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Putin’s bomb: a mere bluff or actual armageddon

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“For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat to the use of nuclear weapons” – assesses President Joe Biden. “Putin’s threats should be taken seriously” – former German Chancellor Angela Merkel also warns. And Russian historian and writer Yuri Felshtinsky says bluntly, “Since February, World War III is already underway, and Putin may want to go down in history as the one who was not afraid to start a nuclear conflict”.

Jacek Przybylski

“I would like to remind […] that our country has a variety of means of destruction, and some are more modern than those available to NATO. If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all means at our disposal to defend Russia and our citizens.” – Vladimir Putin threatened in September. “This is not a bluff. Those who are trying to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the direction of the wind may change to their disadvantage,” the Russian leader bellowed.

World’s largest arsenal

“Vladimir Putin is not kidding when he is talking about the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons, because his military, as is evident, is performing poorly”, the American president announced on October 7th. Joe Biden noted that the risk of using nuclear weapons is now the highest since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and argued that he does not believe it is possible to use tactical nuclear weapons without leading to a nuclear armageddon.

Although events on the Ukrainian front have compromised the commanders of the “world’s second army”, when it comes to its nuclear arsenal, Russia is still unquestionably number one in the world. The country ruled by Putin has some 6,400 nuclear warheads. Russia also has some 500 strategic weapons carriers in its arsenal (ballistic missiles and payloads placed aboard submarines or strategic bombers) and nearly 1,500 nuclear warheads ready for immediate use, because that’s the number allowed by the New START agreement with the US, which limits the nuclear arsenals of both sides. The Russians also have an estimated 2,000 payloads in their tactical arsenal, i.e. lower-powered payloads that can be carried by short and medium-range missiles, tactical aviation, etc. The commonly known means of delivery are, for example, Iskander ballistic missiles, which can be armed with both a conventional and nuclear payload warhead. They are difficult to shoot down because the Russians equip them with long dartboard-like, heat-emitting decoys loaded in electronics that make it difficult for missile defenses to operate effectively. In turn, the targeted party does not know whether a missile is equipped with a conventional or nuclear payload until the moment of impact.

In comparison: the number of warheads possessed by the United States is estimated at about 5,800. Other Western countries already have a much more modest stockpile of the most lethal weapons in human history. Exact figures are not available, as countries keep details of their nuclear programs secret. However, it is speculated that the French have about 290 warheads, and the UK roughly 215.

Poland does not have nuclear weapons, but like other NATO allies it is under the “nuclear umbrella” of the United States. Unfortunately, this “umbrella” does not act like a missile shield and is unable to physically protect a given area from attack by nuclear weapons – instead, it functions on the basis of the doctrine of deterrence. A country that decides to use a nuclear payload against a NATO state must expect a nuclear counterattack. In response to an attack on any of its allies, nuclear weapons can be launched from nuclear submarines not only by the US, but also by the UK (the decision to launch a nuclear attack is made by the UK Prime Minister) and France (the red button is available only to the French President). The use of U.S. nuclear weapons located in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy is decided by the U.S. President, but the host countries would have to agree to drop them using their own jets. Pilots from these countries regularly practice dropping US bombs. Their number under the NATO Nuclear Sharing program is estimated at about 100 B61 bombs (a tactical or strategic thermonuclear air bomb).

The various decision-making centers in NATO countries constitute important elements of the deterrence strategy, as the enemy can never be sure what the alliance’s actual response will be in the event of a nuclear attack on any NATO member. According to many experts, the West would not respond to Russia’s use of nuclear weapons in the same way, but would launch a spectacular cyberattack or attack with conventional weapons.

A strike from Belarus?

“First, all of Ukraine, then Belarus, and then an attack on Poland” – a Russian historian and writer living in the United States warned against such a scenario as early as 2015.

During a visit to Warsaw in September of the current year, Yuri Felshtinsky said bluntly that in his opinion World War III began on February 24th, 2022. The co-author of such global bestsellers as “The Corporation. Russia and the KGB in the Age of President Putin” and “Blowing Up Russia” explained during the international conference “GenFree: Three Seas Generation Freedom” that the only reason Putin has not yet formally annexed Belarus is that he wants to use the country for a nuclear offensive. According to Felshtinsky, the Kremlin’s calculations are straightforward: if missiles with nuclear payloads are launched from Belarus, any retaliatory strike from NATO should be aimed at targets located within Belarus. Russia would thus be attempting to intimidate the West and force the execution of President Putin’s main goal, namely, to obtain a tacit agreement to rebuild the Russian empire and exclude from NATO not only the Baltic states, but also Poland. Some of Russia’s leaders not only outright talk about reclaiming the former Soviet republics, but also claim that the authorities in Moscow do not recognize the 1918 borders.

