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Putin’s Nuclear Threat Assessment

“Russia has completed preparations for blowing up the Zaporizhzhia NPP. The plan of the terrorist attack has already been approved – the only thing missing is the order to carry it out,”

Kyrylo Budanov

Head of Ukraine’s military intelligence

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi and member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) delegation inspect the impacts of a rocket shell during a visit to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine on September 1, 2022. (Photo Fredrik Dahl / IAEA)

There is intense speculation within the Russian expert community regarding the possibility of a preemptive nuclear strike in Ukraine or against Western targets. This discussion was sparked by Sergei Karaganov, a prominent Kremlin expert on strategic security, who recently published an article entitled “A Difficult but Necessary Decision” on the Russia in Global Affairs website.

This triggered a debate among some of the Kremlin’s top strategic advisors, including many that belong to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s Valdai think tank. There’s Dmitry Trenin, once head of the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow branch and currently holding two senior research posts at high-powered Moscow institutions. There’s Fyodor Lukyanov, Russia in  Global Affairs’ editor-in-chief. And there’s a trio of leading researchers from the prestigious and long-established think tank IMEMO – the Institute of International Economy and International Affairs – namely Alexei Arbatov, Konstantin Bogdanov and Dmitry Stefanovich, who have refuted most of Mr Karaganov’s academic nuclear sabre-rattling. And there are others in the strategic thinkers’ community, including Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.

Now, I met Mr Karaganov several times during my stint in Moscow as Bulgarian ambassador (2000-2006) and I can assure you that his current pronouncements do not represent his views alone. He is conveying the cravings of part of Mr Putin’s “imperialist’ elite, saying what the officials cannot express formally. He’s certainly not to be dismissed as a Putin lapdog. As part of the talented circle of intellectuals around the late Evgeny Primakov – long-serving Intelligence chief, Russia’s foreign minister and prime minister in 1998-1989 under Mr Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin – Mr Karaganov is a man of substance and definitely not the president’s preferred strategic affairs spokesperson.

But the dire situation on the front line in Ukraine has created the necessity for a high-level Informational-Psychological Special Operation (or IPSO, in Kremlin-speak). And, as prelude to an IPSO, you need a debate among academic heavyweights. Mr Karaganov’s patrons at the top of the presidential administration, as well as harassed foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, need to project to the West the perception of an imminent and likely threat of preemptive Russian nuclear strike, to be factored into the war equation. So Mr Karaganov and friends have obliged.

Leveraging nuclear weapons in the conventional war in Ukraine

The Kremlin faces a significant challenge as its nuclear arsenal fails to prevent defeat in the ongoing “special military operation” in Ukraine. In a way, Russia’s aggression undermines its status as a nuclear power because that status offers no advantage in winning the conflict. It’s worth noting that Moscow finds itself in a situation where its only claim to global status – its nuclear arsenal and military might – is becoming irrelevant in a conventional war it initiated. Unlike the Soviet Union, which had ample justification to consider itself a global superpower, present-day Russia lacks economic, technological, and financial strength that matches its military and political aspirations. Even its status as an energy superpower is in decline.

Regardless of the war’s outcome, Mr Karaganov’s assessment of Russia’s outlook is increasingly bleak and largely accurate. Even in an extreme and unlikely scenario in which Russia gained complete control over Ukraine, it would still face the challenge of governing a hostile population – which denies Moscow the definition of success ab initio. On the contrary, Ukraine is too big a bite for Mr Putin’s Russia, which can’t digest Ukraine without risk to its own existence. The Kremlin miscalculated in thinking that it could manage a limited operation, keeping it limited and leaving behind a puppet regime. The fact of the matter – that the war is total and threatens Russia’s own existence – makes the invasion a classic case of strategic blunder. And this is so whoever is considered to be to blame for the war, whether it’s Mr Putin’s credo – Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and a demonic and malevolent West – or the Tsar in the Kremlin, which is what the world thinks.

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And any alternative scenario for an end to the war would involve a lasting contentious relationship with a Western-backed Ukraine. In response, Karaganov and the like-minded Russian experts suggest that the exit from the Ukrainian nightmare lies in a direct IPSO on the West, intensifying nuclear threat perceptions and testing the limits of solidarity between Europe and Ukraine – and between the United States and Europe – through “nuclear brinkmanship”. Mr Karaganov’s goal is to impose “a strategic retreat” or capitulation on the West. Since conventional means are unlikely to achieve this goal, this must be done by threatening a preemptive nuclear strike, thus instilling the fear of a nuclear confrontation. And his colleagues Mr Trenin and Mr Lukyanov seem to agree with the ‘fear’ argument must.

