How Real is Russia’s Nuclear Threat?

As the Ukraine War drags on, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ominously warned that Russia may shift its nuclear policy to a first-strike strategy rather than a defensive one, effectively introducing a nuclear threat into the conflict. 

This threat of nuclear escalation is neither new nor surprising. Putin has made similar statements in the past, namely stating that “the world is nothing without Russia,” and therefore, using nuclear resources to defend Russia is necessary. However, with the massive costs of this conflict and increasing Russia-West tensions, such threats are beginning to bear more impact than ever.

Moreover, Russia recently took over a Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant following strenuous attacks. Zaporizhzhia, currently Europe’s largest power plant, now sits under Russian control. 

As Russian attacks move further into Ukrainian territory, the shelling and the sensitivity of the nuclear force in the plant may pose a threat. Many in the West and around the world are watching intently as Russia inches closer and closer to risking the lives of millions with its continuous pressure on the plant. 

With many of Putin’s threats materializing into consistent attacks on this region, nuclear threats like these become more worrisome. With such a large nuclear arsenal at its disposal and Russia’s repeatedly-expressed interest in using them to win the war it started at any cost, many Western powers are looking intently at the course of action by Putin’s government.

U.S. President Joe Biden has not stayed unresponsive to Putin’s attempts at nuclear provocation. Biden is warning Russia that there might be a “wider danger” in the threats by the Russians, and something that the West should not turn a blind eye to. In an interview with CNN, Biden stated, “It would be irresponsible for me to talk about what we would or wouldn’t do” if Russia follows through with any nuclear threat.

If Russia was to actually exert its force on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and continue to move forward with a “strike first” mentality, it would risk challenging the United States and its allies to a nuclear match-off. Approximately 90 percent of all nuclear warheads are owned by Russia and the United States, and their excessive — yet accessible — supply has kept them at a stalemate for the past 80 years. 

If Putin chose to make good on his threats, he would have to recognize that the United States is well-equipped to retaliate at any second. However threatening Putin’s words might be, they seem insufficient to realistically push him to take nuclear action. 

To better understand Putin’s ideas and the threat’s validity, one must also look at his long-term history of empty promises and unfulfilled threats of nuclear usage. 

Even with the strain of the ongoing conflict, Putin is considered by many to be acting erratically and irrationally. However, the threat of retaliation when it comes to nuclear force is something even Putin cannot pretend to show defiance to. 

But this issue is not simply a matter of rationality for Putin or Russia. While the use of nuclear weaponry to further this particular war is not likely, the wielding of such a threat would have dire consequences if it materialized, and should not be taken lightly. 

It would be in the best interests of both Russia and Putin to back away from nuclear use. But, that simply may not be enough to hold him back. 

With the world’s gaze on him and increased doubt on whether Russia can actually win this fight and maintain its position of power, Putin might be willing to take any measures necessary to win back control.


Bita Beheshti

Bita Beheshti is a sophomore majoring in International Relations and minoring in Iranian studies. She was born in Iran, and has lived in the greater Sacramento area since she was 10. Her primary interests in IR include Middle East foreign politics, economics, and global trade. She is also involved in Moot Court, Society of Women in Law, and works for the American Language Institute as a program assistant. Outside of school, she loves to go to the beach, read, cook, and watch movies.