What’s Putin thinking? Tough to know for nuclear analysts

Oct 3, 2022, 11:46 PM | Updated: Oct 4, 2022, 12:15 am
FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, watches through binoculars as Russian Defense Mini...

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, watches through binoculars as Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu sits near during the joint strategic exercise of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus Zapad-2021 at the Mulino training ground in the Nizhny Novgorod region, Russia, on Sept. 13, 2021. Putin's threats to use "all the means at our disposal" to defend his country as it wages war in Ukraine have cranked up global fears that he might use his nuclear arsenal, with the world's largest stockpile of warheads. (Sergei Savostyanov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

(Sergei Savostyanov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

PARIS (AP) — Will President Vladimir Putin pull the nuclear trigger?

For Kremlin watchers trying to figure out whether the Russian leader’s nuclear threats are just bluffs, there is no more pressing — or tough — question.

For now, analysts cautiously suggest that the risk of Putin using the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal still seems low. The CIA says it hasn’t seen signs of an imminent Russian nuclear attack.

Still, his vows to use ” all the means at our disposal ” to defend Russia as he wages war in Ukraine are being taken very seriously. And his claim Friday that the United States “created a precedent” by dropping atomic bombs in World War II further cranked up the nuclear stakes.

The White House has warned of “catastrophic consequences for Russia” if Putin goes nuclear.

But whether that will stay Putin’s hand is anyone’s guess. Nervous Kremlin watchers acknowledge they can’t be sure what he is thinking or even if he’s rational and well-informed.

The former KGB agent has demonstrated an appetite for risk and brinkmanship. It’s hard, even for Western intelligence agencies with spy satellites, to tell if Putin is bluffing or truly intent on breaking the nuclear taboo.

“We don’t see any practical evidence today in the U.S. intelligence community that he’s moving closer to actual use, that there’s an imminent threat of using tactical nuclear weapons,” CIA Director William Burns told CBS News.

“What we have to do is take it very seriously, watch for signs of actual preparations,” Burns said.

Kremlin watchers are scratching their heads in part because they don’t see how nuclear force could greatly help reverse Russia’s military losses in Ukraine.

Ukrainian troops aren’t using large concentrations of tanks to wrest back ground, and combat is sometimes for places as small as villages. So what could Russian nuclear forces aim for with winning effect?

“Nuclear weapons are not a magic wand,” said Andrey Baklitskiy, a senior researcher at the U.N.’s Institute for Disarmament Research, who specializes in nuclear risk. “They are not something that you just employ and they solve all your problems.”

Analysts hope the taboo that surrounds nuclear weapons is a disincentive. The horrific scale of human suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the U.S. destroyed the Japanese cities with atomic bombs on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, was a powerful argument against a repeat use of such weapons. The attacks killed 210,000 people.

No country has since used a nuclear weapon. Analysts guess that even Putin may find it difficult to become the first world leader since U.S. President Harry Truman to rain down nuclear fire.

“It is still a taboo in Russia to cross that threshold,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at RAND Corp. and a former analyst of Russian military capabilities at the U.S. Defense Department.

“One of the biggest decisions in the history of Earth,” Baklitskiy said.

The backlash could turn Putin into a global pariah.

“Breaking the nuclear taboo would impose, at a minimum, complete diplomatic and economic isolation on Russia,” said Sidharth Kaushal, a researcher with the Royal United Services Institute in London that specializes in defense and security.

Long-range nuclear weapons that Russia could use in a direct conflict with the United States are battle-ready. But its stocks of warheads for shorter ranges — so-called tactical weapons that Putin might be tempted to use in Ukraine — are not, analysts say.

“All those weapons are in storage,” said Pavel Podvig, another senior researcher who specializes in nuclear weapons at the U.N.’s disarmament think tank in Geneva.

“You need to take them out of the bunker, load them on trucks,” and then marry them with missiles or other delivery systems, he said.

Russia hasn’t released a full inventory of its tactical nuclear weapons and their capabilities. Putin could order that a smaller one be surreptitiously readied and teed up for surprise use.

But overtly removing weapons from storage is also a tactic Putin could employ to raise pressure without using them. He’d expect U.S. satellites to spot the activity and perhaps hope that baring his nuclear teeth might scare Western powers into dialing back support for Ukraine.

“That’s very much what the Russians would be gambling on, that each escalation provides the other side with both a threat but (also) an offramp to negotiate with Russia,” Kaushal said.

He added: “There is a sort of grammar to nuclear signaling and brinksmanship, and a logic to it which is more than just, you know, one madman one day decides to go through with this sort of thing.”

Analysts also expect other escalations first, including ramped-up Russian strikes in Ukraine using non-nuclear weapons.

“I don’t think there will be a bolt out of the blue,” said Nikolai Sokov, who took part in arms control negotiations when he worked for Russia’s Foreign Ministry and is now with the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.

Analysts also struggle to identify battlefield targets that would be worth the huge price Putin would pay. If one nuclear strike didn’t stop Ukrainian advances, would he then attack again and again?

Podvig noted the war does not have “large concentrations of troops” to target.

Striking cities, in hopes of shocking Ukraine into surrender, would be an awful alternative.

“The decision to kill tens and hundreds of thousands of people in cold blood, that’s a tough decision,” he said. “As it should be.”

Putin might be hoping that threats alone will slow Western weapon supplies to Ukraine and buy time to train 300,000 additional troops he’s mobilizing, triggering protests and an exodus of service-aged men.

