Putin’s Russia is a nuclear outlaw

  • Themes: Russia

Russian nuclear doctrine has become nothing more than a rhetoric of intimidation.

Mock-up of the air defense system around Moscow.
Mock-up of the air defense system around Moscow. Credit: Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo

Since its invasion of Ukraine two years ago, Russia has threatened to use nuclear weapons on Europe. It has touted new game-changing armaments, a hypersonic missile among them, ready to attack. It has occupied Ukrainian nuclear power stations in order to transform them into military sites. In mid-February 2024, a US congressman revealed the seemingly shocking revelation that Russia had a space-based nuclear device ready to use on its enemies, primarily NATO, Europe and the US. In all these ways, Russia has become a nuclear outlaw under Vladimir Putin, using doomsday threats to pursue military expansion of its empire and its influence to Ukraine, the Arctic and beyond.

Why has Russia suggested it may use its nuclear arsenal? One reason may be to deter NATO activities to protect Ukraine – the threat of nuclear weapons succeeded in preventing the stationing of NATO troops there. On the other hand, the Russian invasion had the opposite impact of leading to the ongoing expansion of NATO. Another reason is that Russia may genuinely feel threatened, especially given the country’s increasing military and economic isolation from the West and the need to turn to the east, towards China and North Korea.

Russia is pursuing the nuclear grandeur of the Soviet era in both civilian and military spheres. In the civilian sphere this involves efforts at home and abroad to accelerate power station construction, including floating reactors at home and sales of reactors to India, Iran, Turkey and elsewhere. In the military sphere Russia is pursuing nuclear modernisation, including through new weapons. It has built up and reopened Arctic military bases, supplying them with bombers, jets, and new radar systems. These technologies require extensive support facilities with access to fuels, lubricants and other hazardous materials – and weapons grade nuclear fuel. One new weapon intended for the arsenal is the ‘Poseidon’ nuclear-armed torpedo, which is powered by a nuclear reactor and intended to cause radioactive waves to make a target coastline uninhabitable for decades. The Russian navy has announced plans to procure 20 Poseidons, though none has yet been delivered or is in operation.

Nuclearisation of the Russian Arctic comes with great risks, as was made clear from a deadly nuclear accident involving the ‘Burevestnik’ cruise missile in August 2019, at the navy testing range of Nenoksa on the White Sea, when the isotope power-source for a liquid-fuelled rocket engine exploded. Reportedly, seven individuals died, hospital staff were unprepared to deal with the radiation risk, and some medical personnel and victims were flown to Moscow for radiation testing; medical staff were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements. Just before he ordered the invasion of Ukraine, Putin instructed the defence ministry and Rosatom nonetheless to continue to prepare Russian nuclear weapons for possible tests – with those for the ‘Burevestnik’ moved to the Novaia Zemlia nuclear test site, an area of significant radioactive contamination after Cold War weapons tests and dumping of waste and reactors off its shorelines. The renewed presence of military detachments, nuclear weapons, nuclear icebreakers and nuclear reactors in the Arctic will make the Russian Arctic ‘the most nuclearised waters on the planet by 2035’.

Space is now also a destination for Russian nuclear weapons. These have been at the centre of military fantasies and fears since the onset of the Cold War, even though they are outlawed by the Outer Space Treaty of 1966. In development in the US and USSR – and tested by the US in space in 1962 – such an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon being developed in Russia would use a nuclear detonation to send an electromagnetic pulse through the atmosphere with indiscriminate impact on every military, communications, or weather satellite. For the war on Ukraine, an EMP weapon might disable Starlink or US military satellites. As far as can be determined, Russia’s EMP weapons are years from being put in place, and are unlikely to be used since they would destroy Russia’s own satellites. In any event, deployment would be an abrogation of yet another international arms control treaty by Russia. Over recent decades Russia has abandoned or ignored the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); New START; Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF); Open Skies; and now, apparently, Outer Space.

With some justification, Russia claims that its space weapons programmes follow those of the US and are for self-protection. The US left the 1972 ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty under George W. Bush in 2001 to free up pursuit of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), earlier called ‘Star Wars,’ an action that accelerated a new arms race. When known as ‘Star Wars’, as originally advanced under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, space-based reactors would use power-lasers to hit Soviet ICBMs and create a ‘peace shield’. SDI space weapons technology is still under development, though in limited form – and with middling but very costly success.

Recognising the furore over the disclosure of development of nuclear weapons in space, Putin has repeatedly indicated that Russia’s ‘position is quite clear and transparent: we have always been, and remain, categorically opposed to the deployment of nuclear weapons in space’. Putin’s claim may be another effort to muddy the Kremlin’s real military intentions while pursuing nuclear modernisation – and wars on its nearest neighbours. It has an extensive programme for space-based reactors, which could be used both for peaceful and military purposes. In all events, deployment of space weapons is not expected for years to come, the technology remains unproven, and, if deployment occurred, it would expose the cynical actions of a fragile former superpower that finds salvation in nuclear sabre rattling.

