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Will Russia use nuclear weapons? How many does Putin have - as leader puts nuclear deterrence ‘on alert’

Would Putin be prepared to use nuclear weapons on Ukraine - and which other countries have them?

Vladimir Putin has ordered Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces to be put on alert, amid the conflict in Ukraine.

The Russian state-run TASS news agency reported that President Putin made the decision at a meeting with defence minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia Valery Gerasimov.

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Here is everything you need to know about it.

What did Putin say?

In a statement reported by TASS on Sunday (27 February), Putin said: “Senior officials of the leading NATO countries also allow aggressive statements against our country, therefore I order the Minister of Defence and the Chief of the General Staff [of the Russian Armed Forces] to transfer the deterrence forces of the Russian army to a special mode of combat duty.”

What does Putin’s statement mean?

It remains unclear what “special mode of combat duty” means in practice, but it is clearly a provocation to the West.

It may also be a signal of the Russian leader’s frustration with the fact that, four days into the invasion of Ukraine, his forces have yet to capture any city, and have sustained heavy casualties.

Commons Defence Committee chairman Tobias Ellwood said that in the “worst-case scenario” Putin could deploy low yield tactical nuclear weapons if his forces failed to make a breakthrough in Ukraine.

Mr Ellwood said Western allies needed to think now what their response would be if the Russians were to use unconventional forces.

“He could certainly use other weapons systems which haven’t been really tested or that we aren’t really used to,” he told the BBC.

“Chemical weapons, the worst case scenario would be low yield tactical nuclear weapons as well. We need to ask those questions as to what we would do.”

Pavel Podvig, one of the leading experts on Russia’s nuclear deterrent, tweeted to say that Putin’s threat should be taken seriously:

How has the West responded?

The US has condemned Putin’s statement, calling it an “unacceptable” escalation.

In an interview with CBS’ Face the Nation, US ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said: “It means that President Putin is continuing to escalate this war in a manner that is totally unacceptable and we have to continue to stem his actions in the strongest possible way.”

Boris Johnson has dismissed Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he is putting Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent on high alert as a “distraction” from struggle his troops are facing in Ukraine.

The Prime Minister suggested his actions were more to do with the fact that his forces were meeting with “more resistance than the Kremlin had bargained for”.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki accused Mr Putin of resorting to the tactics he used running up to invasion, “which is to manufacture threats that don’t exist in order to justify further aggression”.

How has Ukraine responded?

Ukraine foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba has said a nuclear strike would be a “catastrophe for the world”.

“This order by President Putin came shortly after the announcement was made about two delegations ready to meet [for talks],” said Kuleba.

“We see this announcement or this order as an attempt to raise the stakes and to put additional pressure on the Ukrainian delegation.

“But we will not give in to this pressure. We will approach these talks with a very simple approach. We go there to listen [to what] what Russia has to say and we will tell them what we think of all this.”

Boris Johnson has previously warned Putin against making the “tragic mistake” of entering the nuclear state into a war with Ukraine.

But could Russian weapons reach UK shores? Is Ukraine able to defend itself with the same mighty weaponry? And how powerful are the tools at its disposal?

Be warned that the answers to the following questions do not make for comfortable reading.

Here is everything you need to know about it.

What nuclear weapons does Russia have?

(Image: NationalWorld/JPIMedia)

Russia has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world.

Though the exact number of nuclear warheads is a state secret, it is thought that Russia owns more than half of the world's 14,000 nuclear weapons.

Over 7,000 nuclear weapons is an alarmingly high figure, but the nation’s stockpile was once even greater; Russia's predecessor, the Soviet Union, had a peak stockpile of 45,000 nuclear warheads in 1986.

The tools at Russia’s disposal are also shrouded in secrecy, but intelligence estimates make for some pretty scary reading.

The Tsar Bomba - developed by the Soviet Union in the early 60s - is the most powerful nuclear weapon ever created and tested, responsible for the largest man-made explosion in human history.

