The argument for why Russia won't use nukes

Lately, there has been a resurgence in the nuclear threats from Russia after a period of more calm rhetoric. In this video I explain why it is unlikely that Russia will actually use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Too many people think of nukes as a kind of wonder weapon where you drop it and then automatically win the war, but that is not at all the case. You must remember to ask the question of how using the bomb is supposed to lead to victory, and in the case of Russia in Ukraine it is difficult to make that argument.

In the paid version of the newsletter that came out earlier in the week, I discussed the more diplomatic side of the nuclear blackmail: what it is that Russia is trying to achieve, and who they are hoping to influence. So if you are interested in that, you can find it here.


Recently, the Russians have started talking a lot about nuclear weapons again. There's been a quite long period of time where the nuclear rhetoric has been less intensive, but now it's back. We have Russian propagandists on television talking about nuclear strikes on NATO countries. We have Russian and Belarusian armed forces conducting exercises with tactical nuclear weapons. And Putin even mentioned this with some quite explicit threats about nuclear war in his Victory Day parade speech on May the 9th. But I think it's important that we keep a cool head also when we hear these things. We're not actually very close to nuclear war at this point. When the Russians come with this talk about nuclear weapons, then it's a kind of blackmail. It's an attempt to scare the West into not providing so much support to Ukraine by reminding the existence of nuclear weapons and this threat that it could potentially happen. But the likelihood of Russians actually using nuclear weapons in Ukraine is very low. It's, of course, not a question where there is a definite answer. So we don't know the exact circumstances under which Russia might use nuclear weapons. In fact, they probably don't know the exact circumstances.

But if you ask a group of experts whether they think Russia is going to use nuclear weapons to win the war in Ukraine, then their answers will range from absolutely, definitely not to, well, it's very unlikely. But there could, we could imagine some circumstances where they might consider doing it. But everyone is going to be in that end of the spectrum where it's very unlikely. And it's definitely not something that's going to happen now. In this video, I want to explain why that is the case. Why is it so unlikely that Russia will use nuclear weapons to win the war in Ukraine? And then I also want to talk about the circumstances where Russia might actually use nuclear weapons. So let's talk about it.

In general, we can say that nuclear weapons are a military tool of last resort. If you're strong and you can achieve your military objectives without using nuclear weapons, then that is better. So that's a better option. So the stronger your conventional forces are, the less likely you are to use nuclear weapons in a crisis situation. And conversely, the weaker your conventional forces are, the more you will rely on the nuclear deterrent. So when Russia starts talking about nuclear weapons, then we can see that as a sign of weakness or as a sign that they're less confident about the strength of their conventional forces so they feel the need to rely more on nuclear deterrence.

When Russia has started talking now about nuclear weapons more in relation to the war in Ukraine, then that shows that they are feeling less confident about how the war is going. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the American assistance package to Ukraine has now been approved. So American weapons are again flowing into Ukraine. And some of it also has to do with some of the statements from European governments about supporting Ukraine, especially the statement from President Macron about not ruling out the possibility that maybe we can see French soldiers on Ukrainian territory and also the British statement that Ukraine is now free to use British weapons inside of Russia if they want to. So these are things that make the Russians concerned because they indicate that the Western support for Ukraine is actually intensifying, but it's happening at a time when the Russians thought that the Western support was in decline. So suddenly it raises some question marks about the Russian strategy and whether they can actually achieve their military goals with the resources that they have allocated for this special military operation. So they want to see if they can change the trajectory of this by sort of influencing the Western discourse about the conflict. And that's why they start talking about nuclear weapons at this point. The reasons why it's unlikely that Russia will actually use a nuclear weapon to win the war in Ukraine, they all start with the understanding that you don't automatically win a war just because you use a nuclear weapon. So it's not some kind of wonder weapon.

So when you run through the scenarios, then you have to all the time ask yourself the question, so Russia uses a nuclear weapon and then what? There are different ways that you can use nuclear weapons. You can use so-called tactical nuclear weapons where you use them on the battlefield. It's essentially used as just a very big bomb, but you use them on military targets the same way you would use other bombs on military targets. Or you can use them in what's called a more strategic sense where you bomb, for example, a city. So there it would be a kind of terror logic where you try to scare the surviving part of the population into submission. But you always have to ask, well, what happens after Russia has thrown this bomb and how does that lead to victory? And this is where things get tricky because it's quite difficult to see how Russia using a nuclear bomb will actually lead to victory. It's actually much easier to see how it can lead to defeat if Putin takes this step. And I'll mention two reasons for this. The first one is the domestic situation inside Russia. If Putin uses a nuclear bomb in Ukraine, then he will have to go on TV and do a speech where he explains what happened and why he made that decision. This will be the most crazy speech that any leader of Russia or the Soviet Union has had to make since at least World War II.

