Putin implies nuclear attack if West interferes in Ukraine. Why it's not just an empty threat

Russian President Vladimir Putin's implied warning that he could launch nuclear weapons against any country that interferes with his military campaign in Ukraine raises questions about just how seriously the West should take such threats.

Putin warns interference would lead to 'such consequences that you have never encountered in your history'

When Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke in Moscow Thursday, warning that any attempt by other countries to intervene with his military campaign in Ukraine would lead to 'such consequences that you have never encountered in your history,' many took it to mean he was threatening to launch nuclear weapons. (Russian Presidential Press Service via The Associated Press)

Russian President Vladimir Putin's implied warning that he could launch nuclear weapons against any country that interferes with his military campaign in Ukraine raises questions about just how seriously the West should take such threats.

And while NATO allies, including the U.S., have assured they will not engage militarily in Ukraine, some experts suggest the Russian president's comments should not be taken as empty threats.

"It is not something that he's just saying offhand because he's sort of trying to simply look tough," says James Cameron, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Oslo, where he is a member of the Oslo Nuclear Project specializing in arms control.

"There is a rationale. There is the logic there." 

Putin's threat of 'such consequences'

Speaking from the Kremlin on Thursday morning as he launched the Russian military's invasion of Ukraine, Putin said Russia would respond instantly if any external force tried to interfere.

"Whoever tries to hinder us, and even more so, to create threats to our country, to our people, should know that Russia's response will be immediate. And it will lead you to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history," the Russian president said.

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Asked whether Putin's use of the phrase "such consequences that you have never encountered in your history" was tantamount to threatening that Russia would use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine conflict, France's foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said it was indeed understood as such. 

However, he said it should be clear to Putin that NATO also has nuclear weapons. 

"Yes, I think that Vladimir Putin must also understand that the Atlantic alliance is a nuclear alliance. That is all I will say about this," Le Drian said Thursday on French television TF1. 

No real possibility of Western military intervention

Cameron said Biden and other leaders have been very clear that there's no real possibility of military intervention in Ukraine.

"And so in a sense … it's not a situation where he's directly confronting NATO with the possibility of nuclear use."

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However, Cameron said Putin's implied threat of nuclear retaliation isn't completely empty, as it's part of his overall strategy "in the sense that there's a clear co-ordination to it." 

For example, over the weekend, Putin oversaw strategic nuclear exercises involving the launch of hypersonic ballistic missiles and other weapons.

Putin's comments, then, are a "calibrated element of the overall plan" — undertaking such exercises, making veiled threats — to leave open the possibility of a nuclear strike, Cameron said.

A technician inspects a missile underneath a fighter jet.
In this photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defence Ministry Press Service on Feb. 19, 2022, a Russian military technician checks a MiG-31K fighter, carrying a Kinzhal hypersonic cruise missile, parked at an airfield. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/The Associated Press)

As well, Cameron said, Putin likely feels some element of doubt about NATO members saying they won't use military intervention.

"He's trying to close off that doubt by having this kind of nuclear shadow hanging over what he's doing in Ukraine."

Not the first nuclear threats from Putin

Gerhard Mangott, a University of Innsbruck professor of international relations who focuses on U.S.-Russian relations, said this isn't the first time Putin has made such threats.

During the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Russian nuclear forces were also put on high alert, he said. 

As he did in 2014, Putin is "signalling that Russia is even willing to escalate with the use of nuclear weapons." 

Mangott said if the West did decide to employ military intervention, then there is a real risk that Russia would use some strategic nuclear weapons.

"This is not a real risk," he said, because the West won't allow it to happen. 

People in Sevastopol, Crimea, affix a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin to a balloon on March 18, 2021, during a celebration of the anniversary of the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. The sign reads 'Another gave us back the cradle of baptism. March 18, 2014.' (The Associated Press)

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution think tank who specializes in U.S. defence strategy and the use of military force, said he believes Putin's nuclear threats are part and parcel of his outlook, methods and worldview.

"He sees Ukraine as sufficiently core to Russian interests to have launched this war in the first place, so the nuclear threats are no surprise, especially in light of the fact that he's made them before in more elliptical and general terms," he said in an email to CBC News.

He said that since the West is not considering fighting in defence of Ukraine, Putin's nuclear threats are less worrisome.

"I see them more as reconfirmation of the nature of the brute we are all now dealing with, and otherwise not particularly significant."

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The nuclear arsenals

Currently, Russia's nuclear arsenal consists of about 4,500 nuclear weapons, 1,550 of them deployed on delivery vehicles, according to Mangott.

"Russia has nuclear weapons of all sorts. It has different means of using them, with cruise missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, medium-range ballistic missiles, long-range ballistic missiles," he said.

"So Russia is indeed capable to escalate this to an all-out nuclear war."

WARNING | This photo gallery contains graphic images:

Cameron said while it's difficult to say exactly how many nuclear weapons Russia has operationally available, it's certainly nothing like the numbers during the Cold War. Still, he said, "they are more than enough to do whatever amount of damage they want to do."

He said that Russia and the U.S. have approximately equal numbers of nuclear weapons that could strike each other. But Russia has more short-range weapons that could take out America's European allies.

"Even the use of one of these weapons would be a world-altering event," he said.

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Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from Reuters