It had an estimated explosive power of around 50 megatons.

In 2015, information emerged that Russia may be developing a new nuclear torpedo, up to 100 megatons - twice the power of the Tsar Bomba.

The Status-6 Ocean Multipurpose System is thought to have been designed to create a 500 metre tall tsunami wave that can radioactively contaminate wide areas of an enemy’s coastline.

It is also designed to be immune to anti-missile defence systems.

The weapon is unconfirmed, but during a 2018 state-of-the-nation address, President Putin claimed that Russia was now in possession of several new classes of nuclear weapon, including a nuclear powered underwater torpedo and a nuclear powered cruise missile with effectively unlimited ranges.

Could Russia use nuclear weapons on Ukraine?

Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2016 (Photo: Adam Berry/Getty Images)

In July 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Russian foreign minister stated that his country had the right to defend the peninsula using nuclear weapons.

Just under a year later, President Putin said that during the invasion of Crimea he’d been prepared to put nuclear forces on alert, so it sounds like he would be prepared to use such weapons on the territory of Ukraine.

Speaking in the House of Lords in November 2021, former Navy chief Lord West of Spithead said: “The greatest risk to the survival of mankind isn’t global warming, it’s an accidental thermo-nuclear war.”

He added: “One has to look at the dreadful behaviour of Putin, not just around the Ukraine but in a number of other ways and his very loose talk about his de-escalatory policy of using a nuclear weapon should he be losing a conventional war, to see what the real risks are.”

Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat has said Russia sees battlefield nuclear weapons as simply “a bigger bang” and could give a military order to use them.

The Conservative MP told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme: “The Russian military doctrine doesn’t work in the same way as the Nato military doctrine.

“They do assume that they may use battlefield nuclear weapons and they see them as just a, if you’ll excuse the expression, a bigger bang. They don’t treat fallout in the same way we do.”

He added that although the situation was “concerning,” it was not unprecedented for Russia to threaten nuclear action.

Can Russian nukes reach the UK?

To put it bluntly: yes.

As it stands, there are only five nations thought to have the technological capabilities to hit any target on the world map.

These are the five nuclear weapons states of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

Under this treaty, only five countries are allowed to have nuclear weapons: China, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia.

The five nuclear weapons states agree to not help any other nation build nuclear weapons. All other nations who sign the NPT promise not to build more nuclear weapons for themselves or others.

A nuclear museum staff member cleans a replica of the first Soviet nuclear bomb tested in 1949 (Photo: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)

However, India, Pakistan and North Korea have also declared they have such armaments, and it is believed that Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, South Korea, and Taiwan also have nuclear capabilities.

Recent tests suggest North Korean missiles could hit just about anywhere on Earth with the exception of South America. Israel is the only other state currently thought to potentially pose a credible nuclear risk to Europe.

Does Ukraine have nuclear weapons?

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine held about one third of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, the third largest in the world at the time.

It also had significant means of nuclear design and production, but in 1994 agreed to destroy the weapons and join the NPT.

Technically, Ukraine does have nuclear weapons, but these are in Russian control.

After the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Russian Federation deployed nuclear-capable weapons to the peninsula; despite the annexation, Crimea is still internationally recognised as a Ukrainian territory.

There has been much debate in Ukraine as to whether giving up its nuclear arms in 1994 was the right thing to do.

In 2014, Ukrainian MP Pavlo Rizanenko told USA Today that Ukraine may have to arm itself once again with its own nuclear weapons.

He said: "We gave up nuclear weapons because of this agreement [the NPT]. Now, there's a strong sentiment in Ukraine that we made a big mistake.

"In the future... we need a much stronger Ukraine. If you have nuclear weapons, people don't invade you."

Putin has cited concerns that Ukraine could develop nuclear weapons as one of his reasons for invasion, saying the “demilitarisation” of Ukraine is the “only objective controlling factor that we could observe and have a proper reaction to”.

He added: “Even the appearance of tactical nuclear weaponry in Ukraine, for us this means a strategic threat.”

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