Speculation over whether or not Vladimir Putin will use nuclear weapons has been rife and the consequences could be disastrous for the West and the Russian president
With Russia’s invasion stalling and the Ukrainian attack on the Kerch Bridge have both contributed to increased concern Putin could escalate from conventional weapons to a tactical nuclear strike.
The US President Joe Biden said last week that the world was the closest it had been to “Armageddon” at any point since the Cuban Missile Crisis, after more sabre rattling from the Kremlin.
NATO says that such a move would probably lead to a “physical response” from Ukraine, her allies and even NATO itself.
It said any use of nuclear weapons would have “unprecedented consequences” and that Moscow was using its nuclear threats mainly to deter NATO and other countries from intervening directly in Ukraine.
What measures could the West take if Putin goes nuclear?
Former Ukrainian defence minister, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, has said that NATO has several options should Putin make a “terrible” decision.
Writing in Foreign Affairs he said: “It might not even need a land operation, the Western coalition could credibly tell the Kremlin that it would hit Russian capabilities with direct missile strikes and airstrikes, destroying its military facilities and disabling its Black Sea fleet.
“It could threaten to cut all its communications with electronic warfare and arrange a cyber-blackout against the entire Russian military.”
He added that “breaking the nuclear taboo” could also provoke repercussions from China and India, which would be another blow to the Kremlin.
Is the West doing anything to deter a nuclear attack?
Professor Michael Clarke, former director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, said the Kremlin had already been warned about the consequences of escalation.
He said: “When the tactical nuclear weapon threats were raised a few weeks ago, the US and three or four NATO members personally contacted their counterparts in Russia and in the Russian general staff to say ‘don’t even think about it’.
“They won’t tell us what they said and nor should they because there has got to be some uncertainty about this in order to maintain a deterrent but what they seem to have said is first of all ‘we will not be passive’.
“Second, we won’t go nuclear, but we will go conventional, and we have the conventional power to hit all of your nuclear infrastructure and facilities. If we even think that you’re going nuclear, if we see the preparations start – we might attack you’.
“That seems to have been the message.”
Should the West be doing more now?
Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has said Russia’s latest missile attacks in Ukraine were “a sad reminder that the most horrific pages of this ugly war are still ahead of us”.
The “Kremlin’s response is becoming ever more erratic disproportionate and destructive,” he said.
Discussing Russia’s reaction to the blast on Kerch Bridge – a key route from Russia to Crimea – Mr Gabuev said this showed Russia “still has a vast toolkit for escalation”.
He said: “Given the high stakes and emotions, the window for diplomacy is likely to open at the most dramatic moment: for example, when Putin starts to unpack his nuclear toolkit, which will be visible to NATO and involve a lot of signalling by Moscow.
“Only then might the Ukrainian and western publics be convinced there is an urgent need to negotiate.”
He added that negotiations would have to involve President Biden “since the Kremlin considers him the only real head of the opposing coalition” and the sooner they started, the better.
What do the Ukrainian people think?
A nuclear attack wouldn’t change anything about the Ukrainian people’s resolve to fight, a Ukrainian MP has claimed.
The Ukrainian MP Yelyzaveta Yasko told Kay Burley: “Putin doesn’t have any logic any more. It’s not possible to justify Putin any more.
“We understand that he’s in his final battle of his life where he wants to prove to all the world that he can do whatever he wants, including taking land, killing thousands of people, destroying infrastructure, and we understand that nuclear threat and a strike is very possible, but it’s not going to change a lot on the scene of Ukraine.
“Of course, it’s a disaster. It’s catastrophic for me. It’s a big tragedy to see thousands of people being killed, wounded, destroyed lives.
“But it’s not going to change the rule of Ukrainian people to restore justice and to restore our territorial sovereignty.”
Why the West should stop sounding so worried about a nuclear attack
Ian Bond, from the Centre for European Reform, says the West needs to stop being – and sounding – afraid of a nuclear attack.
He told the Doomsday Watch podcast: “Nothing is as provocative to Putin as weakness, so the more the West says ‘We are afraid that Russia might use nuclear weapons’, the more likely that Putin is to continue making the threat of using nuclear weapons – and perhaps even use one or two to demonstrate he really means it.”
Bond says the message to Russia, which could be delivered privately, should be: “Please understand that if you go nuclear, we will regard the gloves as being off.”
While accepting that no one could “absolutely rule out” Russia using nuclear weapons, he added: “We should stop frightening ourselves with the Bogeyman that if the Ukrainians drive the Russians out, the Russians are going to go nuclear, I just don’t buy that.”