With Russian forces struggling to overtake Ukraine, how likely is the Kremlin to escalate the war by using a nuclear weapon? Peter Brookes, Heritage’s senior research fellow for weapons of mass destruction and counter proliferation, explains.
Michelle Cordero: From The Heritage Foundation, I'm Michelle Cordero, and this is Heritage Explains. Just days after Russian president, Vladimir Putin, invaded Ukraine, he put his nuclear weapons on high alert. So what does it mean to be on high alert? It means that his missiles are armed and ready with nuclear warheads that could be ordered within 15 minutes. But mostly, it serves as a warning, a reminder to those supporting Ukraine of Russia's nuclear superpower status and potential consequences. Remember, Russia possesses the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world, and it's not afraid to make threats. Recently, Russian State Television threatened the UK with a nuclear weapon dubbed by NATO as Satan 2 for its support of Ukraine.
Clip: What will happen after Boris Johnson's words about a retaliatory strike on Russia? Why do they threaten vast Russia with nuclear weapons while they're only a small island? The island is so small that one Sarmat missile is enough to drown it once and for all.
Cordero: With Russian forces struggling to overtake Ukraine, how likely is the Kremlin to actually escalate the war by using a nuclear weapon on Ukraine? And if they did, how would they do it? And what should the reaction from the United States be? Our guest today is Peter Brookes, Heritage's Senior Research Fellow for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Counter Proliferation. Our conversation after this short break.
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Cordero: Peter, thank you so much for joining us.
Peter Brookes: Good to be with you.
Cordero: All right. So how do we know for sure that Putin is thinking of using nuclear weapons?
Because he says it all the time.
Cordero: He does.
Brookes: Yes. He's made many, many threats, but not specific. It's ambiguous. He uses ambiguous terminology, but we also know that Russia's a major nuclear power, as large as the United States in terms of the nuclear power. Nuclear weapons we're talking about, not nuclear energy here. And a lot of his others, his functionaries, his ministers have made similar comments. Now, they don't say we're going to nuke you, we're going to nuke Ukraine or anything like that, but it's enough that reading between the lines, we know what they're talking about. I can't quote for you exactly what they've said in that respect, but there's plenty of it out there.
Cordero: It's sort of like read between the lines.
Brookes:Read between the lines, yeah. There's a lot of threats that they've talked about. They've increased their level of alertness of their nuclear forces. They're calling it a special combat regime. So what does that mean? It's hard to tell. I mean, the intelligence services, our intelligence services, NATO's intelligence services are looking at this and it doesn't necessarily fit into a very easy box. It's hard to categorize, but there's enough threats there that we know, because we already know what he's doing in Ukraine. So what's the next step? Moving from the conventional forces, tanks, airplane, soldiers, to nuclear weapons. And nuclear weapons are a part of Russian military doctrine, unfortunately.
Cordero: Yeah. My next step leads right into it really well. Under what circumstances might Russia use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine?
Brookes: Right. We're talking about Ukraine. And when we talk about this, we kind of whittle it down from the strategic weapons, the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that we talk about, ICBMs. Transcontinental, Intercontinental, shooting at the United States, shooting huge nuclear weapons at cities in Europe, things along that line. And when we talk about Ukraine, we're often talking about what they call battlefield nuclear weapons, tactical nuclear weapons, short range low yield nuclear weapons.
Brookes: Now, some people may see it seemingly ridiculous to say low yield because a nuclear weapon is obviously much more powerful than any conventional weapon that we have. It might be something on the order of what was used in World War II, but that's still huge. And then there are even ones much bigger than that that we call strategic long range weapon. So there's a concern that Russia might use a smaller, low yield, short range nuclear weapon for effect in Ukraine or in the Ukraine crisis, in Ukraine war. And there's several different scenarios and we can kind of talk about how they might use these tactical or battlefield low yield nuclear weapons in this war on Ukraine.
