President Putin has issued his most aggressive threats to use nuclear weapons to date. In a speech delivered to the nation on 21 September 2022, Mr Putin announced a partial mobilisation of Russian military forces and made new and more explicit threats to use nuclear weapons “in the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people”.
The executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), Beatrice Fihn, condemned the speech: “Nuclear threats are unacceptable at any time, by anyone. Putin’s threats increase the risk of escalation to a nuclear conflict. This is incredibly dangerous and irresponsible. Every nuclear threat forces a choice- escalation to a potential global catastrophe -or rejection of nuclear weapons completely”
Ms Fihn went on to call for all countries to join the United Nations nuclear ban treaty: “The majority response to the increased threat from nuclear weapons has been to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.”
As with the President’s earlier threats to use nuclear weapons against anyone intervening in the Ukraine conflict, this new threat goes well beyond Russia’s official nuclear doctrine, and is inconsistent with the statement Russia made with the other NPT nuclear-weapon states in January that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”, reiterated by Putin in August.
This threat comes at the same time as Russia has announced plans to hold immediate referendums in the areas it currently controls in Ukraine, to decide on their becoming part of Russia. If these go ahead and the result is as expected in favour of joining Russia, Ukrainian military operations against Russian forces in these areas could then be interpreted as threats to the “territorial integrity” of Russia.
In his speech, the Russian leader framed his nuclear threats as a response to “statements made by some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO countries on the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction – nuclear weapons – against Russia”. It is not clear which statements he is referring to, but even if no such statements have been made, it demonstrates how nuclear rhetoric can escalate to dangerous levels.
Alicia Sanders-Zakre, ICAN’s policy and research coordinator noted: “Threats to use nuclear weapons lower the threshold for their use, greatly increasing the risk of nuclear conflict and global catastrophe. Speculation about the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and about possible nuclear responses, is only eroding the taboo against the use of these weapons.”
If Russia or any other nuclear-armed state, would use nuclear weapons, it would have catastrophic and wide-ranging consequences, especially in densely populated regions such as Europe. Even so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons of the kind that some commentators speculate Russia might use in the Ukraine conflict typically have explosive yields in the range of 10 to 100 kilotons. In comparison, the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945, killing 140,000 people, had a yield of just 15 kilotons. A single nuclear detonation would likely kill hundreds of thousands of civilians and injure many more; radioactive fallout could contaminate large areas across multiple countries. Emergency services would not be able to respond effectively and widespread panic would trigger mass movements of people and severe economic disruption. Multiple detonations would of course be much worse.
In June this year, countries that have joined the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) met for the first time in Vienna and condemned “unequivocally any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances”.
ICAN is now calling on the United Nations General Assembly, which is currently holding its annual high-level meeting, to issue a similar unequivocal condemnation and is urging all remaining countries to use this opportunity to join the TPNW without delay.