What is the probability that Russia will launch a nuclear attack?
Vladimir Putin put Russia’s strategic nuclear forces on high alert on Sunday, sparking fears about what could happen next in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
The Russian president blamed “hostile actions in the economic sphere”, which refers to economic sanctions, and claimed that key NATO members had made “aggressive statements” towards the nation, urging it to act.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday blamed the escalation on remarks by Foreign Minister Liz Truss, although it was unclear which remarks he was referring to.
That claim was later dismissed by an ally of Ms Truss, who said nothing the Foreign Secretary said ‘justifies this kind of escalation’.
But what could happen now following Mr. Putin’s orders? Here’s everything you need to know.
– What did Vladimir Putin say about nuclear weapons?
At a meeting on Sunday, Russian TV footage showed Mr Putin meeting his defense minister and chief of staff, and ordering them to put nuclear weapons under a “special combat duty regime”.
Describing what this means, Patricia Lewis, director of the international security program at the Chatham House think tank, told the Palestinian Authority News Agency: “What we think happened is is that in peacetime, Russia has checks and balances in place so that they cannot launch nuclear weapons.
“So in order to be able to launch nuclear weapons, President Putin has to change the status from peacetime to combat, hence the phrase that he’s ‘putting his forces into special combat mode’. I think we’d probably call that combat readiness, but it’s difficult because of the different languages and different meanings.
“What he seems to have done is create the legal platform to be able to jump in if he wants to,” she added.
RUSI (Royal United Services Institute) deputy chief executive Professor Malcolm Chalmers said the wording had not been used before so it was not “entirely clear” what it meant.
“I haven’t seen any reports of changes in the postures of Russian nuclear forces,” he told the AP. “Obviously I don’t have access to classified information, but I haven’t seen any reports as such.
“So it’s not clear how it’s changing. It may be something to do with the particular authorization mechanisms between the president and the nuclear forces or it may be nothing at all. What’s clear is that it’s designed to be something we need to listen to. It is designed as a reminder that Russia is a nuclear power.”
– What is the probability of a nuclear attack?
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace tried to throw cold water on fears of nuclear war, saying that while he understood the concerns, the wording was a “rhetorical battle”.
In media interviews on Monday, he told Sky News he was “not going to speculate” on what Mr Putin might do in the future.
He later told BBC Breakfast: “We don’t see or recognize in the kind of phrase or the status he described as anything that is a change from what they currently have as that nuclear posture.
“It’s mainly about Putin putting it on the table just to remind people, to remind the world, that it has a chilling effect.
“We won’t do anything to escalate in this area, we won’t do anything to fuel miscalculation, we take this very, very seriously.
“But right now, it’s a rhetorical battle that President Putin is waging, and we just have to make sure we handle it properly.”
Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Tugendhat meanwhile said Russia views nuclear weapons on the battlefield as just “a bigger blow” and could issue a military order to use them.
Some experts said it was unclear whether or not Putin would carry out a nuclear attack, while others dismissed the possibility, saying mutual destruction would be too great.
Ms Lewis said: “Now that he’s moved into a combat situation, he can [launch a nuclear attack]. But will he? We do not know. This is the problem.
“Of course he wants to scare us. And I think Russia has long understood that the West is much more afraid of Russian nuclear weapons than Russia is afraid of Western nuclear weapons, and I think that’s true.
She added: “There is a possibility of retaliating against conventional force with nuclear weapons under Western doctrines, but it is widely believed that this would be a last resort.
“I think over the last decade there has been a feeling that Putin, with [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un and [Former US President] Donald Trump, are people who could have launched a nuclear weapon. So there’s always been this unpredictability… I don’t want to overdo it but I don’t want to minimize it either.
Professor Chalmers meanwhile said he thought it was ‘unlikely’, adding: ‘Because any use of nuclear weapons would open such a Pandora’s box, and the possibility of an escalation towards the use other nuclear weapons once a country has used them, the pressure on other nuclear weapon states to use them in response would be very considerable…the Russians understand that and so does the West. So it’s a paradox.
– What could happen in a nuclear attack?
If Russia launched an attack on a NATO country, experts said there could be retaliatory strikes from other NATO countries, sparking a conflict which Professor Chalmers said would lead to ” orders of magnitude worse than World War II”.
The number of casualties would depend on the area attacked. Nuclear weapons have the capacity to kill hundreds of thousands of people depending on the population of the targeted area.
Others could be injured from radiation poisoning if a specific facility is targeted instead.
– What nuclear weapons does Russia have?
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which has published an account of the world’s nuclear arsenals compiled by leading experts from the Federation of American Scientists since 1987, updated its archive on Russia’s nuclear arsenal last week.
He said the stockpile is about 4,477 warheads, of which about 1,588 are strategic warheads that can be deployed on ballistic missiles and heavy bomber bases, while about 977 additional strategic warheads, as well as 1 912 non-strategic warheads, are kept in reserve.
– What about the rest of the world?
According to the Federation of American Scientists, the latest figures indicate that the UK has a stockpile of around 225 nuclear warheads, while the US has 5,428, France has 290, Pakistan has 165. , China has 350, India has 160, Israel has 90 and North Korea has 20.