Will Putin use nuclear weapons? Military mobilisation explained, how many does Russia have - who has the most?

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

As the Ukraine conflict approaches the seven-month mark, Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned the West that Russia will use all available methods to defend its borders, saying, "It's not a bluff."

He also announced a partial mobilisation in Russia.

Of course, Putin’s strong words will have minds turning to the country’s formidable stockpile of weapons, particularly those with nuclear capabilities.

But would Putin ever actually order a nuclear strike?

Here is everything you need to know about it.

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

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What did Putin say?

Putin accused the West in engaging in “nuclear blackmail” and noted “statements of some high-ranking representatives of the leading Nato states about the possibility of using nuclear weapons of mass destruction against Russia”.

And he added: “To those who allow themselves such statements regarding Russia, I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction, and for separate components and more modern than those of Nato countries, and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal.”

Sergei Shoigu, Russia's defence minister, later stated that 300,000 military reservists will be mobilised.

Putin stated that he had signed a decree authorising the partial mobilisation, which is set to begin on Wednesday (21 September).

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What does Putin’s statement mean?

Putin said: “We are talking about partial mobilisation, that is, only citizens who are currently in the reserve will be subject to conscription, and above all, those who served in the armed forces have a certain military specialty and relevant experience.”

The Russian leader said the decision to partially mobilise was “fully adequate to the threats we face, namely to protect our homeland, its sovereignty and territorial integrity, to ensure the security of our people and people in the liberated territories.”

Putin's address to the nation came just a day after Russian-controlled regions in eastern and southern Ukraine announced preparations to hold referendums on joining Russia.

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.

The referendums will begin on Friday (23 September) in Luhansk, Kherson and parts of Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk, which are partially controlled by Russia.

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How has the West responded?

Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilisation in Russia is a “worrying escalation,” a Foreign Office minister has said.

Gillian Keegan also urged for calm in the face of Mr Putin’s threat in his speech to use nuclear weapons. 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 Vladimir 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.

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“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)

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.

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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.

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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, 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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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