Vladimir Putin sparked menacing echoes of the Cuban Missile Crisis last weekend by putting his nuclear forces on high alert, triggering concern about a very dangerous escalation in the Ukraine conflict.
The Russian president placed his nuclear arsenal on “special combat duty regime”, suggesting a rise in the alert level, in response to sanctions imposed over the invasion. Days before, he warned that interference would spark consequences “never before experienced in your history”.
Putin’s order was vague, particularly since the terminology did not match anything in Russian nuclear doctrine. But it raised the specter of Russia firing short-range nuclear missiles at Ukraine and using the threat of its vast nuclear arsenal to warn the US and western allies not to intervene.
Heather Williams, a nuclear expert at King’s College London and visiting fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, said it was “totally ambiguous” but in keeping with a leader who has a history of being a “nuclear bully”.
“It’s classic Putin, creating ambiguity and uncertainty,” Williams said. “Putin is so good at that because he knows it keeps people on edge.”
In 2015, the year after Russia annexed Crimea, he told a TV documentary he had been ready to put his nuclear forces on alert during the conflict. Three years later, Putin said Russia had developed an “invincible” nuclear cruise missile that could hit any target in the world. He also gave a presentation with animated videos showing missiles heading towards Florida where then President Donald Trump has his Mar-a-Lago resort.
Williams added that Russia was also increasingly developing weapons that had dual capabilities – with the potential to carry nuclear or conventional warheads – which created even more ambiguity.
Adding to the threat, on the day that Putin gave the order to Sergei Shoigu, defense minister, and General Valery Gerasimov, head of Russia’s military, Belarus, a Russian ally that has facilitated its invasion of Ukraine, changed its constitution to remove a ban on nuclear weapons.
Pavel Podvig, a nuclear expert at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, said the nuclear directive seemed more designed for political impact. He pointed out that Shoigu reported back to Putin the next day to say that nuclear command center crews had been reinforced, suggesting the order was to make sure sufficient personnel were in place.
“It appears that it was not as dramatic as some suggested,” he said. “The primary purpose of the announcement was to send a message: ‘Do not even try to attack us or play with us because. . . we’re prepared to strike back. ‘”
Roger McDermott, a nuclear expert and visiting fellow at King’s College London, said the command posts were always fully manned, further suggesting that the order did not imply a change in the nuclear posture.
“While Putin’s nuclear alert level announcement has been widely published in western countries as ‘signaling’ concerning nuclear deterrence, it was more likely crafted for domestic consumption,” he said.
McDermott said the actual nuclear signaling occurred the previous week when Russia held its annual “Grom” nuclear exercise as a “warning to other powers to avoid interference in Russia’s operation against Ukraine”.
The FT reported last month that General Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs, had told Congress he thought Russia would bring forward the exercise to February in a warning to the west.
US military and intelligence has spent the past week scouring for signs that Russia was making changes in response to the order. The Pentagon said it had not detected any change in Russia’s strategic nuclear forces posture.
Admiral Charles Richard, head of Strategic Command which manages the US nuclear arsenal, on Tuesday said he was “satisfied” with his nuclear posture and had not recommended changes in response to Putin’s move.
But the Pentagon did postpone an intercontinental ballistic missile test to avoid it being “misconstrued” by Russia – only the fourth delay since 2001.
Some experts welcomed the move as a prudent measure. But Rebeccah Heinrichs, a nuclear expert at the Hudson Institute, argued that Putin could interpret the postponement as US weakness. “No matter how much the president’s team will insist it is not so, it looks like Russia intimidated them.”
Several days after Putin’s order, Russia announced that nuclear submarines had sailed for exercises in the Barents Sea and there were also reports of mobile missile launchers moving in Siberian forests.
One western military official said NATO had watched several Russian nuclear-capable submarines head for sea, but he said that after bleeping out their position – to ensure they would be detected – they returned to port.
While many experts believe Putin was bluffing to gain leverage, the US and NATO are taking the threat seriously. The Pentagon declined to comment on a report that, since the start of the invasion, it had increased flights of E-6 aircraft – a critical part of the US nuclear command-and-control network.
France has responded by deploying a second nuclear-powered submarine that carries nuclear missiles, according to one person familiar with the matter who confirmed a French newspaper report. The deployment of the submarine is the first time since 1997 that Paris has had two at sea simultaneously, according to the person familiar with the situation.
“Does he escalate at this moment in time when he feels the world is against him? We must be prepared for that, ”said a senior western defense official.
Additional reporting by JP Rathbone and Henry Foy