Despite President Putin’s mantra that his country’s nuclear triad makes it immune to defeat, news from the Ukrainian front consistently delivers disheartening messages to the Russian authorities. Kyiv appears less concerned about the Kremlin’s nuclear capabilities and is systematically dismantling the myth of Russia’s invincibility in this regard.

Both Russians and the international community are increasingly sceptical of the universal effectiveness of nuclear safeguards, as Ukraine continues to disregard the principles outlined in Russia’s nuclear deterrence doctrine. This revelation poses legitimate questions about the relevance of nuclear capabilities in global powers’ aggressive pursuits.

Changes in Russia’s nuclear deterrence doctrine now allow nuclear weapons’ use “in case of a military conflict, preventing military actions from escalating and terminating them on terms acceptable to the Russian Federation and (or) its allies”. It also provides not only for nuclear weapons’ use in retaliation against a nuclear strike but also their use against a potential enemy that does not possess nuclear capabilities but enjoys “significant combat capabilities of general-purpose forces”.

In his article, Mr Karaganov underscores that “during 75 years of relative peace, people have forgotten the horrors of war and have become less afraid of nuclear weapons. The instinct for self-preservation has weakened everywhere, particularly in the West.” Later in the article, he notes: “We must restore the fear of nuclear escalation. Otherwise, humanity is doomed…The enemy must know that we are prepared to strike back preemptively in response to its past and present aggressions, to prevent the slide into global thermonuclear war.”

Mr Karaganov concludes that Russia’s decision-makers have both the justification and the capability for such actions. The only remaining questions are the selection of an appropriate time and choice of the appropriate means to execute them.

A ladder of escalation

The principle of mutually assured destruction (MAD) emerged during the Cold War, encompassing nuclear parity and a balanced power dynamic in the economic and financial realms. However, over the past three decades, the strategic framework established during the Cold War has largely lost its relevance, with nuclear arsenals being the only aspect that retains significance.

Mr Karaganov’s proposal is not a call for an immediate preemptive strike. Still, his argument suggests a system of continually escalating mini-threats, known as a “ladder of escalation”, to achieve Russia’s strategic objectives while avoiding the actual use of nuclear weapons. The logic behind nuclear blackmail is straightforward: if Russia were to launch a nuclear strike on Ukraine, it would test Europe’s solidarity. If it were to target Europe with a nuclear strike, symbolically represented by “conditional Poznan,” the perception of MAD would test the limits of solidarity of the United States, symbolised by “conditional Boston.” Russian experts understand that, for the threat to be credible, perceptions within NATO and the EU must align with expectations in the Kremlin. The central question revolves around willingness in the West to make sacrifices for an ally. The objective is to subject NATO to a stress test by continuously escalating threats and stakes, aiming to fracture solidarity and compel the West to yield first.

Adds Mr Trenin: “The only thing that can deter the United States in this situation is its fear of taking the next step. A nuclear strike on Ukrainian territory will not deter anyone and a strike on European territory will not be considered critically significant or dangerous. A strike on US territory, however, changes the equation.”

According to the “Karaganov-Trenin fear consensus”, it is crucial to recognise the interconnectedness between the escalation of nuclear blackmail and the outcome of the war in Ukraine. While the Kremlin seeks a more globally impactful projection of a US-Russia confrontation, assessing the situation on Ukraine’s frontline accommodates this mutual conditionality. Mr Putin’s aim is to be taken seriously and to advance his interests.

Ultimately, the decision to use nuclear weapons, and the interpretation of what is an “existential threat to Russia” as a critical condition for that use, rest with President Putin. It is not unreasonable to assume that he may equate a personal threat to his power to a threat to the nation he leads. The key question lies in how many people in Russia would believe and support him in employing tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine and how many of his allies in the “global majority” – a term referring to the BRICS countries and the anti-Western bloc – would tolerate a nuclear strike in Ukraine. In fact, no room for speculation, since China and India have already declared such a scenario a “red line.”

In essence, despite the bombastic rhetoric emanating from Moscow, the probability of Vladimir Putin employing tactical nuclear weapons remains low, and the threats surrounding their use serve more as political leverage than military planning. Threatening nuclear strikes on US territory aims to instill fear among the American public and garner support for former (and potentially future) president Donald Trump’s appeasement. However, the US military and intelligence community does not consider the likelihood of a nuclear strike on their soil high.

Similarly, the threat of a direct nuclear strike on Europe, designed to inspire fear of Russia, carries an equally low probability level.

That brings us back to Ukraine.