And although the successive staggering defeats of Russian troops on the Ukrainian front show emphatically that the Russian empire – at least in the category of conventional armaments and army training – only exists in the history books, both Vladimir Putin and other members of the Moscow elite’s special services background must realize that a possible Russian defeat in Ukraine would have huge domestic, international (loss of image as a regional power), as well as economic and military (a demoralized, weakened army) repercussions.

And while the very idea of using nuclear weapons on the battlefield for the first time since World War II seems difficult to imagine, after all, such a possibility is clearly enshrined in Russian military doctrine. In mid-September of this year, this was emphasized at a press conference by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who, when asked about the possibility of using nuclear charges in Ukraine, replied briefly, “Read the doctrine. It’s all written there.”

The publicly announced decree, signed by the Russian president on June 2nd, 2020, makes it clear that the Kremlin can reach for its nuclear arsenal in response to a nuclear attack, to an attack through the use of weapons of mass destruction, as well as to a conventional attack that, in Moscow’s subjective assessment, could threaten the existence of the Russian state or an allied country.

It is not clear which countries are counted among the allies in whose defense Russia would reach for its nuclear arsenal. Even before the announcement of the rigged results of the pseudo-referendum in the occupied territories of Ukraine, diplomatic chief Sergei Lavrov declared that the four areas in Ukraine already annexed by Putin – Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporozhye – were to gain full Russian protection.

Atomic ladder of escalation

The decree itself has had one purpose since it went public in 2020: to scare the West. The trouble for Putin and his possible successors in the Russian services is that the “last chance” negotiations of February 2022 made it clear that Russia is no longer feared by the whole world. And the demands for Ukraine’s surrender coming from Moscow in the spring were rightly disregarded by the authorities in Kiev.

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Moscow elites may think that Ukraine’s current allies will not want to risk climbing another step on the ladder of nuclear escalation, not even to mention the real threat of a nuclear conflict in Europe. The Russians themselves should also be aware that their use of nuclear weapons carries with it not only the threat of massive retaliation from NATO (everyone knows that a large-scale nuclear war cannot be won), but also, at least in theory, the threat of losing all allies, including China, as well as huge economic consequences that could threaten the breakup of the Russian Federation.

Of course, the Russians’ calculations are quite different from those of Western politicians or publicists. Putin seems convinced that the Russian economy will survive no matter how severe the sanctions imposed on Russia, as evidenced by the launch of the invasion of Ukraine in February, despite clear evidence that such a decision from a rational point of view would be a very costly mistake. How they will reason this time, of course, is unknown. After all, the Russians may imagine that after using nuclear weapons and forcing the Ukrainians to surrender, they will sit down at the negotiating table and announce that in exchange for the right to seize Ukraine and, for example, the Baltic states – or Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Poland – they are ready to de-escalate, refrain from further nuclear weapons attacks, and continue to function in peaceful relations with the West.

It should also be remembered that in the 1980s the Soviets had already created, among other things, a so-called “dead hand” system of nuclear revenge from beyond the grave called “Perimeter”, whose task was to launch the entire nuclear arsenal in the direction of the US in case the Americans struck first and succeeded in destroying Russian command centers.

Nuclear scenarios

The quiet and informal annexation, or at least occupation, of Belarus predicted by Russian historian Yuri Felshtinsky, referenced at the beginning of the text, has de facto already occurred. Asked last Wednesday by CNN journalist Jake Tapper about the possibility of Vladimir Putin using tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine, Joe Biden was already more optimistic than he had been a week earlier, and replied briefly, “I don’t think he will.” For now, Western services are also not sounding the alarm about nuclear bombs being transported from nuclear stockpiles to military units. One of such warehouses is located close to the border with Ukraine, while another – renovated and enlarged several years ago – is located in Kaliningrad neighboring Poland, which hosted war games in May of this year, during which Russian troops practiced a simulated nuclear attack using Iskanders. So as long as there is no concrete Russian action in sight, there is a good chance that it will only end with aggressive nuclear rhetoric. The next step on the nuclear ladder of fear could be to transport the payloads to the units – launching such actions would give the West about a dozen hours to prepare a concrete response, which could also only serve to raise tensions.

The essence of nuclear deterrence doctrine, not only in the case of Russia, but also in the case of any nuclear power, is the uncertainty of potential enemies as to when it will be used. In turn, all declarations and threats to reach for the nuclear arsenal are an element of information and psychological warfare. One hopes, therefore, that the Russian leadership’s nuclear blackmail is just a bluff, aimed at finally creating a powerful fear of Russia in Westerners and showing the Russians what they have long awaited for – a global fear of them.

However, even Russian leaders are aware of the risks of putting the world on the brink of a large-scale nuclear conflict. Nevertheless, the West, including Poland, should take Putin’s threats seriously if only to leave itself room for maneuver and simultaneously for diplomacy aimed at cooling a somewhat dangerous “nuclear fever”.

This article was published in October 2022 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.