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Will the Ukraine war go nuclear?

The war on Ukraine explained: Hear from our experts
Dr Rod Thornton and Dr Marina Miron

Defence Studies Department, King's College London

04 May 2022

Last week, in an interview on Russian television, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that there is a ‘very, very significant’ risk of a nuclear war breaking out over the Ukraine crisis. He went on, ‘the danger is serious. It is real. It cannot be underestimated.’

Of course, such comments can be looked upon as merely strategic messaging on the part of Lavrov – a warning to NATO countries to limit their assistance to Kyiv. As such, they may be seen as just sabre-rattling and thus not to be taken too seriously. But should we take them seriously?

When it comes to the likelihood of Moscow’s use of nuclear weapons, we must understand four factors that could influence decision-making. Overall, these factors indicate that the Kremlin can generally be seen, when compared to NATO countries, to have a lower threshold for using such weapons.

The first factor relates to the strategic level. Moscow, since the end of the Cold War, has always looked upon its conventional military forces as far weaker than those of NATO. This means that, and in terms of deterring any future attack on its territory by NATO, which the Kremlin sees as a serious prospect, it has come to lean heavily on its nuclear deterrent capability.

Hence, over the last three decades, Russia has been careful not only to maintain but also to continually modernise its nuclear triad (ie weapons delivered by platforms based on land, sea or in the air). Given that there is this leaning on its nuclear potential, there has always been a sense that Moscow would employ its nuclear arsenal at a lower point in any crisis/conflict situation vis-à-vis NATO than the Alliance itself might contemplate.

Moreover, and in light of this standpoint, Russia – unlike countries in the West – has also continued to maintain a significant national resilience capacity domestically in the event of a full-scale nuclear war, including ensuring there are bomb shelters, civil defence arrangements, medical facilities, etc. As such, the Russian state is far more prepared for a nuclear exchange than is any western country.

The second factor influencing the possible use by Russia of nuclear weapons is perhaps more pertinent in the current situation. This involves their use at the tactical level. Any long-term reading of articles in Russian military journals certainly gives the impression that the employment of nuclear munitions on a battlefield (launched from missiles or artillery shells) is understood differently than in western militaries. For the Russians, nuclear weapons seem to be treated merely as munitions with just more of an explosive effect – one up from thermobaric weaponry. There appear to be few cultural barriers, institutional or ethical constraints evident when the Russian military discusses the use of nuclear weapons on a battlefield.

The third factor – and one that is often missed by those reviewing the activities of the Russian military – is the emphasis it gives to nuclear weapons in terms of producing a psychological effect on any enemy during any operation. This ‘psychological warfare’ operates across a spectrum, from basic information warfare techniques, such as media messaging, etc, all the way up to the psychologically demoralising effect that can be generated through the massive destruction of targets such as towns and cities.

Hence, we see the Russian military trying to destroy complete cities in Ukraine through artillery fire. If you destroy the city, runs the logic, you will likewise destroy the morale of their defenders and surrender will result. Tactical nuclear weapons and the destructive effect they can produce against a Ukrainian city (perhaps one not so far damaged appreciably) could be seen to have a distinct role as part of this logic.

The fourth factor is that the use of tactical/battlefield nuclear weapons appears to fit into what is taken to be the Russian strategic notion of ‘escalate to de-escalate’. This involves the idea that if things are going badly for the Russian military in Ukraine, then it could halt any offensives against by employing a nuclear weapon – again, probably against a Ukrainian city. The hoped-for result would be that this ‘escalation’ to nuclear weapons would shock Ukrainian forces into calling a ceasefire. This would then ‘de-escalate’ the whole war in Moscow’s favour.

All this is perhaps alarming. But it is not unthinkable. As Scott Sagan, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Spogli Institute for International Studies puts it, ‘Putin could order the Russian military to drop a single nuclear bomb on a Ukrainian city to try to coerce the Zelensky government into immediately surrendering. This frightening scenario is not fanciful. It is, after all, effectively what the United States did to Japan in 1945.’

In this story

Rod Thornton

Rod Thornton

Associate Professor/Senior Lecturer

Marina Miron

Marina Miron

Honorary Research Fellow in The Centre for Military Ethics

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