The Situation in Which Russia Could Go Nuclear

'Would he?' is a question being asked and debated
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 2, 2022 11:32 AM CST
The Situation in Which Russia Could Go Nuclear
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, listens to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, on Oct. 24, 2019.   (Valery Sharifulin, TASS news agency Pool Photo via AP, File)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned Wednesday that were World War III to begin, it would involve nuclear weapons, reports Reuters. A few days earlier, Vladimir Putin announced he was putting the nation's nuclear deterrent forces on high alert, suggesting he was transitioning the country's nukes to a higher level of readiness. So what are the chances we'd get to the point where Russia actually dips into its nuclear stockpile? It's a question that's been asked and debated in recent weeks. Some coverage:

  • The stockpile itself: The BBC looks at what Russia has: The Federation of American Scientists estimates just shy of 6,000 nuclear warheads, though roughly 1,500 have been retired and earmarked for disposal. The remaining 4,500 aren't all ready for action, though. It's thought about 1,500 are "deployed"—i.e., on a sub at sea or at missile and bomber bases. Its stockpile is the biggest among the nine nuclear countries on the planet.
  • Parsing Putin's words: At the Guardian, Kristin Ven Bruusgaard observes that despite what Putin said Sunday, Russia's nuclear arsenal "remains on a certain level of readiness even during peacetime," and the US hasn't detected any signs that warheads are being moved. So if little has changed, why did Putin signal a move was being made? "To influence the Western calculus by repeating that a confrontation with Russia would entail a significant nuclear risk," en Bruusgaard writes. "To Moscow, the situation is now grave enough to gesture at its nuclear options."

  • One scenario: At Slate, Fred Kaplan sees one scenario in which Putin might actually go nuclear: if the US or NATO gets personally involved, say by sending troops or dropping bombs. "If Putin thought he couldn't win that war with conventional arms alone (he's having a hard enough time against just the Ukrainian army), he might very well escalate to nuclear war. That's what nuclear weapons are for—not just to deter a nuclear attack by an adversary but also to deter (and, if necessary, tip the course of) a large-scale conventional war."
  • The NATO angle: At Foreign Policy, Anchal Vohra writes that Russia's nuclear capabilities are exactly why the US and its European allies have ruled out sending troops. She points out that, "desperate to save his people, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has appealed, in vain, for immediate entry to NATO, which would oblige the alliance to come to Ukraine's defense. 'I've asked 27 leaders of Europe if Ukraine will be in NATO. I’ve asked them directly. All are afraid and did not respond,'" Zelensky said.
  • Nothing imminent: In comments to NPR, Olga Oliker of the International Crisis Group puts it like so: "I think it's very unlikely that Moscow is just going to lob a nuclear weapon at something. Obviously it's been a week when a lot of people's assumptions have been challenged, but I'll cling to this one for a while."
(More Russia stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.