But if Ukraine continues to roll back the invasion and Putin finds himself unable to hold what he has taken, analysts fear a growing risk of him deciding that his non-nuclear options are running out.

“Putin is really eliminating a lot of bridges behind him right now, with mobilization, with annexing new territories,” said RAND’s Massicot.

“It suggests that he is all-in on winning this on his terms,” she added. “I am very concerned about where that ultimately takes us — to include, at the end, a kind of a nuclear decision.”

___

Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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              FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the Vostok 2022 (East 2022) military exercise in far eastern Russia, outside Vladivostok, on Sept. 6, 2022. Putin's threats to use "all the means at our disposal" to defend his country as it wages war in Ukraine have cranked up global fears that he might use his nuclear arsenal, with the world's largest stockpile of warheads. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)
            
              FILE - In this handout photo taken from a footage released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on March 26, 2021, a Russian nuclear submarine breaks through the Arctic ice during military drills at an unspecified location. Russian President Vladimir Putin's threats to use "all the means at our disposal" to defend his country as it wages war in Ukraine have cranked up global fears that he might use his nuclear arsenal, with the world's largest stockpile of warheads. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)
            
              FILE - Russian's Air Force Mikoyan MiG-31K jets carrying Kh-47M2 Kinzhal nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missiles fly over Red Square during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia, on May 7, 2021. Russian President Vladimir Putin's threats to use "all the means at our disposal" to defend his country as it wages war in Ukraine have cranked up global fears that he might use his nuclear arsenal, with the world's largest stockpile of warheads. (AP Photo, File)
            
              FILE - This photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Feb. 19, 2022, shows a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile being launched from an air field during military drills. Russian President Vladimir Putin's threats to use "all the means at our disposal" to defend his country as it wages war in Ukraine have cranked up global fears that he might use his nuclear arsenal, with the world's largest stockpile of warheads. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)
            
              FILE - Ukrainian servicemen drive atop a tank in the recently retaken area of Izium, Ukraine, on Sept. 14, 2022. Russian President Vladimir Putin's threats to use "all the means at our disposal" to defend his country as it wages war in Ukraine have cranked up global fears that he might use his nuclear arsenal, with the world's largest stockpile of warheads. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File)
            
              FILE - In this photo taken from video distributed by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, Intercontinental ballistic missiles are launched by the Vladimir Monomakh nuclear submarine of the Russian navy from the Sera of Okhotsk, Russia, on Dec. 12, 2020. Russian President Vladimir Putin's threats to use "all the means at our disposal" to defend his country as it wages war in Ukraine have cranked up global fears that he might use his nuclear arsenal, with the world's largest stockpile of warheads. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)
            
              FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to watch the military exercises Center-2019 at Donguz shooting range near Orenburg, Russia, on Sept. 20, 2019. Putin's threats to use "all the means at our disposal" to defend his country as it wages war in Ukraine have cranked up global fears that he might use his nuclear arsenal, with the world's largest stockpile of warheads. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)
            
              FILE - In this photo released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, Russian nuclear submarines Prince Vladimir, above, and Yekaterinburg are harbored at a Russian naval base in Gazhiyevo, Kola Peninsula, Russia, on April 13, 2021. Russian President Vladimir Putin's threats to use "all the means at our disposal" to defend his country as it wages war in Ukraine have cranked up global fears that he might use his nuclear arsenal, with the world's largest stockpile of warheads. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)
            
              FILE - In this photo taken from undated footage distributed by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, an intercontinental ballistic missile lifts off from a silo somewhere in Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin's threats to use "all the means at our disposal" to defend his country as it wages war in Ukraine have cranked up global fears that he might use his nuclear arsenal, with the world's largest stockpile of warheads. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)
            
              FILE - In this April 9, 2019 file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking at a plenary session of the International Arctic Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Putin's threats to use "all the means at our disposal" to defend his country as it wages war in Ukraine have cranked up global fears that he might use his nuclear arsenal, with the world's largest stockpile of warheads. (AP Photo, File)
            
              FILE - Russian Topol M intercontinental ballistic missile launcher rolls along Red Square during the Victory Day military parade to celebrate 72 years since the end of WWII and the defeat of Nazi Germany, in Moscow, Russia on May 9, 2017. Russian President Vladimir Putin's threats to use "all the means at our disposal" to defend his country as it wages war in Ukraine have cranked up global fears that he might use his nuclear arsenal, with the world's largest stockpile of warheads. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
            
              FILE - In this Aug. 16, 2005 file photo, a supersonic Tu-160 strategic bomber with Russian President Vladimir Putin aboard flies above an airfield near the northern city of Murmansk. Putin's threats to use "all the means at our disposal" to defend his country as it wages war in Ukraine have cranked up global fears that he might use his nuclear arsenal, with the world's largest stockpile of warheads. (Alexei Panov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)
            
              FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, watches through binoculars as Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu sits near during the joint strategic exercise of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus Zapad-2021 at the Mulino training ground in the Nizhny Novgorod region, Russia, on Sept. 13, 2021. Putin's threats to use "all the means at our disposal" to defend his country as it wages war in Ukraine have cranked up global fears that he might use his nuclear arsenal, with the world's largest stockpile of warheads. (Sergei Savostyanov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

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What’s Putin thinking? Tough to know for nuclear analysts