But Putin will have to go on TV and explain to the people that he has taken the country into nuclear war and that there is now at least a potentiality that other nuclear powers might retaliate directly against Russia. So it's a very dramatic message he would have to come with. And compare and contrast that to the kind of communication that the Kremlin is currently using about the war and what it means for the Russian people. So if you turn on a Russian news show today, the message you look at is that things are actually going pretty well in the so called special military operation. So it's a difficult struggle, but the Russian forces are gradually winning. There are just destroying enormous amounts of Ukrainian military equipment, and they are eliminating a lot of Ukrainian soldiers, and gradually they are liberating more and more territory. And the message is also that the Russian army is incredibly strong and that recruitment is going great. So Russia is not at all in a situation where they need to take unpopular steps such as having another wave of mobilization or deploying conscript soldiers to the fighting inside of Ukraine. So the message that Putin has to sell in this speech to the Russian people is that even though things were actually going pretty well and the Russian army was winning the war and it was unnecessary to take unpopular steps to increase the pool of manpower, then it was absolutely sensible and necessary to use nuclear weapons.

It's not possible to make that argument, and the country would not be ready for this type of event. So it's impossible to predict exactly what would happen, how things would play out if Putin did that. But let's just put it that way, like there is a high likelihood that this would be the last thing that Putin ever did as president of Russia. So there is a domestic regime security aspect to the question of nuclear weapons. It is unlikely that Putin will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine because it can threaten his own grasp on power in Russia.

The other reason is about foreign politics and how other nuclear powers will react to Russia using nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The idea that Russia can use nuclear weapons to win the war in Ukraine assumes that other states are going to let Russia win if they use a nuclear bomb. So if on the other hand it actually drags more countries into the war and this is the moment when we will see NATO forces engaging directly on Ukraine's side, then Russia won't have won the war. They will just have created more problems for themselves. And this is where we get into the problem of non-proliferation. The nuclear powers in the world, they generally have nuclear weapons so that they can balance against each other. So they have them because they see each other as potential enemies.

But if there is one thing that all these countries that have nuclear weapons can agree about, then it is that they don't think other countries should go out and build nuclear weapons. So there are currently nine nuclear powers in the world and all of them would like to keep it that way. So the last thing they want is for other countries to also start building nuclear weapons. And that is why this idea of a normalization of the use of nuclear weapons is so dangerous. If the nuclear powers actually start using nuclear weapons against those countries that don't have nuclear weapons and it becomes an accepted part of how wars are being fought, then a lot of countries around the world are going to look at that and say that we also need nuclear weapons because having our own bomb is the only way that we can deter our enemy from using their bomb. So if Russia uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine and it leads to a positive outcome for them, then there's going to be a whole range of countries that will start building nuclear bombs.

So just to mention some of the most obvious countries that I think are going to go down this path, then I think countries like Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Poland, Germany, maybe Finland, like all these countries are likely to build nuclear weapons. So to avoid this non-proliferation nightmare that will happen if Russia uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine, then it will almost inevitably draw in the other existing nuclear powers more or less directly on the side of Ukraine because the only way that they can avoid all these countries that they will start developing nuclear weapons is that if they make sure that Russia is punished for their actions and that it does not actually lead to victory for Russia. So we're going to see some nuclear powers like the United States, France, Britain, they will be doubling down on the aid to Ukraine and probably they will be committing forces directly to the fight. And we're going to see other nuclear powers like China and India using their economic and diplomatic influence to make sure that Russia is absolutely isolated in the world. So there will be no more weapons coming in from North Korea for Iran and the Central Asian countries will stop helping Russia in circumventing the sanctions and keeping the war machine going. This is not something that all these nuclear powers would want to do of course, but it's something that they would have to do if they want to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

So those are my top two explanations of why Russia will not be using nuclear weapons to win the war in Ukraine. First, it will probably lead to Putin losing the power in Russia and second, it will almost certainly lead to Russia losing the war in Ukraine and not winning it. So they're not going to do that, but I do want to finish off with a word of caution as well because I do think it's important that we also don't write off the possibility that Russia can use nuclear weapons sort of at all. When I said the Russia will not use nuclear weapons to win the war in Ukraine, then I meant that in the sense that "to win the war in Ukraine", but they might use nuclear weapons for other purposes. I will not in this video go into the whole question of the potential of this war ending with a kind of Russian collapse, but that is a possibility.

And when we're dealing with Putin in terms of the war in Ukraine, then he actually has quite a lot of restraints. So there is a range of things that he's not willing to do and one of them is to use nuclear weapons. But if at some point this turns into a situation where it's not about Ukraine, but it's about keeping the power in Russia, then there will be absolutely no restraints and every option will be on the table and Putin will be willing to take every step necessary to keep the power in Russia.

And one of the worrying things about this is actually that if you look in Russia's nuclear adoption, then it says that Russia will use nuclear weapons if the existence of the state is in jeopardy. But the problem is that Putin doesn't really distinguish a lot between himself and the state. So I think it's important that we assume that the wording in Russia's nuclear doctrine actually means that they might use nuclear weapons to save Putin personally. And I will not say that it's likely that they will do that. It's still in the category of unlikely events. But I think it's important that we keep this possibility in mind when we talk about nuclear weapons and when we try to figure out in which situations we should be concerned about the possibility of things actually escalating to nuclear war and when it's just the Russians trying to intimidate us with nuclear talk. Because the Russians are not going to use nuclear weapons in an attempt to win the war in Ukraine. So when they talk about it in that context, then it's just something they do to try to scare us into not helping Ukraine as much as we otherwise would have done.

Okay, I will end it here. If you found the video helpful or informative, then please give it a like and also remember to subscribe to the channel and click the bell icon to receive notifications when I upload new videos. Thank you very much for watching and I will see you again next time.