May 28, 2023

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Will there be a warning before Putin launches a nuclear attack? The signs that experts pay attention to

NATO began the nuclear exercise known as Steadfast Noon in Belgium on Monday. And at the end of this month, NATO expects Russia to hold its own nuclear drills, called Grom, for the second time this year.

Steadfast Noon includes fighter jets capable of carrying nuclear warheads, but there will be no actual weapons on board. 14 countries will participate in the exercises, including the US. NATO said it was a “routine, recurring training activity” unrelated to the war in Ukraine.
But given the context, it’s far from just routine. NATO will this week simulate nuclear attacks during a major European war, and some analysts fear it could lead to nuclear escalation.

The moment may seem alarming, but the risks still seem small, writes The Economist. The further Russian forces are pushed back, the greater the fear that Vladimir Putin will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, as he has threatened several times during this period. As President Joe Biden has said, the world has not faced the prospect of a nuclear apocalypse since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Early in the war, the US delayed testing a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile out of fear that it could lead to an escalation of the conflict. But the situation has changed significantly since then, and Western leaders now feel it necessary to warn Russia of the “catastrophic” consequences it would face if it uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, said canceling Steadfast Noon would show weakness. For Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Intelligence Project at the Federation of American Scientists, the situation is a “textbook example” of escalation, where both sides want to show they are serious about nuclear deterrence and cannot back down from afraid to show signs of weakness.

Will the world get any warning if Vladimir Putin is about to use nuclear weapons? Military experts say this is likely, according to The Economist.

The long-range “strategic” weapons arsenals of Russia and the United States are closely monitored under the New START Treaty, which limits each country’s deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 and imposes limits on launch systems. The problem is that many of these are always ready and can be launched without any warning. But satellites and ground-based radars can spot and track ballistic missiles only after they are launched, and low-flying cruise missiles are harder to detect.

The use of nuclear weapons by the Kremlin is unlikely, however, as it is more likely to trigger a war with NATO, given that they could be mistaken for an attack on the West. NATO will closely monitor the Grom exercise, which has involved tests of submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles in the past.

A more feasible option would be a limited nuclear strike using one or more of Russia’s 2,000 “tactical” nuclear weapons, which generally have lower explosive power and shorter range. NATO has around 100 such weapons stored in Europe.

Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons are kept in dozens of warehouses, separate from the planes and missiles that would be needed to deliver them, so preparations for their launch should be detectable. The key is tracking by satellite and other means the movement of warheads from storage sites.

The warheads would be transported by train or truck, guarded by elite units of the Russian Defense Ministry’s 12th Main Directorate, which is responsible for maintaining the warheads, and accompanied by fire engines and special recovery vehicles. Military units that would use nuclear weapons could also exhibit unusual activity.

Western powers know these signs because, after the Cold War, they worked for decades with Russia to increase the security of its nuclear arsenal under the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program. Some of Russia’s specialized equipment and procedures were designed with the help of Western experts.

William Moon, a veteran of the CTR, says a large movement of warheads would almost certainly be noticed. But for a limited tactical demonstration, Russia could try carrying one or two nuclear missiles hidden in regular cargo trucks. Detecting such a move would be very difficult, he says.

Pavel Podvig, a researcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, notes that once mounted on mobile missile launchers and hidden in forests, tactical nuclear weapons would be difficult to detect. But, he adds, “Russia will not know if it is being watched. It will never be certain.”

British academic James Acton, director of nuclear policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank, says that, in any case, concealing the movement of nuclear warheads would not be among Russia’s goals: “Putin would like us to know that he is preparing to use nuclear weapons. He would rather threaten to use nuclear weapons and get concessions than actually use them,” he explained.

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