Can Putin push the “red button”

More than three decades after the end of the Cold War, today the world is again talking about nuclear danger in view of the uncertain situation surrounding Ukraine’s Zaporozhye NPP, which is in the middle of a dynamic military conflict.

Unfortunately, however, the problem with the power plant is not the only one, there is also the possibility of using a nuclear weapon.

Indeed, the danger is minimal, but it should be taken seriously, given the scale of the conflict and standoff between Russia and NATO on the ground in Ukraine.

Let’s recall that already on February 27, three days after the start of the conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to put the Russian nuclear forces on a “special mode of combat duty”.

When Sweden and Finland later announced their intention to become NATO members, former President Dmitry Medvedev warned that such a thing meant “there can no longer be talk of a nuclear-free status for the Baltic region”.

Several options for the use of nuclear weapons by Russia can be considered to be conditioned by the “Basic Principles of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence” – a document signed by Putin in 2020, which specifies two conditions.

The first, unsurprisingly, states that the country “reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of such or other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies…”.

But this sentence ends with an expression that opens up other possibilities for free interpretation: “… also in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation using conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is threatened.”

If we recall Putin’s speech, with which he announced the beginning of the so-called special military operation, we will find in it exactly the same expression, presenting Ukraine as an anti-Russian state artificially created by NATO, which threatens the existence of Russia.

“For the United States and its allies, this is a policy of containing Russia with obvious geopolitical dividends. For our country, this is a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation. This is not an exaggeration, but a fact. We are not only talking about a real a threat to our interests, but also to the very existence of our country and its sovereignty,” Putin said on the night of February 24.

In the thinking of dictators, by “our country” they usually mean themselves, and therefore by the loss of sovereignty they rather mean the loss of their own power, as well as the influence of the ruling oligarchic elite.

Thus, the fears of strategists in the Kremlin have always been related to the possibility of developing democratic administrations along the Russian borders. Administrations that would represent an alternative to the Russian authoritarian model can spread across the territory of the federation and thus pose a threat to Putin’s system.

And history has so far shown that a dictator who feels his rule is threatened can easily go to extremes. In this case, extremes could also take the form of nuclear weapons as a last and desperate attempt to retain power.

In fact, even mentioning it as a possible option is nothing more than a display of weakness. Unlike the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia is trying to play the role of a world power with much less capacity to support big ambitions. The economy is under heavy pressure, and in the long term it is on the way to becoming more and more dependent on China, while “soft power” in terms of culture and politics is almost non-existent.

At the same time, the army is very far from fulfilling its original objective in Ukraine and is definitely not doing a good job of advertising there. So nuclear weapons – or at least the threat of them – remain one of the few cards Moscow can use.

At the moment, it is difficult to judge where there is a red line where Putin can push the red button first. Or, more precisely, when he will judge that all conventional means have been exhausted, and his survival is directly threatened by an external threat.

Of course, this ambiguity is part of the strategy—if opponents don’t know where Putin’s red line is, they lose flexibility in making decisions against him, risking not crossing it.

For example, in the “Basic Principles…” it is also written that a nuclear weapon can be used after an attack “against critical government or military objects of the Russian Federation”. That is, how will the Russian army react if, by chance, Ukraine succeeds in striking the Crimean bridge, which until the beginning of the war was the only land link between the peninsula and Russia?

It is undoubtedly a strategic site, the operation of which is particularly important to Moscow, and therefore, if it becomes a target, it could become an occasion for a possible nuclear response.

By the same logic, NATO cannot send troops into the field to help Ukraine, as this could escalate the conflict in an unexpected direction. There is no way to impose a no-fly zone over the country, as this would mean attacking Russian planes and would lead to World War III, according to US President Joe Biden.

What the Russian military could most logically use are tactical nuclear weapons.

They have less explosive power than strategic ones and are intended for the battlefield, especially when own forces are nearby or even in friendly territory. The logic is that by escalating from a conventional to a limited nuclear conflict, the adversary will be pressured to seek peace.

The problem is that tactical nuclear weapons have never been used before, and if they were to happen, even the very fact that they were put into actual use would risk provoking a strategic response.

And this is already the worst possible scenario.

A recent study by scientists at Rutgers University shows that even a relatively small nuclear conflict would lead to catastrophic climate consequences and world hunger. Nuclear explosions in cities and industrial areas will cause fiery elements that send huge amounts of radioactive smoke high into the atmosphere.

It will spread globally to the point where it could cool the entire planet. Such a thing would disrupt Earth’s climate cycles, affecting food production systems on land and in the oceans.

Scientists analyze what would happen in six possible scenarios of nuclear conflict, each of which would lead to catastrophic consequences and a global drop in temperatures of between one and 16 degrees. Even a regional conflict between India and Pakistan could lead to a global collapse in food production by 7% within five years of the conflict starting.

In turn, a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and Russia, which together possess about 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenal, could result in 150 million tons of radioactive soot in the atmosphere and a corresponding drop in production by more than 90% in three years. More than 5 billion people will face starvation if the deadly radiation does not catch up with them first.

Against such a backdrop, the stakes are obviously infinitely high.

It is therefore vital that politicians and militaries on both sides make every effort to communicate with each other in a deliberate and transparent manner. While Putin may be confident in his ability to control the course of the conflict through veiled threats and signals, this is a dangerous fantasy.

Such a delusion can have deadly consequences for everyone.


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