Putin is preparing for a nuclear showdown – we must be ready

Russian President Vladimir Putin - Mikhail Metzel
Russian President Vladimir Putin - Mikhail Metzel

Russia downing a US drone yesterday was a deliberate provocation. It is a concerning incident, but such brinkmanship feels destined to get worse. It is small fry compared to where things could go if we are not prepared.

Putin is in a corner, his position weakening every day as western tanks start to appear over the horizon and Zelensky’s spring offensive approaches. The great Russian push in eastern Ukraine appears to be petering out at massive human cost to the aggressors. Last weeks’ huge volley of missiles, including the much-vaunted ‘unstoppable’ hypersonic ones, have passed with a whimper, and sanctions are at last sending the Russian economy into freefall.

The Ukrainians intend to kick Russian troops out of eastern Ukraine but also the Crimea. Doing so would no doubt signal the end of Putin’s rule. But it would mark a dangerous moment. The dictator has relished repeating in public the story about his youth in Leningrad when he watched a cornered rat fight back. For years, the Kremlin has assiduously curated Putin’s image as a ruthless former KGB officer who is not afraid to take bold action to defend the Motherland, especially when facing off against the combined forces of the West.

Western audiences have largely fallen for this narrative. The reality is much more nuanced. Putin is far more rational and calculating than many of his opponents give him credit for. He has a nose for weakness, including for his own fragility, but it is not infallible. He is fond of the good life. As Garry Kasparov pointed out, ‘Putin wants to rule like Stalin but live like Abramovich’.

In our study for the Heritage Foundation, we argue that there is another area where Western audiences have oversimplified the reality of Putin’s abilities – specifically on the nuclear question. We argue that the threat of Russian use of nuclear weapons is primarily a tactic to scare selected Western audiences, and thus weaken the link between Ukraine and its Western allies. Those who believe that the Russians themselves view them as conventional weapons of war are incorrect.

Even so, we cannot be sure that Russia will not use nuclear weapons as a ‘last resort’ in Ukraine. The Kremlin has laid the linguistic framework for their use. There are four circumstances in Russia's latest nuclear doctrine which can justify nuclear weapons deployment: an imminent use of nuclear weapons against Russia, actual nuclear use against Russia, a threat to inhibit Russia's control of its nuclear weapons, and a threat to the existence of Russia. Whilst none of those conditions apply in the Ukraine war, the notion of “threat” is being re-interpreted by the Russian leadership.

At a recent conference, President Putin, citing his country’s military doctrine, said that Russia could use weapons of mass destruction; “to protect its sovereignty, territorial integrity and to ensure the safety of the Russian people.”  Second, Putin and his allies have framed the Ukraine war in existential terms. If Nato ‘seizes’ Ukraine, then Russia itself will be next, they argue.

So what must Western governments do?

First, they must reassure the public that they are aware of the threat of Russian nuclear weapons in extremis. Nuclear threats are not mere bluff. Constantly downgrading the threat fails to prepare us to dissuade Russia if, or when, a crisis point comes.

Second, one of the key lessons learned from the 2011 Fukushima civil nuclear disaster in Japan was that a lack of information, in particular an accurate assessment of radiation levels, can lead to ill-informed decisions. The US and its allies should improve how they detect and monitor radiation in case of nuclear use, a missile strike on a nuclear facility, or an accident stemming from a nuclear plant located in an area of military operations. This will primarily help protect civilian populations from civil nuclear accidents, but could also help in times of war. Related to this, we should maintain medical stockpiles, such as of potassium iodide, and supplies of personal protective equipment.

Thirdly, ensure that any use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia is met by a robust Western and global response that is calibrated, relies on conventional weapons, and is informed by an understanding of Russian behaviour and thinking. More importantly, Russia should know exactly what the response would be long in advance. Strategic ambiguity is simply too risky in this case.

Fourth, we need to keep channels of communication with Moscow open, even if the Kremlin is not responsive.

Putin’s dreams of Ukraine re-incorporated into Russia, of breaking up Nato, and of Russia leading a global anti-Western alliance are collapsing about him. Disaster for Russia’s imploding armed forces may well await, and at some point, Ukraine’s armed forces will likely threaten to break Russia’s land corridor linking Crimea to the Donbas. At that point, Putin will make one of the most fateful decisions of the century: whether to employ nuclear or chemical weapons. The U.S. and UK must act now to minimise that threat and to ensure the protection of the American and British publics and allies.

Col Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE is a former commander of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment. He is a regular contributor to The Telegraph's daily podcast 'Ukraine the Latest', which has over 24 million downloads.

Bob Seely is Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight and sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee. He has a PhD from King's College London in Russian military strategy