Russian officials have been hinting at the need to use nuclear weapons throughout the war in Ukraine. But when push comes to shove, a top Russian official claims Russia will only use nuclear weapons in cases of “self-defense.”
Nuclear war should be avoided if possible, and only emergency situations should prompt Moscow to use nuclear weapons, according to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov.
“The use of nuclear weapons is possible only in response to an attack,” Ryabkov said in an interview with Izvestia.
Moscow is well aware that resorting to nuclear weapons would touch off a lose-lose situation that could lead to cascading destruction around the globe. Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that nuclear war should be a last resort, if that.
“There can be no winners in a nuclear war and it should never be unleashed, and we stand for equal and indivisible security for all members of the world community,” Putin wrote in a letter to the participants of a conference on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, also suggested last week that using nuclear weapons in Ukraine should not be on the table.
“From a military point of view, there is no need to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine to achieve the set goals. The main purpose of Russian nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack,” Shoigu said.
The top officials’ latest commentary on nuclear weapons contrasts with some of Russian officials’ earlier remarks during the war that appeared to be thinly veiled nuclear threats.
If any country were to intervene and help out Ukraine in the war, Putin warned in February that kind of aid would “lead you to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history.” Soon after, Putin placed his nuclear deterrent forces on high alert.
But earlier this year CIA Director William Burns said that the U.S. intelligence community saw no “practical evidence” that Russia was preparing a deployment or use of nuclear weapons.
There are some important caveats to Ryabkov’s hesitation to use nuclear weapons—Russia’s military doctrine outlines the use of nuclear weapons in response to existential threats to Russia or in response to an attack even if it is just an offense that uses conventional weapons. And Russia has been accusing the United States of waging a proxy war in Ukraine for weeks now.
“Nuclear risks are very significant.”
“Russia hypothetically allows a nuclear response only in response to aggression using WMD [weapons of mass destruction] against us or our allies, or aggression using conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is threatened,” Ryabkov said.
For now, Ryabkov warned western nations they are already playing with fire. When asked what his predictions are on whether NATO nations will join Ukraine to more directly fight Russia—committing resources beyond just aid—and whether that might prompt Russia to use nuclear weapons, Ryabkov lashed out at the west, indicating that he thinks NATO and the United States are already pushing it by helping Ukraine.
“The destructive course of the NATO countries to ignore our ‘red lines’ and get involved in a confrontation with Russia in Ukraine, balancing on the brink of a direct armed conflict, is extremely risky. It is obvious that this is fraught with further escalation, up to a military clash of nuclear powers with dire consequences. This must be prevented,” Ryabkov said, without alluding to the fact that Russia invaded Ukraine without provocation. “Nuclear risks are very significant and should not be underestimated.”