Again, considering the reasons above, the use of tactical nuclear weapons is improbable because their military benefits are questionable. However, such a step could only partially be ruled out if a situation arose in which defensive capabilities along the front lines collapsed. In such circumstances, nuclear weapons might be contemplated as a last resort, driven by an “apres moi le deluge” rationale.

The destruction of the Kakhovka dam has demonstrated that Mr Putin is capable of crossing at least one red line by provoking and exploiting eco-disasters as part of his military strategy. Now, it would be impossible to represent a nuclear strike as anything other than the Kremlin’s responsibility – particularly given recent Kremlin declarations about the deployment of tactical nukes in Belarus. But Mr Putin might well calculate that explosions in a nuclear power plant might be passed off as “terrorism” – and as somebody else’s doing (presumably Ukraine’s).

This potential line of action by the Kremlin would, of course, involve an IPSO, not only to obscure responsibility but also to buy critical time while the EU and NATO assess the situation, identifying both the causes of such an explosion and the perpetrators – since these assessments are prerequisites for any potential retaliation, including the activation of Article 5. Russian experts rely on several hidden time traps here, but the most crucial ones revolve around when and whether NATO would deem Russia’s actions sufficient to take the “next step” on the escalation ladder. By blending doubt and legitimate concern into an intentionally obscure context Moscow hopes to unsettle NATO’s response by leveraging the survival instinct of each individual member state to undermine collective solidarity.

In this context, mining the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) and orchestrating another “terrorist act” – this time one that leads to radiation leaks with potential effects on Ukraine and Eastern Europe – appear as possible next steps for Mr Putin, especially in the aftermath of the mutiny by Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin. Such actions would serve the purpose of “proving” an uncompromising approach towards the enemy in Ukraine. This approach would combine two effects: first, it would achieve the impact of a nuclear strike through radiation leaks, testing the limits of Western support for Ukraine; and, second, it would force Kyiv to divert a significant portion of its resources towards saving civilians and mitigating the consequences. The Kremlin could theoretically achieve its goal of draining and diverting energy away from the counteroffensive while accusing Ukraine of nuclear terrorism.

Key Points to Monitor

All this is, to say the least, a worrying prospect. Quite how likely it is to come to pass depends on various factors. Two groups of these deserve special attention.

The first group concerns potential reactions in EU and NATO countries, both at the political level and among the general public – and these are certainly being keenly watched by the Kremlin. The key question is whether such a “’terrorist” act releasing radiation would incite panic that could shape public opinion and compel politicians to seek peace in Ukraine. There are good reasons to suppose that the answer is “probably not” (even though it’s also vital to remember the Kremlin counts on survival instincts).

One very good reason for thinking so is the resolution introduced by Senators Lindsey Graham (R) and Richard Blumenthal (D) in the US Congress, which declares that any actions by Russia, Belarus, or Russia’s proxies leading to radioactive contamination of allied territories will be considered an attack on NATO, triggering Article 5 of the NATO Charter. The resolution focuses on the effect of the attack – namely radiation and contamination – rather than on its source.

The second group of factors concerns political dynamics in Russia itself. Following the Prigozhin mutiny, many uncertainties remain. The “nuclear question” has direct relevance here, since Mr Prigozhin has opposed using nuclear weapons in response to the drone attack on the Kremlin. But there are also obvious questions about Mr Putin’s ability to command his army and the military’s willingness to execute his orders without question.

Thus, the fact that Mr Prigozhin’s ‘march for justice” covered, in just eight hours, nearly 600 km from Rostov-On-Don on his way to Moscow indicates that he was not acting alone and enjoyed support from influential factions within the Kremlin, the secret services and the army – and perhaps still does. Moreover, blowing up the ZNPP could endanger Russian soldiers, potentially triggering a far more significant and angry reaction than the Wagner mutiny, regardless of whether it involved the use of tactical nuclear weapons or the outright destruction of the ZNPP. Besides this, after the mercenary leader’s witheringly dismissive remarks about Mr Putin’s motives for the attack on Ukraine, the Russian leadership has little ground left for another bout of “nuclear” blackmail.

In short, there’s some ground for optimism, for believing that the Kremlin will not resort to nuclear escalation. But where a combination of Vladimir Putin’s own survival, nuclear weapons and a situation of potential national collapse is concerned, one shouldn’t be too blithe in one’s expectations. Careful monitoring and measured responses are indicated. Initial reactions from US Russia-watchers seem to suggest that there’s no sign at present that resort to nuclear weapons or nuclear plant sabotage is imminent – but that things are far less certain if “entropy” within Russia grows.

Ilian Vassilev

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