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Russia-Ukraine war | Making sense of Vladimir Putin's nuclear threat

Russia-Ukraine war | Making sense of Vladimir Putin's nuclear threat

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By Akriti Anand  Oct 1, 2022 1:17 PM IST (Updated)

Russia-Ukraine War | With Russia's annexation of Zaporizhzhia and Putin's nuclear threats, all eyes are set on the Russian President's next move. Will Putin use nuclear weapons? While the West has warded off these threats as a scare tactic, here's what it might mean.

Russia declared the annexation of four regions of Ukraine, that account for 15 percent of the country, on Friday. Among them is the Zaporizhzhia region which harbours Europe's largest nuclear plant. Other three are Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson.

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This comes days after President Vladimir Putin announced "partial military mobilisation" and warned of using "all the means" to protect Russia. He had claimed that the West was using "nuclear blackmail" against his nation.
With Russia's annexation of Zaporizhzhia and Putin's nuclear threats, all eyes are now set on the Russian President's next move. Will Putin use nuclear weapons? While the West has warded off these threats as a scare tactic, here's what it might mean.
Russia at helm of nuclear attack fallout
Paul Dorfman, Associate Fellow, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, and a nuclear threat expert, said if Putin uses nuclear weapons, Russia will also have to face the brunt.
He explained that the effect of a nuclear attack depends on the wind flow and type of the accident. He said the radioactive pollution could land in Ukraine as well as Russia or even central Europe depending on the wind.
"Any fallout could very easily impact the land, soil and cities of Russia...but this is a conventional and tactical nuclear attack," he said.
Russia may lose allies like China
"Any move towards that (nuclear attack) and Putin with lose China, his main ally. And would lose India and any other form of an ally, including North Korea," Dorfman said, noting that "China has No-First Use Doctrine nuclear strategy".
The No-First Use policy is the commitment to not use nuclear weapons first. This is seen as a nuclear deterrent strategy, meaning that nuclear weapons would only be used to respond to a nuclear attack against a particular country.
Dorfman also emphasised that China might "also face huge isolation and consequences" for supporting the Russian use of the tactical nuclear weapon.
US would retaliate Russia's nuclear attack
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States (US) have already made clear that there would be "horrific consequences for Russia".
Bhavna Dave, a lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, avoided linking the use of nuclear weapons with China or India.
"It is much of a humanitarian disaster. If Russia does use nuclear weapons, it will be the US that will be retaliating. So China, India and others are secondary," she said.
She believed that Putin will continue to use threats of nuclear weapons. She, however, said. "Putin knows that the US ultimately has much greater capabilities, it's a very risky option."
According to Statista, Russia has around 6,000 nuclear warheads and the US has nearly 5,500 nuclear warheads as of January 2022.  While Russia has more nuclear warheads, the US ultimately has the better military, posing the single greatest threat to its former cold war enemy.
'Putin is talking about the tactical' attack
Dorfman said that Putin is talking about the tactical battlefield nuclear technologies or is "threatening some form of tactical or battlefield nuclear technology".
This is different from "strategic ballistic". "Tactical battlefield is delivery of a more limited form of nuclear armour. It has a far more low yield, which means it is significantly less destructive... but strategic ballistic is when everybody dies," Dorfman explains.
However, even a low-yield nuclear weapon used on the battlefield, aside from killing troops in the immediate vicinity, would contaminate a broad area and expose large numbers of civilians in densely-populated Ukraine and neighbouring countries to radiation risks.
The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a non-profit organization located in Washington, said in a statement: "Nuclear weapons have not been used in the war in more than 77 years; it would be a monumental mistake to take this record for granted."
"Global leaders must waste no time and spare no effort in meeting this challenge with dedicated and aggressive diplomacy," it said.
How important is Zaporizhzhia for Russia
Russia has its own nuclear weapons. "Even if Zaporizhzhia didn't have nuclear plants, Russia still would want to gain control of it because it's part of the eastern Ukrainian region and it brings Russia closer to the Black Sea. The reason (to annex Zaporizhzhia) is not the presence of nuclear plant, it the additional motivation," Dave told CNBCTV18.com.
What Russia aims
Dave said that Russia's main goal is to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and everything else is secondary. "It's Ukraine's desire to parts of Europe's framework" that's pinching Russia.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has been very dependent on nuclear power from Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. This plant has six reactors.
UN atomic watchdog chief Rafael Grossi meanwhile was quoted by Reuters as saying that he is ready to hold talks in Ukraine and Russia on setting up a protection zone at the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine that he often says is needed urgently.
Russia's annexation of four Ukrainian territories is seen as a duplication of the annexation playbook it followed when it incorporated Ukraine’s the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. After annexing around 15 percent of Ukrainian territories, Russia would have the power to name any efforts to retake the areas as direct attacks on its territory.
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