuclear plants into dirty bombs in order to blackmail the West.
Russia has falsely accused Ukraine of developing weapons of mass destruction, including biological and chemical ones. This has prompted the U.S. government to argue that Russia was preparing a false-flag operation with weapons of mass destruction and planning to place the blame on Ukraine.
Is Putin bluffing?
Predictions of Putin’s actions depend on assumptions of his rationality or irrationality.
CIA Director William Burns said on March 8 that the Russian president is "angry and frustrated" but "not crazy."
If it is assumed that Putin is at least somewhat rational, he is unlikely to initiate a full-scale nuclear war.
James Acton, a co-director of the Carnegie Endowment’s nuclear policy program, said in a March 10 interview that he believes Putin “recognizes that using nuclear weapons would be very risky.”
In this scenario, Putin is bluffing since he knows that a nuclear war will lead to mutually assured destruction – a threat to his own survival. If that is the case, Putin is using nuclear threats to halt NATO's support, including the imposition of a no-fly zone demanded by Zelensky over the course of the war.
However, Putin's rationalism isn't a given, sparking fears of a potential nuclear war.
Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko is among those who say anything is possible at this point.
“From the rational point of view, (a nuclear war) is impossible,” he told the Kyiv Independent. “But we can expect anything from Putin. We are dealing with a maniac who acts irrationally.”
Backed into a corner
Those who fear nuclear war, say Putin may be inclined to use nuclear weapons if he is backed into a corner.
“What conditions would have to pertain for Putin to believe that the risks of using nuclear weapons are smaller than the risks of not using them?” Acton said. “I think Russia would have to be really losing this war. Or maybe a very prolonged and extremely costly bloodbath.”
Acton argued that this might happen if the war becomes unpopular in Russia and threatens Putin’s hold on power.
“He has talked about his disgust at (Libyan dictator Muammar) Gaddafi’s murder and he’s clearly worried about the same thing happening to him,” Acton said. “He could view nuclear weapons as a potential way out of this conflict. Some kind of face-saving solution or even some kind of victory.”
Tseluiko told the Kyiv Independent that this could happen if Putin suffers conventional defeats in Ukraine.
The only country ever to use nuclear arms in combat was the U.S. back in 1945 when it dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which forced Japan to surrender and end World War II.
But Sergei Sazonov, a Russian-born political philosopher at Estonia's Tartu University, says that the parallels with Hiroshima are wrong because the nuclear strike followed conventional victories by the U.S., which made resistance useless.
“(A nuclear strike against Ukraine) will not give Putin anything because surrender on such conditions will not be worth the paper it is written on,” he told the Kyiv Independent. “And the costs are colossal, up to the risk of a nuclear war with NATO. Even Putin is not such a psycho.”
Sazonov argued that “the Ukrainian army won’t disappear, and after a nuclear strike on Kyiv it will be impossible to make it surrender regardless of what is signed by anyone.”
Nuclear or conventional war?
NATO has refused to intervene militarily in the war in Ukraine based on the assumption that a conflict between NATO and Russia is likely to turn into a nuclear war.
But there is also the argument that World War III, something often mentioned by Biden, does not have to be nuclear.
According to this view, a conventional war between Russia and the West is more likely because all sides will be afraid of mutually assured destruction in case of a nuclear war.
“The experience of the Cold War shows that great powers can wage conventional wars without using nuclear weapons,” Tseluiko said.
He cited proxy wars between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in Korea and Vietnam as examples.
In this scenario, Russia has little chance of succeeding.
“In a conventional war, Russia has zero chance of winning a war with NATO,” Tseluiko added.
Some believe that a limited nuclear war with Russian tactical nuclear weapons targeting Ukraine or NATO countries is more likely than a full-scale nuclear war. This theory assumes that tactical nuclear strikes would be more appropriate since they do not lead to mutually assured destruction.
The counter-argument to this is that tactical nuclear strikes per se are meaningless since they will most likely escalate into a full-scale nuclear war with the use of strategic nuclear weapons.
Tseluiko argued that Russian tactical nuclear strikes against NATO are unlikely.
While the West is afraid of antagonizing Putin due to fears of nuclear war, its perceived weakness may actually increase the risks of such a war in the future.
Sazonov argued that the West’s fear of nuclear arms gives nuclear powers such as Russia a carte blanche to commit acts of aggression, including ones with the use of atomic weapons, with impunity. This may also lead to a massive proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world, he added.
“The lack of military response to Putin’s nuclear threat is exactly what makes nuclear war inevitable in the future,” he said.
“The West has just shown that nuclear threats can be used not as a defensive weapon but as an offensive one; not as a tool of containment that deters great powers from starting wars but as a tool of conquest that deters great powers from interfering in wars.”