WASHINGTON – The understandable threat of Russian President Vladimir Putin to turn the war in Ukraine into a wider nuclear conflict puts President Joe Biden facing a choice he rarely thinks of in the nuclear age, including raising the preparedness of US nuclear forces.
This turn of events is all the more characteristic of the fact that less than a year ago, Putin and Biden made a statement at the Geneva summit that seemed more in line with the idea that the threat of nuclear war was a remnant of the Cold War. “Nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought,” they agreed.
Putin on Sunday told his top defense and military officials to put the nuclear force on a “special combat duty regime”, but it was not immediately clear how this could change the status of Russia’s nuclear forces, if at all. The United States constantly maintains its ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, in high readiness, and it is believed that Russian submarines ’nuclear missiles, like American ones, are in the same position.
Putin said he was responding to economic sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western countries in recent days for his invasion of Ukraine, as well as “aggressive statements about our country,” which he did not elaborate on.
The Biden administration praised Putin’s move, which he said was exacerbating the already dangerous conflict. In fact, Putin’s words pose a threat rarely heard even during the Cold War, when the much larger nuclear arsenals of the United States and the former Soviet Union threatened the world with nuclear Armageddon.
HOW DOES THIS CHANGE THE RISK OF NUCLEAR WAR?
U.S. officials, though concerned about Putin’s words, have said they do not know he intends. But an American or Russian leader so rarely expresses an alleged nuclear threat, especially in the current context of the war in Ukraine, that the risk of it becoming nuclear cannot be ruled out. In Russia, as in the United States, the president has the sole authority to order a nuclear strike.
The United States and Russia have two of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals, by far. These include weapons that can be delivered by aircraft, submarines and ground-based ballistic missiles. The only time in history that nuclear weapons were used in combat was when the United States twice bombed Japan in August 1945, and at that time the United States had a global monopoly on nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union successfully tested its first bomb in 1949.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said Putin’s order to put his nuclear forces on high alert is regrettable, but not a complete surprise given his previous covert threats against any nation that tried to stop him. Ukraine.
“The introduction of nuclear weapons into Ukraine’s military equation at this time is extremely dangerous, and the United States, President Biden and NATO must act with extreme restraint” and not respond to the same, Kimball said. “This is a very dangerous moment in this crisis, and we must urge our leaders to move away from the nuclear border.”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY NUCLEAR WEAPONS?
According to U.S. nuclear doctrine, the level of readiness of weapons plays a major role in deterring an attack. The idea is that a willingness to respond in a short time makes the enemy less likely to attack in the first place and risk retaliation that will inflict unintentional damage.
The counter-argument is that the presence of ICBMs, which the Pentagon calls the fastest part of its nuclear arsenal, in high alert during the crisis compresses the president’s room for decision-making and leaves open the possibility of ordering them in response to false alarms. 400 deployed US ICBMs are constantly in service.
Some arms control experts are in favor of removing ICBMs from high-alert mode by separating missiles from their nuclear warheads. But in a crisis, perhaps like the one envisioned by Putin’s order on Sunday, the decision to rearm the missiles will be taken as an escalating move that could exacerbate the crisis.
During the Cold War, the armaments of the United States and Russia were not only more numerous but also more prepared. President George W. Bush in 1991 took a historic step by withdrawing US strategic bombers capable of nuclear weapons, withdrawing from combat readiness as part of a broader step to break the nuclear arms race. Since then, the bombers remain unprepared.
HOW DID THE UNITED STATES RESPOND TO PUTIN?
There is no evidence that the Biden administration reciprocated Putin’s statement that he was ordering his nuclear forces on a “special combat duty” – perhaps in part because it was unclear what it meant in practice.
There have also been no reports from Washington that Putin has taken alarming steps, such as loading nuclear weapons of all or part of Russia’s nuclear air fleet or sending additional submarines with ballistic missiles to sea.
In addition to his strategic nuclear forces, Putin has at least a couple of thousand so-called non-strategic nuclear weapons, such as short-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. They are called non-strategic because they cannot reach the United States. But this is of little comfort to European countries that are within range of these weapons. The United States has about 200 non-strategic weapons in Europe; these are bombs to be delivered by European aircraft.
For years, some U.S. officials have worried that Putin, faced with the prospect of losing the war in Europe, could resort to the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons, thinking it would soon end the conflict on his terms.
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