Russia’s actions as a nuclear outlaw are much more apparent in the war on Ukraine. Russia has ignored its responsibilities to treaties concerning international nuclear regimes for civilian nuclear power, and has turned nuclear power stations into weapons of war. In a forthcoming report, Tatiana Kasperski notes how Russia has violated all international guarantees to nuclear safety, such as those set forth by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). First, in early March 2022, its troops occupied the Chernobyl exclusion zone, interfering with work of local specialists, stealing crucial instrumentation and stirring up radioactivity. Russian troops next seized the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). The ZNPP, with six pressurized water reactors (PWRs), is the largest of its kind in Europe. The occupying troops damaged buildings on the site, and put highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel (SNF) in storage ponds and dry casks at risk of a radiological disaster, in part by blowing up the Kakhovska hydropower station and reservoir on the River Dnipro, which the station relies on for cooling water. Russia ultimately annexed the region and declared the ZNPP its property.

During the months that followed, the ZNPP has been routinely shelled, leading to further damage and to the disruption of the station’s – and Ukraine’s – power supply. The four powerlines that connect the NPP to the grid have been damaged, and the station’s PWRs and its large SNF storage have had to rely on diesel generators which, if they failed, would risk a ‘loss of coolant’, resulting in the kind of  accident that took place at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011. The military force occupying ZNPP, equipped with heavy machinery including cannons and with vehicles used to transport weapons, ammunition, explosives, and troops, is subordinate directly to Putin. Russia has established firing positions near the plant that move about to avoid attack, while using their proximity to the NPP as a shield to deter fire. The Russian military, therefore, has effectively transformed a nuclear power plant into a nuclear ‘launchpad’.

Given duplicitous Russian behaviour regarding nuclear weapons development and treaties, it will be critical for western intelligence agencies to closely monitor such activities.  On the other hand, there are several reasons not to overreact to claims of some kind of a Russian technological breakthrough in space, hypersonic or other weapons. First, the military sector has failed to deliver over the past quarter century under Putin because of the endemic corruption that limits its inability to innovate: aging infrastructure, shell companies that skim resources and extensive bribery preclude modernisation. Russia cannot supply soldiers with socks and blankets, never mind body armour. Perhaps 20 per cent of the defence budget is going to contractors and military leaders. Claims of nuclear preparedness and modern weapons provide cover for a military that has consistently failed to perform, especially one that, two years ago, confidently expected to roll into Kyiv for a quick victory over Ukraine. The Russian military has become a post-Cold War Potemkin power.

Putin insists that Russia be recognised for its space programme and nuclear bombs, but in Ukraine the military has performed poorly. The army cannot adequately handle Ukrainian surface-to-air missiles. Ukrainian drones toy with Russian invaders and their tanks. Russia has used up most of its cruise missiles and both short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, has resorted to ‘dumb’, unguided munitions that inflict huge civilian casualties, but are 20th-century relics for NATO and the US, and now must turn to North Korea for weapons.  Its air force continues to lose fighter jets and combat aircraft, including two squadrons of Sukhoi jets. In 2018 Putin asserted his Avangard’ hypersonic missile was ‘invincible’ and likened it to a ‘meteorite’ and ‘fireball’. It has been used in battle only a handful of times without great effect, and its designer was arrested for treason for speaking about it publicly. The arrest was not an isolated incident, and will further dampen enthusiasm for risk-taking in the military-industrial complex. As in the Stalin era, Putin’s secret police, the FSB, is charging scientists with treason to quiet them – and so destroy the scientific autonomy needed to seek technological breakthroughs.

In the face of military failure in Ukraine and growing isolation abroad, Putin has turned to the usual narratives: blaming internal enemies and threatening the West – increasingly with nuclear weapons. Russian leaders have repeatedly referred to the need for a nuclear attack if some arbitrary ‘red line’ is crossed. Just last week, former president Dmitry Medvedev warned London, Berlin, Paris and Washington that Russia was prepared to order attacks on those cities. To drive the point home that Russia has considered doomsday responses, Putin recently hopped aboard a modernised Tu-160M, a supersonic strategic bomber from the Soviet era, which symbolised how Russian nuclear doctrine has become nothing more than a rhetoric of intimidation. Power stations have been transformed into weapons of war. International treaties have been repudiated in lawless fashion. Russia, one of the founding nuclear powers, has become a nuclear outlaw.


Paul Josephson