The Ukraine Crisis and Russia’s Policy on Nuclear Weapons

Many of us are very concerned about the Ukraine crisis, especially given the possibility that a nuclear war might break out between the US and Russia.

Given this concern, I watched two interviews today with great interest.

The first was with Dr. Fiona Hill, a senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings.

The second was with Dmitry Peskov, a Russian diplomat who is the press secretary for Vladimir Putin.

In the references section, I provide links to these interviews.

Also, to make it easier for you to access what they have to say about nuclear weapons, I provide the transcripts and time codes for that segment of their respective interviews.


Ryan Chillcote’s interview with Dmitry Peskov

28 March 2022
time codes: 1:34 – 5:11

Ryan Chillcote: I want to ask you about nuclear weapons and clear some things up. There’s still quite a bit of confusion about Russia’s position. We heard yet another official over the weekend, this time former President Dmitry Medvedev, say that Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons if it faces an existential threat, even if the other side has not employed nuclear weapons. So could you please clarify for us what exactly would amount to an existential threat to Russia? For example, if you were unable to achieve your objectives in Ukraine, even though there is no one fighting in Russia, there’s no strikes on Russia, could that be perceived as an existential threat?

Dmitry Peskov: Well, first of all, we have no doubt that all the objectives of our special military operation in Ukraine will be completed. We have no doubt about that. But any outcome of the operation, of course, is not a reason for usage of a nuclear weapon. We have a security concept that very clearly states that only when there is a threat for existence of the state in our country, we can use and we will actually use nuclear weapons to eliminate the threat or the existence of our country. Let’s keep all this — well, let’s keep these two things separate, I mean, existence of the state and special military operation in Ukraine. They have nothing to do with each other. But, at the same time, if you remember the statement of the president when he ordered the operation on the 24th of February, there was a part of his statement warning different states not to interfere in the affairs between Ukraine and Russia during this operation. He was very strict in his warning, and he was quite tough on that. And I think that everyone understands what he meant.

Ryan Chillcote: Well, he meant that he would use nuclear weapons? He was suggesting he would use nuclear weapons if a third party got involved in the conflict?

Dmitry Peskov: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so. But he was quite bold in saying that, do not interfere. If you do that, we will have all the possibilities to prevent that and to punish all those who are going to interfere.

Ryan Chillcote: Look, Mr. Peskov, if you stick to your — the dictionary definition of existential threat that we were discussing, clearly, nothing that is taking place or that is even really, quite frankly, imaginable that could take place could reach that bar of threatening the existence of the Russian state. So, why not just clear this up right now? Why can’t you, on behalf of Russia, rule out the use of nuclear weapons in this conflict, right here?

Dmitry Peskov: No one is thinking about using, about — even about idea of using a nuclear weapon.

Ryan Chillcote: President Biden also this weekend warned President Putin to not even, as he put it — quote — “even think about going on one single inch of NATO territory” — close quote. Can you imagine a situation where Russia would feel it necessary to bomb or send forces into a NATO country during this conflict?

Dmitry Peskov: Well, if it is not a reciprocal act, so if they don’t make us do that, we cannot think about that. And we do not want to think about that.


Walter Isaacson’s interview with Dr. Fiona Hill

28 March 2022
time codes: 2:46 – 6:53

Walter Isaacson: So we can say that he [Putin] should go, but he will do everything that he possibly can to make sure that he can stay in place. You’ve spoken about the possibility that he would use battlefield or tactical nuclear weapons, do you think this is still a possibility, and did this past weekend speech [by Biden] make it slightly more of a possibility?

Fiona Hill: I don’t know whether the speech made it slightly more of a possibility because look … to be frank, irrespective of the speech Putin has been convinced that he has to do whatever it takes to win, and he has been definitely contemplating the use of battlefield nuclear weapons, perhaps even some with a longer range … We’ve seen the Russian government announce that the views the Kin Jal, which is one of their missile systems that can also be nuclear powered, [and] potentially the same with the Iskandar missiles that we know that they have positioned in Belarus.

We’ve known for some time that Putin and [his] military planners certainly think about the possibility of using nuclear weapons. [And] in the event where they think that the war is not going in their favor, any kind of war that they have practiced for, these [are] contingencies they’ve planned for.