Brookes: So the possible scenarios as we see it are things like the war's not going well for Russia. Okay. I mean, we're talking on a specific day here in May and as people listen to this, Ukrainians are putting up a tremendous defense and even some offense taking back some territory. The war isn't going well. A lot of people feel that Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, is fueled by nationalism and even legacy. He is worried about how he'll be viewed in Russian history. Is he going to be... And I think he wants to be successful in this undertaking, which is an unjust war. I think we all agree. But I don't think he wants to lose.
Brookes: So if the conventional war is not going well, there's a doctrine, and I don't want to get too wonky or technical here, but it's called escalate to de-escalate. It's a nuclear doctrine and I've written about this in The Daily Signal, where Russia might move from the conventional level, tanks, airplane, soldiers, into the nuclear domain using a low yield tactical nuclear weapon to make a point, to threaten, to coerce, to intimidate.
Brookes: And there's a number of ways he could do that. He could use it against the forces in Ukraine, against the Ukrainian city. Obviously that would be devastating and this would be the first time these weapons would be used in 75 years. So deeply troubling on a whole number of levels, the moral, the legal, the military. And he could destroy a city and say, "Okay, do you want more or are you going to surrender?" So that's a possibility.
Brookes: Another possibility of signaling is that they could explode a weapon over an unpopulated area, over the Arctic Ocean or on Russian territory somewhere in the far, far north. Another signal saying, "If you don't stop resisting us the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people, we could use this against you." That's another thing. Also, signaling to NATO. "You better stop supporting Ukraine with arms and other financial means and even moral support. This is something, Russia, we're going to win here. And if you don't, you don't know what comes next."
Brookes: Could they use more tactical nuclear weapons? And we believe Russia has about 2,000 and the United States and NATO only have about 200. Yeah, that's another issue we could talk about if we have time about that asymmetry between that. We got rid of a lot of tactical nuclear weapons at the end of the cold war, the Russians didn't, and it's not part of any arms control agreement we have with Russia. We have this New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty under the Obama administration that limited the number of ICBMs and the big, big nuclear weapons, strategic nuclear weapons we're talking about, but there's nothing that restricts the Russian's tactical nuclear weapons, and we feel like they may have 2,000 of them. We may have 200, maybe 100 in Europe and 100 in storage in the United States. So there's this huge asymmetry.
Brookes: So the Russians, they could use these weapons in a way to signal to the West and to Europe and to the United States that it could get worse, that we could use more of these weapons, these tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine, against cities in Europe. Now, they probably couldn't reach the United States, but we can't forget that we have a lot of interest in Europe, including US Forces that are stationed all over the place. And then this could even signal that they would go even further and talk about Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and nuclear war.
Brookes: So it's very troubling and a lot of people are concerned about Putin's state of mind, where is he right now? The Russian army has taken significant losses. They've underperformed significantly, and Ukrainians have overperformed I think. Many of us, I always thought they could do this if they had what they needed. A lot of people weren't so sure of that, and I think they've overperformed. So things aren't going, at this moment as we talk, going very well for Russia, and Russia believe in... They can be very brutal in terms of their means of war.
Cordero: Do you think it would be effective if Russia did use one of those tactics?
Brookes: Well, it's very troubling, obviously. We have to take it very seriously. I would say at this point here in Washington, DC, on this afternoon in May that the risk is low, but it's not no risk. There is a risk that he could move in this direction. He could also, I didn't mention also, he could do an underground nuclear test in Russia somewhere, and that would also signal, right? There's a lot of political signaling that could go on here towards NATO, towards Ukraine, it would be towards both of them. But it's certainly a possibility that it could happen. Like I said, I think it's a low risk. But as things go on, that could certainly change and the risk could go up.
Brookes: Now, our intelligence community is looking very, very closely at this. They're surveilling the Russian nuclear forces very, very closely, and they seem to be... They're not terribly concerned right now and they've not changed our nuclear status. The Pentagon hasn't changed our nuclear status or the president hasn't changed our nuclear status or our alert status. But they're watching it very, very closely and that could change. That could change tomorrow. So it's something that everybody's keeping their eye on besides what is going on on the ground in Ukraine.
Cordero: That leads to my next question. Well, what has the Biden administration done or said about this growing threat?
