Putin’s Nuclear Threat Leaves The West Uneasy

In September, Vladimir Putin suggested the possibility of using nuclear weapons in Russia’s war on Ukraine. “We will use all means to defend the nation and the people,” Putin said on the 21st, and on the 30th he added, “It is the United States that has set a precedent for the use of nuclear weapons.”

Earlier this month, foreign media reported that Russia was preparing for a nuclear test in the Kara Sea region of the Arctic Ocean, and that a train the Russian Ministry of Defense had dedicated to atomic equipment was moving to the Ukrainian battlefield. The West is seeing increasing evidence that Putin is creating a nuclear threat, but has not brought up a counter-nuclear weapon. “There will be serious consequences if Russia uses nuclear weapons,” N.A.T.O. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a briefing after the N.A.T.O. defence ministers’ meeting. “President Putin’s nuclear threat is dangerous and irresponsible. … Russia should know there are no winners in the nuclear war, and it should never happen,” Stoltenberg said, adding that the possibility of Russian nuclear deployment is “an extremely distant future story.”

However, if Russia does deploy nuclear weapons in Ukraine, “we will annihilate Russian troops,” senior E.U. foreign and security policy representative Rousseff Borrell said in a speech at a university in Brussels, Belgium last Thursday. This is the highest-level statement among Western leaders responding to Russia’s nuclear threat.

Even if Russia uses nuclear weapons, Western military experts predict that it will not respond with them, fearing that the West will expand into World War III. Senior Representative Borrell said that, like Russia, the West will not respond with nuclear weapons. As the leader of one of the three N.A.T.O. members with nuclear weapons – the others being the United States and the United Kingdom – President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview with French media last Wednesday that France will not respond to a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine with its nuclear arsenal. Rather, the West is expected to respond by destroying Russian military facilities with missiles or providing more deadly weapons to the Ukrainian military. Citing a N.A.T.O. official, the Financial Times said that N.A.T.O.’s response is likely to involve conventional weaponry.

This does not mean that N.A.T.O. is unprepared for a nuclear threat. Reuters and the Associated Press both reported last Tuesday that N.A.T.O. plans to conduct “nuclear deterrence drills” and preside over “nuclear strategy meetings” to strengthen solidarity among its allies and send a strong warning message to Russia. The Nuclear Planning Group, a consultative body established in 1966, also held a regular meeting last week in Brussels to examine nuclear policies, including N.A.T.O. allies’ atomic weapons operations, considering the current security environment.

N.A.T.O. is also planning to conduct its long-planned Steadfast Noon exercise, Secretary-General Stoltenberg said at a press conference at the Brussels headquarters in Belgium. Steadfast Noon is an annual simulation exercise assuming nuclear war scenarios. The exercise uses mock atomic weapons from the United States, deployed at six bases in five N.A.T.O.-aligned countries in Europe (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey). No actual weapons are used, but more than 50 aircraft, including fighter jets capable of carrying nuclear weapons, available fighter jets, and aerial refuelling aircraft, will be dispatched. The week-long exercise will be attended by 14 of the 30 N.A.T.O. member countries and will take place more than 1,000 kilometres away from Russia.

“This routine exercise, which takes place every year, was planned even before Russia invaded Ukraine, and if [N.A.T.O.] suddenly cancels the exercise under the current situation, it will send a very wrong signal,” Stoltenberg said. “N.A.T.O.’s determined, predictable actions and strong military power are the best way to prevent all kinds of tensions with Russia.”

“I don’t think … Vladimir Putin will use nuclear weapons,” President Joe Biden told C.N.N. in an interview last Tuesday. Biden refused to disclose the detailed U.S. response plan if Putin does use nuclear weapons, but said that the Ministry of National Defense is “pre-emptively preparing for an emergency,” affirming that he did not think those preparations would come into play. “I sent President Putin a cautious but clear and cold message about the catastrophic consequences of using nuclear weapons,” Biden said. “I don’t think he will.”

However, five days before the interview, President Joe Biden referred to the possibility of Russia’s use of nuclear weapons as “Armageddon,” the Biblical last war of mankind. When asked about the expression, Biden answered, “There can be mistakes, and misjudgment can occur. … No one is sure what will happen or whether it will end in Armageddon.”

Heewon Seo