Russia will use nukes regardless of whether we arm Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his meeting with scientists
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his meeting with scientists

Over the past few weeks, Western countries have green-lit Ukraine’s use of Nato-class weapons to strike targets on Russian territory. Russia has responded with a predictable chorus of nuclear threats. with former President Dmitry Medvedev threatening Washington, Paris, and London with nuclear annihilation if Nato countries placed troops in Ukraine. At the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Rossiya-1 anchor Vladimir Solovyov chillingly quipped that Russia’s nuclear threats are a bluff until “there is no Great Britain to laugh at.”

Russia’s nuclear threat-mongering has engendered two contrasting responses in the West. The first is that Russia’s nuclear threats should be easily discounted as puffery. This argument hinges on the contention that Russia knows that nuclear weapons use will trigger a large-scale Nato conventional attack on its forces in Ukraine or a nuclear strike-back.

The second is that Russia could be tempted to use nuclear weapons if Nato escalates too strongly. Concerns about “escalation risks” have delayed the delivery of tanks and fighter jets to Ukraine and impede Ukraine’s ability to strike Russian military infrastructure.

Both arguments are fallacious. Through a decade of engaging with Russian stakeholders and experts on nuclear strategy, I believe that there are realistic scenarios in which Russia could use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine or much less likely, against a Nato country.  And – crucially – Russia’s decision will be independent of the West’s conduct.

It is my view that while the Kremlin will use Western support for Ukraine as a pretext for nuclear escalation, much like how Russia used Nato expansion to justify invading Ukraine in February 2022, Western support will not trigger it. Instead, Vladimir Putin’s decision to press Russia’s nuclear button will likely be shaped by the coalescence of three factors.

The first is how Putin sees the frontline situation evolving in Ukraine. The popular view is that Russia will only consider nuclear weapons use if it is on the verge of defeat in Ukraine. Speculation about Russian nuclear weapons use reached a crescendo in late 2022, as manpower shortages aided Ukraine’s rapid-fire victories in Kharkiv and Kherson. The chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Oleksandr Syrskyi recently argued that Russia could consider tactical nuclear weapons use if it faces a “catastrophic defeat.” Mass military desertions and protests in Moscow featured in Syrskyi’s doomsday scenario.

This logic is not necessarily accurate. There is a growing chorus of influential voices in Russia who argue that tactical nuclear weapons use could force Ukraine and the West to capitulate. If Russia is making incremental gains at too high a cost, it could see a nuclear escalation as a lesser evil to a years-long war of attrition. The hawkish Council on Foreign and Defense policy chief Sergey Karaganov, who moderated the discussion with Putin at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, is the most prominent exponent of this chilling argument. Talk about a Hiroshima and Nagasaki style end to the Ukraine war is intensifying.

The second is Russia’s internal political stability. Although Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is dead and MH-17 perpetrator Igor Girkin is behind bars, ultranationalist champions of total war remain Putin’s biggest threat. Since Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky threatened nuclear attacks on Europe and Japan in the early 1990s, this faction has lobbied for lowering the threshold for Russian nuclear first use. As ultranationalists have already pushed Putin towards mass conscription and large-scale civilian infrastructure strikes, it is conceivable that this lobby could make him go nuclear.

The third is a permissive attitude from China. As China wants to restrict the influx of nuclear-powered submarines in the Indo-Pacific and dissuade North Korea from following Russia’s example, Beijing has consistently urged Putin to refrain from nuclear weapons use. If China finds itself embroiled in a large-scale conflict in the Indo-Pacific, most likely over Taiwan, or reacts inordinately to AUKUS’s development, its calculus could change. And if the other two factors are in place, Putin could green-light a nuclear strike.

As Russia’s nuclear logic is not inherently reactive, the West should therefore not be afraid to give Ukraine the weaponry and flexibility it needs to win the war. Allowing Russia to gain more territory and Putin to believe that Nato will capitulate in the face of a nuclear strike is the worst possible outcome for the West and Ukraine.

Samuel Ramani is an Associate Fellow at the University of Oxford, specialising in international relations