London — Russia’s heavy losses in its full-scale invasion of Ukraine mean that Moscow now sees its battlefield nuclear weapons as increasingly important in deterring and defeating NATO, according to a new report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), which warns that the West must wake up to the rising nuclear threat. 

On February 24, 2022, as the first tanks rolled over the Ukrainian border at the outset of the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a televised address warning the world of “consequences you have never faced in your history” if anyone tried to stop Russia, a threat widely seen as nuclear saber-rattling by the Kremlin. 

The IISS report says fear of escalation with Russia has caused the West to hesitate in supplying arms to Kyiv. But nearly two years on, a declassified U.S. intelligence report last month estimated Russia has lost around 315,000 troops in Ukraine since the outset of the invasion, nearly 90% of its pre-war army – much of it at the hands of weapons donated by the West. 

“Russia has less confidence now in their conventional capabilities because of everything they’ve lost in the Ukraine war,” said William Alberque, the report author and Director of Strategy, Technology and Arms Control at IISS. 

That means Moscow’s shorter-range atomic weapons, known Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons or NSNW – designed for use on the battlefield – are becoming increasingly important to the Kremlin, according to Alberque. 

“Russia has basically short range and medium range, air-launched, ground-launched and sea-launched missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads throughout the theater and able to hold all of NATO at risk. NATO itself lacks sort of a countervailing capability to match the Russian capability.” 

Deterrence efforts

Russia has already placed non-strategic nuclear weapons in the territory of its ally Belarus, which neighbors several NATO states. Last week, Belarus announced it had adopted a new military doctrine. “The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on Belarus territory is an important component of the preventive deterrence of potential adversaries from unleashing armed aggression against Belarus. This is our forced measure,” Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin said on January 20. 

The IISS report also highlights a paper published in June by the high-profile Russian political and military analyst Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow, in which he endorsed a tactical nuclear strike on a European state supportive of Ukraine, in order to restore deterrence against NATO. 

In the paper, titled “A Difficult but Necessary Decision,” Karaganov wrote “It is necessary to arouse the instinct of self-preservation that the West has lost and convince it that its attempts to wear Russia out by arming Ukrainians are counterproductive for the West itself. We will have to make nuclear deterrence a convincing argument again by lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons.” 

“Morally, this is a terrible choice as we will use God’s weapon, thus dooming ourselves to grave spiritual losses. But if we do not do this, not only Russia can die, but most likely the entire human civilization will cease to exist. By breaking the West’s will to continue the aggression, we will not only save ourselves and finally free the world from the five-century-long Western yoke, but we will also save humanity,” Karaganov wrote. 

Alberque notes that several other well-known political scientists in Russia have engaged in this nuclear debate following the publication of Karaganov’s paper. 

Karaganov even has presidential approval. In October last year, at an annual political conference at Valdai, a lakeside town between Moscow and St Petersburg, Putin himself picked out Karaganov among the audience. 

“Putin said (to Karaganov), ‘Yes, I read all of your papers. And I don’t think we need to strike NATO, but I do think I need additional options in terms of escalation with the U.S. and NATO in order to maintain deterrence,’” Alberque said, adding that those options increasingly involve non-strategic nuclear weapons. 

“They’re constantly thinking about what sort of dosage of nuclear weapons would they need to make us acquiesce, to make us basically sue for peace, without escalating the conflict beyond their control, where we start actually hitting targets deep inside Russia? So, basically, how do they prevent us from striking Moscow? How do they keep the conflict at the theater level?”  

“I think that they believe that smaller uses of nuclear weapons could be contained and could be advantageous for Russia. So, this is what we would consider nuclear warfighting to win the battle, to knock out the U.S., to prevent the U.S. from joining in the war by, for instance, preventing us from being able to reinforce from the continental United States,” Alberque told VOA. 

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the use of any nuclear weapon by Russia in Ukraine would “fundamentally change the nature of the conflict” and would have “consequences.” 

Russia believes NATO does not have the resolve to respond with its own nuclear weapons, according to the IISS report, which says it is vital for the West to re-calibrate its own deterrence.  

“Do we have to introduce the same (NSNW) systems? Or do we take the Russian options off the table through better-integrated air and missile defenses? These are the things that we have to figure out. This is a new dilemma – or a dilemma, I should say, that we’ve ignored for such a long time,” Alberque said.