These contingencies, [which] we’ve called escalate to de-escalate, do something that most of the rest of us would not contemplate.

[The Russians want] to get everybody else to back down, and the mere fact that they’ve put the forces on alert, that they’ve had former president Dmitry Medvedev go out and talk about these kinds of possibilities, that’s intended to intimidate us.

And, [it’s] intended to make it very clear that they mean business. And, so, Putin is testing whether we are going to back off. In other words, [he wants to see if we will] give him what he wants, and [he wants to] to push for a negotiation on terms that he’s starting to lay out.

Walter Isaacson: Tell me what would happen if he used battlefield nuclear weapons. How would the west [respond]. You’ve been a member of the national security council staff, how would the west have to respond?

Fiona Hill: Well, this is going to make things extraordinarily difficult, isn’t it. Look, I think what we would have to do is have a major international response as well.

I mean I think already we need to be doing some pretty serious diplomacy behind the scenes with other nuclear powers because it’s not just western powers that are nuclear these days either, is it.

I mean we have China with a very large strategic arsenal, and also building up its own stores of strategic, tactical, as well as a medium range nuclear weapons. We’ve been trying to engage the Chinese on the nuclear front.

We’re supposed to have the Non-Proliferation Treaty review this year. [It is] coming up in the summer, [and it] has already been postponed over and over again.

If Putin and the Kremlin took this step, they would cross the threshold of use that hasn’t been crossed [before].

Obviously, since the [deployment] of nuclear weapons during world war II, we’ve all said that was impermissible. That’s been the basis of the strategic balance during the Cold War. It’s been the strategic balance basis between other nuclear powers like India and Pakistan.

This would literally open the proverbial Pandora’s Box.

So what we’re going to have to do is get ahead of it, and keep pushing on diplomacy to make sure that it is made crystal clear to the Kremlin that this is unacceptable on a global international level, not just just in the relationship and the standoff between Russia and the West.

[This relationship and standoff is what Putin] is trying to frame.


Walter Isaacson: What is the military doctrine of the US if there is a use of tactical nuclear weapons in an engagement in Europe that we’re involved with?

Fiona Hill: Well, we’ve been going backwards and forwards on our strategic nuclear posture, and I’m not sure how much we have contemplated this [situation].

I would actually defer to the Pentagon and to others … you know, to ask them for clarification for this, because I think it’s very risky also to speculate [about this].

We have to make this crystal clear in official communications and back channel communications, not just trying to telegraph it you know during interviews on television … because, you know, the Kremlin scrutinized this very closely, [and] they jump onto every word that every commentator [or] another makes.

They’re trying to interpret [for] themselves [what is being said].

I think this is one where we have to be extraordinarily clear on a government to government, military to military and in an international framework you know rather than making um speculative commentary in the other major news [media outlets].


References


Buck, Kate

Russia outlines four reasons it would use nuclear weapons
Kate Buck
28 March 2022
https://news.yahoo.com/russia-outlines-4-reasons-it-would-use-nuclear-weapons-160825581.html

  1. If Russia was struck by a nuclear missile.
  2. If any other nuclear weapons were used against Russia or its allies.
  3. An attack on “critical infrastructure” which paralyses its nuclear deterrents.
  4. If an act of aggression is committed against Russia and its allies that jeopardizes the existence of the country itself.

Cole, Brendan

Russia Finally Rules Out Using Nuclear Weapons Over Ukraine War
by Brendan Cole
29 March 2022
https://www.newsweek.com/russia-ukraine-peskov-putin-nuclear-weapons-biden-1692753


Hill, Fiona

A Neutral Ukraine, the Nuclear Threat, and Russia’s Doomed Economy
Fiona Hill
28 March 2022
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHdhfd5zWrk

Amanpour and Company
Interview by Walter Isaacson


Peskov, Dmitry

Ukraine and the West: ‘Don’t push us into the corner’
Dmitry Peskov
28 March 2022
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xHmgTRkn6M

PBS NewsHour
Interview by Ryan Chilcote


Discussion


WarrenK

I really appreciate your attempt to present the entire spectrum of views on various issues such as the invasion of Ukraine.

It is essential to be aware of what lies Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov is spreading [“know thine enemy”] but considering them to represent a legitimate alternative viewpoint would be in my opinion akin to doing the same for the views of Joseph Goebbels.

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