As 135,000 Russian troops backed by tanks and artillery stand poised on the Ukrainian border, Russian President Vladimir Putin is threatening to deploy tactical nuclear weapons.
After a telephone dialogue between Putin and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency Russia’s “response will be military” if the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) continues to send military aid to Ukraine.
“A lack of progress towards a political-diplomatic solution would mean that our response will be military and military-technical,” Ryabkov said, adding that in such a situation, Russia would deploy weapons previously banned under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The treaty between the Soviet Union and the US signed in 1987 banned all land-based ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and missile launchers with ranges of 310–620 miles (short medium-range) and 620–3,420 miles. The treaty expired in 2019 but neither side has moved to violate the agreement.
New footage appeared this week showing four newly deployed Russian Aerospace Forces MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors armed with Kinzhal hypersonic missiles in the Russian Chkalovsk Air Base in Kaliningrad bordering Poland and Lithuania. Unconfirmed reports suggest that 10 or 11 MiG-31s have so far been converted to carry and launch Kinzhal on an operational with two more used for test work, suggesting that there could be five of the aircraft in Kaliningrad. Russia claims the missile, capable of carrying a 500-kiloton nuclear warhead, has a range of over 1,200 miles and flies “at a hypersonic speed, ten times faster than the speed of sound.”
— Hans Schmulke (@gunner_schmulke) February 8, 2022
Putin addressed the issue at a press conference.
“I want to stress it one more time. I’ve been saying it, but I’d very much want you to finally hear me, and to deliver it to your audience in print, TV, and online,” Putin said. “Do you understand it or not, that if Ukraine joins Nato and attempts to bring Crimea back by military means, the European countries will be automatically pulled into a war conflict with Russia?”
“Of course the [military] potential of NATO and Russia are incomparable. We understand it,” Putin said. “But we also understand that Russia is one of the leading nuclear states, and by some modern components, it even outperforms many.”
According to the Federation of American Scientists Russia has just under 4,500 nuclear warheads in its stockpile making it the largest military superpower in the world today.
“There will be no winners, and you will be pulled into this conflict against your will,’ Putin added. “You won’t even have time to blink your eye when you execute Article 5”
Article five of NATO, also called the principle of collective defense, states that an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.
Putin said that for 30 years Russia had tried to persuade the West against a NATO eastward move but there was “just a complete disregard for our concerns, demands, and proposals”.
General Mark Milley, chair of the joint chiefs, and Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, told the Congress on Thursday that Russia was planning to hold a large nuclear exercise in mid-February as a warning to NATO not to intervene should they invade Ukraine. Russia generally holds a nuclear exercise every year but the US military experts believe this year, the exercise will be held early due to the situation.
Military experts estimate that Russia has in place about 70% of the military assets it needs for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine but would be able to move the remaining troops within a few weeks.
Earlier this week, President Joe Biden ordered the deployment of 2,000 US troops to Poland and Germany to counter the Russian build-up of troops. On Thursday, a senior Biden administration official told the press that there was intelligence suggesting that Russia planned to fabricate an attack by Ukraine or the west in a “false flag” operation designed to create a pretext for an invasion.
Ukraine seems willing to escalate the conflict.
“This is going to be a bloody hell for the Russians.” Alexander Kara, a Ukrainian diplomat and former assistant defense minister, said the Russians would encounter a huge force of fire, and that Ukraine was not tired of wars, and was ready to fight at the height of its power.
It is assumed that Ukraine does not have nuclear weapons. Prior to 1991, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and had Soviet nuclear weapons in its territory. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine held about one-third of the Soviet nuclear arsenal totaling approximately 1,900 warheads, the third-largest in the world at the time, as well as significant means of its design and production. In 1994, at the behest of US President Bill Clinton, Ukraine agreed to hand over its nuclear stockpile to Russia for dismantlement and to join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). This was done with the expressed assurances from the US and Britian that the Soviet Union would not invade Ukraine. Ukraine lacked the resources to dismantle these nuclear assets. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine still held a total of 176 nuclear warheads and several means of deployment.
These agreements were clearly violated in 2014 when Russia invaded and subsequently annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. Obama was quietly criticized for his response which was limited to sanctions, precisely the strategy President Biden has stated he intends to employ in the current crisis.