How likely is it that Russia will launch a nuclear attack?

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Vladimir Putin first placed Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons forces on high alert during the opening weekend of his war with Ukraine, prompting fears around the world over what could happen next.

The Russian president blamed “unfriendly actions in the economic sphere”, a reference to the punitive economic sanctions imposed on his country by the Western allies, and claimed leading Nato members had made “aggressive statements”, forcing his hand.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov duly blamed the increase in tensions on remarks made by UK foreign secretary Liz Truss, who has denied that anything she had said across a series of Sunday morning interviews “warrants that sort of escalation”.

Months later, Russia’s invasion continues at a much slower place than Mr Putin appears to have anticipated due to the resilience and courage of the Ukrainian people, who have stood tall and fought bravely as their cities, from Kyiv to Kharkiv and Mariupol, have been remorselessly and indiscriminately shelled.

The Russian dictator himself now cuts an increasingly belligerent and isolated figure, seemingly prepared to resort to anything to secure the victory he craves.

But what could happen now following Mr Putin’s orders?

Here’s everything you need to know.

What has Vladimir Putin said regarding nuclear weapons?

During a meeting on Sunday 27 February, Russian television footage showed Mr Putin meeting with his defence minister and the chief of the general staff and instructing them to put the nuclear weapons on a “special regime of combat duty”.

Outlining what this means, Patricia Lewis, director of the international security programme at the think-tank Chatham House, told the PA news agency: “What we think has happened is that under peacetime, Russia has checks and balances in place so that they can’t launch nuclear weapons.

Russian president Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in the Kremlin in Moscow (Alexei Nikolsky/AP)
Russian president Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in the Kremlin in Moscow (Alexei Nikolsky/AP)

“So in order to be able to launch nuclear weapons, President Putin has to change the status from peacetime to combat, hence the phrase he’s ‘put his forces on special mode of combat duty’. I think we would probably call it combat readiness but it’s hard because of different languages and different meanings.”

“What he seems to have done is created the legal platform to be able to launch if he wishes,” she added.

Professor Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said that wording had not been used before, so it is not “entirely clear” what was meant.

“I haven’t seen any reporting of changes in Russian nuclear forces postures,” he told PA. “Obviously I don’t have access to classified intelligence but I haven’t seen reports as such.

“So it’s not clear how that changes. It may be something to do with the particular authorisation mechanisms between the president and the nuclear forces or it may be nothing at all. What is clear is that this is designed to be something that we need to listen to. It’s designed to be a reminder that Russia is a nuclear weapons power.”

How likely is a nuclear attack?

UK defence secretary Ben Wallace has attempted to pour cold water on fears of a nuclear war, stating that while he understood the concerns, the phrasing is a “battle of rhetoric”.

During media interviews, he told Sky News he “was not going to speculate” on what Mr Putin might do in the future.

Later on, he told BBC Breakfast: “We don’t see or recognise in the sort of phrase or the status he described as anything that is a change to what they have currently as their nuclear posture.

This map shows the extent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (PA)
This map shows the extent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (PA)

“This is predominantly about Putin putting it on the table just to remind people, remind the world, that he has a deterrent.

“We will not do anything to escalate in that area, we will not do anything to feed any miscalculation, we take it very, very seriously.

“But at the moment this is a battle of rhetoric that President Putin is deploying, and we just have to make sure we manage it properly.”

Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, meanwhile stated that Russia sees battlefield nuclear weapons as simply “a bigger bang” and could give a military order to use them.

Some experts stated that it is unclear whether or not Mr Putin would go ahead with a nuclear attack, while others quashed the possibility, stating that the mutual destruction would be too great.

Ms Lewis said: “Now he’s moved to a situation of combat, he can [launch a nuclear attack]. But will he? We don’t know. This is the problem.

“Of course, he wants to frighten us. And I think Russia has long worked out that the West is far more frightened of Russian nuclear weapons than Russia is frightened of Western nuclear weapons, and I think that’s true.”

She added: “There is a possibility to retaliate against conventional force with nuclear weapons under Western doctrines, but it is generally believed that would be a last resort.

The relative military strength of Ukraine and Russia (Statista/The Independent)
The relative military strength of Ukraine and Russia (Statista/The Independent)

“I think there’s been a sense over the last decade that Putin, along with [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un and [former US president] Donald Trump, are people who could have just launched a nuclear weapon. So there’s always been this unpredictability… I don’t want to overplay it but I don’t want to downplay it either.”

Professor Chalmers meanwhile said that he thought it was “unlikely”, adding: “Because any use of nuclear weapons would open up such a Pandora’s box, and the possibility of escalation to the use of more nuclear weapons once one country has used them, the pressure on other nuclear weapon states to use them in response would be very considerable… the Russians understand that and so do the west. So it’s a paradox.”

What could happen in a nuclear attack?

If Russia launched an attack on a Nato country, experts have said there could be retaliatory strikes from other alliance nations, prompting a conflict that Professor Chalmers said would lead to “orders of magnitude worse than the Second World War”.

Numbers of casualties would depend on what area was attacked. Nuclear weapons have the capability to kill hundreds of thousands of people depending on how populated an area is that is targeted.

Others could be left injured as a result of radiation poisoning if a specific facility is targeted instead.

What nuclear weapons does Russia have?

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which has published an account of world nuclear arsenals compiled by leading experts from the Federation of American Scientists since 1987, updated its records on Russia’s nuclear arsenal last week.

It said the stockpile is at approximately 4,477 warheads, of which around 1,588 are strategic warheads which can be deployed on ballistic missiles and at heavy bomber bases, while an approximate additional 977 strategic warheads, along with 1,912 nonstrategic warheads, are held in reserve.

What about the rest of the world?

According to the Federation of American Scientists, latest figures state that the UK has a stockpile of approximately 225 nuclear warheads, while the US has 5,428, France has 290, Pakistan has 165, China has 350, India has 160, Israel has 90 and North Korea has 20.

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