How likely is a Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine? Russian President Vladimir Putin is again raising the possibility of such an attack. Experts said the likelihood still remains low, though risks are rising.

How likely is a Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine?

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has once again raised the possibility of deploying nuclear weapons in his war with Ukraine. He says he's not bluffing, but what are the chances he'll really do it? For more, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, it's not the first time in this war that Vladimir Putin has talked about using nuclear weapons. Why is he talking about it again now?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, Ukraine is still gaining ground with these offensives in the east and the south of the country. This is putting pressure on Putin, especially from the hard-line pro-war camp in Russia. So all this has likely contributed to his recent escalation, the mobilization of more troops, the annexing of Ukrainian territory and this nuclear threat.

MARTINEZ: It's one thing to threaten using a nuclear weapon. It's another thing to actually use it. Can you give us some sense of the likelihood of him doing it?

MYRE: Yeah, Vladimir Putin is probably the only one that knows the exact possibility here. Most nuclear experts I've been talking to say the likelihood of Russia actually using such a weapon is still relatively low. And I spoke with Matthew Bunn at the Harvard Kennedy School, and I asked him to sort of put a number on it. He's studied nuclear issues throughout his career and served as a White House adviser. His best estimate is it's a 10 to 20% likelihood that Russia might use a nuke. Now, most things in life - that's a pretty low probability. But he says when it comes to nukes, this is intolerably high.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, 10 to 20%. Did he say how a strike could help Russia, though?

MYRE: Well, he pointed out Russia has all of these small, low-yield, tactical nukes that can be designed for a specific target - a concentration of troops, a military base, perhaps a port or an airfield. But he noted that Russia can attack these targets with just a large number of conventional weapons. And he says just look at the Ukrainian cities that have already been flattened. So Bunn thinks a nuclear strike, if it is used, may be intended more to intimidate as much to - as gain military advantage.

MATTHEW BUNN: I think the biggest factor in the use of nuclear weapons is the fear they provoke. Putin might hope that he could coerce the Ukrainians into accepting his terms, that he could coerce the West into backing off.

MARTINEZ: So how have the West and Ukraine reacted to this?

MYRE: Well, a senior U.S. defense official said the U.S. isn't seeing any Russian moves that would compel the U.S. to change its own nuclear posture. But if Russia does go nuclear, President Biden and his team have already warned Moscow that they will be on the end of a powerful, though unspecified, U.S. response. Now, Bunn says U.S. could very well target Russian military forces, which would be a big deal, bring added risk. But he thinks it's very unlikely the U.S. would respond with nukes.

BUNN: People have talked about things like conventional attacks on Russian forces in Ukraine, a variety of things that would be extremely unpleasant for the Russians and make the cost of using nuclear weapons higher than the plausible benefits.

MARTINEZ: So aside then - aside from the battlefield, what kind of a political and moral opposition could Russia expect to encounter?

BUNN: That seems certain. Russia's international isolation would deepen. Two important countries to look at, in particular - China and India. China has growing ties with Russia, but it's clearly becoming uncomfortable with aspects of the war. India has tried to remain neutral. By using a nuclear strike, Russia could lose both of them and become a true pariah.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks a lot.

MYRE: My pleasure.

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