Will Russia use nuclear weapons? Could Putin use tactical nukes in Ukraine following latest drill

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

<p>Vladimir Putin watched the nuclear drills via video link (Photo: Kremlin)</p>

Vladimir Putin watched the nuclear drills via video link (Photo: Kremlin)

As the Ukraine conflict continues, international onlookers remain concerned at the war’s ability to escalate into a nuclear situation at a moment’s notice.

In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the West that Russia will use all available methods to defend its borders, saying "It's not a bluff” while announcing a partial mobilisation in Russia.

On 26 October, Putin monitored drills by Russia’s strategic nuclear forces involving multiple practice launches of ballistic and cruise missiles. Ballistic and cruise missiles were launched from the Arctic to Russia's Far East, the Kremlin said.

Defence minister Sergei Shoigu reported to Putin that the exercise was intended to simulate a “massive nuclear strike” by Russia in retaliation for a nuclear attack on the country. The manoeuvres followed Putin’s warning about his readiness to use “all means available” to fend off attacks on Russia’s territory in a reference to the country’s nuclear arsenals.

But would Putin ever actually order a nuclear strike? Here’s everything you need to know about Russia’s nuclear threat.

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

Will Putin respond with nuclear weapons?

Putin’s response to the recent Kerch bridge collapse came in the form of a renewed attack on the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv and other important cities, many of which had not seen direct attack for months. On 10 October, Russia launched an intensive, hours-long attack which left at least eight people dead and 24 others injured in central Kyiv.

The military escalation came just a day after Putin deemed the explosion on the large bridge connecting Russia to its occupied area of Crimea “a terrorist act" orchestrated by Ukrainian special forces. The attacks occurred only hours before a scheduled security council meeting in Moscow due to be attended by Putin, as Russia's conflict in Ukraine approaches the eight-month mark and the Kremlin reels from humiliating battlefield failures in areas it is attempting to control.

Following recent Ukrainian victories on the battlefield, the Kremlin’s hasty attempts to swallow up four regions districts could pave the way for Moscow to intensify the war.

What has Putin said about the Kerch bridge attack?

President Putin has described the attack on the Kerch Bridge to Crimea as “a terrorist act" perpetrated by Ukrainian special forces. The country's investigating committee has initiated a criminal terror probe into the explosion that damaged the renowned Russian landmark.

Russian police said a “truck bomb” struck the large bridge connecting Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine eight years ago. The bridge's road and rail traffic were briefly suspended, disrupting a crucial supply line for the Kremlin's military and dealing severe damage to Russian reputation in the area.

“There’s no doubt it was a terrorist act directed at the destruction of critically important civilian infrastructure of the Russian Federation,” Putin said in a video of a meeting on Sunday with the chairman of the investigative committee, Alexander Bastrykin. “And the authors, perpetrators, and those who ordered it are the special services of Ukraine.”

How has the West responded?

UK ministers have accused Putin of the "vile" targeting of people in Ukraine following the series of missile strikes. Security Minister Tom Tugendhat called the attacks on Ukrainian cities "war crimes," while Foreign Secretary James Cleverly called them "unacceptable."

In response to last month’s nuclear escalation, Gillian Keegan urged for calm in the face of Putin’s threat. She told Sky News: “Some of the language there was quite concerning at the end and obviously we would urge for calm.”

The Chichester MP also said: “It’s something that we should take very seriously because, you know, we’re not in control. I’m not sure he’s in control either really. I mean, this is obviously an escalation and, of course, for the Russian people now they will be conscripted into this war.”

Keegan then lambasted Putin’s “lies” and “illegal war” in Ukraine, telling Sky News: “These are Putin’s lies and he’s continuing to completely misrepresent what’s happened in Ukraine. It’s an illegal war in Ukraine. It’s Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine. Of course, we will still stand by Ukraine, as will all of our Nato allies.”

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?

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

Earlier this year, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat 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.

Recently, Dmitry Medvedev, a former president of Russia and close ally of Putin, said Moscow had the right to defend itself with nuclear weapons if it is pushed beyond its limits and that this is "certainly not a bluff".

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.

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.”