In Putin's Ukraine war, some experts worry about possible nuclear escalation Russian President Vladimir Putin gave orders to his nation's nuclear forces over the weekend, but their exact meaning is unclear. Russia has more nuclear weapons than any other nation.

As Russia's Ukraine war intensifies, some warn nuclear escalation is possible

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Over the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave orders to his nation's nuclear forces. At a hearing today on Capitol Hill, America's top nuclear commander, Admiral Charles Richard, said the U.S. would not respond.

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CHARLES RICHARD: I am satisfied with the posture of my forces. I have made no recommendations to make any changes.

SHAPIRO: But some experts are worried about the possibility of nuclear escalation. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has more on why.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Putin gave his orders to two stony-faced generals.

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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

BRUMFIEL: Pavel Podvig, a senior researcher at the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, Switzerland, watched the Russian president's statement.

PAVEL PODVIG: He basically said because of the - all this hostile or aggressive statements and aggressive policies, we should start this special mode of combat duty.

BRUMFIEL: It's unclear what a special mode of combat duty actually is. Podvig says a follow-up from the Russian Ministry of Defense implied it may just mean upping the staffing levels of facilities that support nuclear weapons.

PODVIG: They just added a few more people.

BRUMFIEL: When it comes to nuclear weapons, Russia has a lot of options. Hans Kristensen is with the Federation of American Scientists.

HANS KRISTENSEN: We estimate that they have about 4,500 or so nuclear warheads in their military stockpile.

BRUMFIEL: Many of those warheads are not intercontinental world-ending weapons but smaller, so-called tactical nuclear weapons.

KRISTENSEN: They were developed for the purpose of fighting a limited regional battle - sort of, you know, a nuclear war in a very small area.

BRUMFIEL: These battlefield weapons can be launched on the same missiles Russia is currently using to bombard Ukraine, though right now there's no indication the nukes have been pulled out of storage. Russia officially says it would only use nuclear weapons if the nation's very survival was at risk, but not everyone thinks its nuclear rules are so clear-cut. Olga Oliker is with the International Crisis Group.

OLGA OLIKER: A lot of people have questioned whether the bar for Russian nuclear use is as high as its official statements say.

BRUMFIEL: In 2018, the Pentagon's own Nuclear Posture Review warned Russia might use a battlefield nuke to, quote, "de-escalate a conflict on terms favorable to Russia." In other words, Russia might detonate a smaller weapon to get its opponents to back off. Oliker thinks such action would only happen in a direct war with NATO forces. In the current conflict...

OLIKER: I think it's very unlikely that Moscow is just going to lob a nuclear weapon at something, you know? Obviously, it's been a week where a lot of people's assumptions have been challenged, but I'll cling to this one for a while.

BRUMFIEL: So why, then, is Putin rattling his nuclear saber?

JEFFREY LEWIS: Putin has had a pretty bad news week.

BRUMFIEL: Jeffrey Lewis is at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

LEWIS: The Ukrainian army is fighting back, which he didn't expect. The Russian army is performing dreadfully. They are indiscriminately shelling civilian areas. Those things all make him look weak, and the best way to push those headlines down a little bit is a nuclear threat.

BRUMFIEL: But Lewis says there is plenty of nuclear risk. Putin has already miscalculated in his invasion of Ukraine.

LEWIS: What would happen if the Russian warning system had a false alarm in the middle of a crisis like this? Would Putin know it was a false alarm, or would he jump to the wrong conclusion?

BRUMFIEL: Even if the short-range battlefield nukes are still on the shelf, thousands of Russian and American longer-range missiles are ready to launch in just minutes, and that threat hangs over everything as the conflict in Ukraine drags on. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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