Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly raised the possibility of firing nuclear weapons since the beginning of his country's invasion in late February as a way of deterring the possibility of armed intervention from the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Recently, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council and former Russian President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev claimed that Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
Medvedev said the Kremlin was within its right to strike against any enemy with nuclear weapons. He added that Russia's nuclear doctrine does not require an enemy to use such weapons first.
"We have a special document on nuclear deterrence. This document clearly indicates the grounds on which the Russian Federation is entitled to use nuclear weapons," said Medvedev. "There are a few of them, let me remind them to you. Number one is the situation, when Russia is struck by a nuclear missile. The second case is any use of other nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies."
"The third is an attack on a critical infrastructure that will have paralyzed our nuclear deterrent forces," he continued. "And the fourth case is when an attack of aggression is committed against Russia and its allies, which jeopardized the existence of the country itself, even without the use of nuclear weapons, that is, with the use of conventional weapons."
Russia has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world, with approximately 6,000 nuclear warheads at its disposal. Military analysts have warned that if Russia felt like it had no choice but to use a nuclear weapon, it could use a so-called tactical nuclear warhead.
Such a warhead is generally less powerful than typical nuclear weapons, including strategic warheads carried on intercontinental ballistic missiles. Experts have warned that a tactical nuke fired into Western Ukraine could cripple infrastructure and army units and destroy the will of the Ukrainian people to fight while barely affecting Russian units in the country. (Related: Survey finds that more than one-third of Americans are willing to risk nuclear war with Russia over Ukraine.)
"We don't know exactly where it is, the red line where the Russian leadership considers using tactical nuclear weapons," said Petr Topychkanov, a researcher for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "The Russian leadership knows the value of ambiguity."
"The biggest question is how rational the Russian leadership is right now," added Topychkanov. "I don't know what kind of information he is getting."
If Russia were to do the unthinkable and launch a nuclear warhead, former Defense Intelligence official Rebekah Koffler said the Biden administration's recent responses to Putin's aggression instill little confidence that America is properly prepared for such an event.
"The fact that we have not responded in a methodical manner to any of Putin's actions nor have we deterred any of his actions" is reason to be concerned that the administration of President Joe Biden does not have a coherent plan in place to respond to a nuclear attack.
"Judging by our overall response and that we put all our eggs in one basket with sanctions and we were caught off guard regardless of the fact Putin never made it a secret what he was going to do yet we are grasping at straws," said Koffler. "Given that, it doesn't seem that we are prepared for the possibility of him using nuclear weapons."
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