Nuclear Escalation Between Russia and the West: 'Increasing Threats of Actual Use'

The ongoing conflict between Russia and the Western bloc has reached a dangerous new phase, with Russia increasingly threatening the actual use of nuclear weapons

by Sededin Dedovic
Nuclear Escalation Between Russia and the West: 'Increasing Threats of Actual Use'
© Adam Berry / Getty Images

The use of nuclear weapons in the conflict between Russia and the Western bloc is dramatically escalating in the shadow of the consequences caused by the war in Ukraine on Russia's international position, as well as its economic, military, and security conditions.

This situation is prompting Russia to remind the West of its nuclear power and to assure that it will not accept any option that would leave it defeated in this confrontation, reports Al Jazeera. Moscow mentions readiness to relax the limitations on the use of nuclear weapons, and its official statements threatening actual use are increasing.

It has also conducted exercises simulating the use of tactical nuclear weapons and has heightened the readiness of its arsenal.

Stockholm Institute Report

The annual report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute warned of the increasing proliferation of nuclear weapons globally this year, raising concerns and questions about the fate of this escalation and its repercussions on international stability and security.

In the report published on June 17, 2024, it is stated that the six-decade-long nuclear arms control project is at risk of ending, as the pace of its implementation by the two main parties, the United States and Russia, has slowed.

These two countries possess approximately 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, while both are reducing transparency regarding their nuclear arsenals, with estimates suggesting that Russia has deployed about 36 additional nuclear warheads compared to January 2023, amid unconfirmed reports of Russian nuclear weapon deployments on Belarusian territory.

“While the overall number of nuclear warheads in the world continues to decline with the gradual dismantling of Cold War-era weapons, we are unfortunately witnessing an annual increase in the number of operational nuclear warheads, and this trend seems likely to continue, if not accelerate, in the years ahead.

This is very troubling,” said the Institute's director, Dan Smith. Nuclear arms control and disarmament diplomacy suffered major setbacks in 2023, the report states. In February 2023, Russia announced it would suspend its participation in the START Treaty, the last remaining nuclear arms control agreement.

In response, the United States also suspended the exchange and publication of data required by the treaty. In November 2023, Russia withdrew its ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty due to “imbalance” with the United States, which has abstained from ratifying the treaty since it was opened for signature in 1996.

Wilfred Wan, director of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Program at the Stockholm Institute, commented: “We have not seen nuclear weapons play such a prominent role in international relations since the Cold War, and it is hard to believe that just two years ago, the leaders of the five major nuclear powers affirmed that a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought”.

Demonstration of Force

In a rare demonstration of force, a Russian nuclear-powered submarine and a group of accompanying warships arrived in Havana Bay, Cuba, on June 12, coming less than 100 miles from the eastern coast of the United States, prompting Washington to dispatch a submarine to Guantanamo.

Although Cuba confirmed that the two submarines were not armed with nuclear weapons and that the Russian fleet’s visit lasted five days, the event was reminiscent of the Cold War atmosphere between the Soviet Union and the Western bloc, culminating in the deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba by the Soviet Union in 1962, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war.

In a similar context, Russia conducted exercises involving the use of tactical nuclear weapons near the Ukrainian border on May 21, 2024. The explosive capacity of these bombs is 360 kilotons, which is 30 times greater than the bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

Moscow followed this with similar exercises on June 12, 2024, near the borders of NATO member states Norway, Finland, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These exercises followed statements by Western officials indicating that Ukraine would be allowed to carry out attacks deep within Russian territory using Western weapons.

Mutual Threats

These exercises were preceded by threats from Russian President Vladimir Putin to deploy “conventional missiles” in the immediate vicinity of the United States and its European allies if they allow Ukraine to carry out strikes with Western long-range weapons deep into Russian territory.

“The West is mistaken if it thinks that Russia will never use nuclear weapons,” Putin said, warning that “the Kremlin's nuclear doctrine should not be underestimated”.

Vladimir Putin© Omer Messinger / Getty Images

When asked about NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's statements calling for allowing Ukraine to use Western weapons to attack Russian territory, Putin warned that allowing Kyiv to strike Russia with more powerful weapons is a dangerous escalation that draws the West into war with Russia.

Responding to a question about the danger of nuclear war, Putin stated that Russia's nuclear doctrine allows the use of such weapons. Russia's nuclear doctrine, published in 2020, outlines the conditions under which the Russian president would consider using nuclear weapons, essentially in response to a nuclear attack or other weapons of mass destruction or the use of conventional weapons against Russia “when the existence of the state is threatened”.

International Position

This Russian discourse and activities emphasize the view of nuclear weapons as one of the pillars of its international status—something it seeks to restore—as indicated in the Russian Federation's foreign policy document issued by the Kremlin on March 31, 2023.

The document states that Russia's position in the world is determined by its significant resources in all areas of life, its status as a permanent member of the Security Council, its participation in leading intergovernmental organizations and assemblies, and its status as one of the two largest nuclear powers.

The document also mentions other determinants, such as Russia's contribution to victory in World War II and its active role in shaping the modern international relations system and eliminating the global colonial system, making it “one of the sovereign centers of global development, carrying out a historically unique mission aimed at preserving the global balance of power and building a multipolar international system”.

Efforts to change the shape of the international system have been the focus of Russian foreign policy since Putin's rise to power in 2000. Source: Al Jazeera.