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Is the risk of Nuclear War Non Zero?

Quite evidently Russia has the capability and has rehearsed the use nuclear weapons – strategic or non strategic thus the ongoing debate cannot be considered as rhetoric.

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A U.S. nuclear test in the Nevada desert in 1953 Foto: National Nuclear Security Administration

There is increased speculation of the war in Ukraine leading to eventual involvement of NATO due to added momentum of the Russian offensive this year [2024] securing key locations such as Avidiivka.

A corresponding debility in defence supplies to Ukraine and inadequacy of manpower mobilisation for war in Kyiv is seen as an indicator that NATO wily nily will be pulled in to the Ukraine War to prevent Russia from overrunning the country.

The French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent statement in Paris while hosting 20 European leaders to discuss the situation in Ukraine that, “We are convinced that the defeat of Russia is indispensable to security and stability in Europe.” “We are not at war with the Russian people. We just don’t want to let them win.”. President Macron said.

His most explosive statement was on sending NATO troops to Ukraine. “There was no consensus today to send troops on to the ground in an manner that’s official, assumed and endorsed,” he said, adding, “But on the dynamic, nothing should be excluded. We will do everything so that Russia cannot win this war.”

While other NATO members and European leaders were quick to deny any such intent to deploy forces in Europe there was an obvious reaction from the Kremlin.

On February 29, 2024 Russian President Vladimir Putin in his State of the Nation Speech stated,

“They must understand that we also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory,” Putin said of any deployment of NATO troops to Ukraine. “All this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons and the destruction of civilization. Don’t they get that?”

“The current generation of NATO politicians clearly does not take the nuclear threat seriously,” Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, told Newsweek. “We are compelled to warn of the emerging risks associated with the intervention of NATO states into the Russian special military operation.”

“[The new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads] will force all who are trying to threaten our country in the heat of frenzied, aggressive rhetoric to think twice,” President Vladimir Putin said.

This comes even as per Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Russia’s modernisation of the nuclear capable systems to replace the Soviet era ones is in the final stages. 

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reports that in December 2023, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu had indicated that 95 percent of Russia’s nuclear triad comprises of modern weapons.

Even though Russia’s nuclear doctrine envisages that apart from the nuclear scenarios, only “The aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy,” will invite the use of nuclear weapons there is scepticism given the liberal use of the nuclear word by Mr  Putin and other Russian officials throughout the duration of the war in Ukraine.

A recent report by Financial Times reveals that Mr Putin’s forces have rehearsed using tactical nuclear weapons at an early stage of conflict with a major world power including training scenarios for an invasion by China. This indicates that the threshold of use of nuclear weapons in Russia may have been lowered.

CNN, the US media indicated that US had asked China and India to dissuade Russia from carrying out a nuclear strike in 2022.

In this context in September 2022 at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, India Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi had categorically stated in his meeting with Mr Putin that this is not an era of war.

This had some impact on Russia which had possibly identified the use of tactical nukes given some setbacks faced in the War in Ukraine which Russia continues to call as a Special Military Operation.

Quite evidently Russia has the capability and has rehearsed the use nuclear weapons – strategic or non strategic thus the ongoing debate cannot be considered as rhetoric.

However, Russian leadership is expected to employ the desired degree of restraint before throwing Europe into a nuclear Armageddon.

Thus, the possibility of a nuclear war is low but not Non Zero for now.

Rahul K Bhonsle

Brigadier (Retired) Rahul K Bhonsle, MSc, MPhil, MBA is an Indian army military veteran with 30 years active field experience in counter militancy and terrorism operations. He is presently Director of Sasia Security-Risks.com, a South Asian security risk and knowledge management consultancy which specializes in future scenarios, military capacity building and conflict trends in South Asia.

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