Brookes: Well, they've obviously, they're trying to manage escalation. The idea that we don't want a wider war. We want the brutality, we want the aggression, we want the violence to stop. We want the return of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine to the Ukrainian government, to the Ukrainian people. They're being cautious. They're being open. They've talked about the fact that this might happen. As you remember, they've also talked about the possible use of chemical weapons, which is unique in that I think they were kind of trying to pull the rug out from underneath the Russians who might try something that's called a false flag operation by saying somebody used chemical weapons against Russian forces or against Ukrainian civilians and blaming it on somebody else. So they've talked about this openly I think to try to hem Russia in.
Brookes: But once again, if you have a leader who's fueled by concerns over his legacy and nationalism and is losing a war, that can quickly spin out of control. So, yeah, I mean, there's a tremendous amount of concern on both sides of the aisle about this possibility of this escalating obviously beyond Ukraine, a wider war. And then, of course, it moving up the escalation chain, as we say inside the business, moving from the conventional, to even other weapons of mass destruction. We talked about chemical or biological. And then, of course, to nuclear. So the Biden administration is in a very tough position because it seems that very few people, if anybody, have any influence over Putin.
Cordero: Is there anything that they should be saying or doing that they're not?
Brookes: Well, obviously, they still need to continue to be talking about this and the thing they really need to be doing is thinking about what happens if it happens.
Brookes: Oh, God forbid that it should happen, I mean, what can we do? And unfortunately it would depend on the circumstances. It's going to be very, very complicated. I mean, there are lots of options in responding from the very, very risky to the less risky, not necessarily a lot of easy choices. And I hope that they should be working on how they're going to respond because if it does, they might need to respond quickly.
Cordero: Yeah. In conclusion, can you explain to our audience what maybe a few of those choices could be?
Brookes: Sure. Yeah, there are a lot of them. And like I said, it's very serious. You want to achieve your objectives in Ukraine and control escalation, it's very, very important. I mean, something that's very, very risky would be responding in kind by using nuclear weapon ourselves. Very, very risky with an attack on Russia to try to respond to this. I'm not advocating this. I'm just saying these are what I'm talking about.
Brookes: Another very risky choice because of the chance of escalation too is responding in kind against Russian forces in Ukraine. When I say responding in kind, I mean using nuclear weapon. Risky would be in a conventional attack, using aircraft or missiles and things like that non-nuclear forces on Russian forces in Ukraine. Less risky would be continuing to support the Ukrainian government and people like we are with arms, et cetera. And least risky I think is doing nothing militarily but instead use diplomatic, economic and informational measures and tools to punish Russia for its use of nukes.
Brookes: So this is very, very serious stuff. It's very, very complicated and I'm kind of glad you didn't ask me what we would do if they did do these things because it would depend on the circumstances. And there are options. But as I mentioned, from the very risky to even, I think all of the options I gave you were risky at some level. So this is of tremendous concern because while we're seeing this terrible, terrible brutality in Ukraine, it could expand beyond that into NATO. And of course, in this day and age, with the capabilities of Intercontinental weapons, the United States' could potentially also be in the bullseye.
Cordero: So one last question. With the intelligence that you know and just assessing the situation, I think you answered this, but just one more time, what is the likelihood do you think that they use one?
Brookes: I think where people are today is that it's low risk, but it's not no risk, and every day brings-
Cordero: Low risk, not no risk. I like that.
Brookes: Right. It's low risk and not no risk, and every day brings new challenges because the situation on the ground is changing. I mean, I could talk about what's happening today, but that may be different tomorrow. So yes, low risk but not no risk in the challenges to control that escalation and the expanse of the war in Eastern Europe.
Cordero: Well, Peter, thank you so much for coming on to talk about this very serious topic.
Brookes: Thanks for having me.
Cordero: Hopefully we don't have to talk about it again.
Brookes: Yes. That would be great.
Cordero: And thank you again for joining us.
Brookes: Thanks for having me. Good to be with you.
Cordero: And that's it for this episode. Thank you so much for listening. If you liked this episode, we would love to hear from you, or even if you didn't like it, let us know. Leave us a comment here or on social media. We run the full episode on The Heritage Facebook page. Tim is up next week, we'll see you then.