Vladimir Putin couldn’t be clearer. “I’m not bluffing,” he said of his threat to go nuclear. But is it? And does it automatically follow that Armageddon would happen if Putin dropped the first nuclear bombs the world had seen since 1945?
The good news is that Putin cannot start World War III just by pushing a red button on his desk in the Kremlin. If he decides to launch an attack, the order must pass through at least three levels of controls put in place to prevent the accidental or unauthorized launch of nuclear missiles.
Before reaching nuclear silos, mobile launch sites and submarines, his command would pass through three men: Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov and Chief of Russian Forces of nuclear rockets, Sergei Karakayev.
Even after going through that chain of command, launches wouldn’t follow instantly.
Unless there was a change in standard protocols since Russia invaded Ukraine, there would be a 20-minute gap between each transmission of ‘nuclear football’ [the Cheget] containing the codes necessary to transmit the launch order and targeting information, to allow nuclear troops to verify that it is indeed authorized.
These safeguards are vital given the size of Russia’s nuclear stockpile. It is estimated that there are 5,977 nuclear warheads – the largest in the world – mostly stored in 12 depots across Russia. Of these, 1,500 are said to be ready for launch.
Before the war in Ukraine, Putin boasted that the American Star Wars missile defense system would be powerless to stop his new hypersonic missiles. In practice, however, the weapons it is most likely to use are smaller tactical missiles capable of hitting neighbors such as Ukraine or neighboring NATO states.
Mark Almond: ‘Vladimir Putin couldn’t be clearer. “I’m not bluffing,” he said of his threat to go nuclear. But is it?
These are largely stored in “European” Russia and in the enclave of Kaliningrad, between Poland and Lithuania. Among them is the Kalibr long-range cruise missile, which could reach London. It is possible that Putin could surprise the West by using his shorter range Iskander rockets to launch atomic warhead missiles. If fired from a truck-mounted launcher in Russian territory, even the Iskander could hit Warsaw or Stockholm with a warhead eight times more destructive than the Hiroshima bomb.
Finally, Putin has his classic intercontinental ballistic missiles, based in silos in Western Siberia. They could easily reach London or Washington.
What we don’t know is if the old Russian atomic warheads still work. While Russia tested the missiles that would carry the nuclear warheads, test ban treaties mean that neither America nor Russia has detonated a nuclear weapon in decades.
Riot police arrest a woman during a protest against the mobilization of reservists in Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday. Putin made the partial mobilization effective immediately
Given the sophistication of the listening capabilities of our security services, no Russian nuclear attack would come out of nowhere. To launch thousands of missiles and bombers would require a blizzard of electronic orders and these would be intercepted by the ghosts of the West.
Moreover, spy satellite images of the concrete and steel covers of the huge underground nuclear storage bunkers removed, submarines setting sail and Russian strategic bombers taxiing on the runways would all give us advance warning of a offensive. Indeed, it would be reasonable to assume that we in the West will have, if not the ten-minute warning of the popular cliché, perhaps up to an hour to prepare.
Not that we can do much to capitalize on this in terms of saving lives. Even if we had a network of underground bunkers in our towns and cities, the reality is that if the government waited until there was clear evidence of a Russian missile launch, it would be too late to that people do much to disperse to places of safety.
Under these circumstances, any public warning will likely only result in mass panic. This is why Western governments have trusted nuclear deterrence over contingency plans and why I think they will likely continue to do the same, focusing their efforts on persuading Putin to step back from the abyss. rather than the development of a public warning system.
The worst-case scenario, of course, is for the unthinkable to happen: swaths of the UK are destroyed, the population decimated, the government vaporized. As scary as that sounds, plans have been made for that as well. Command of our armed forces would be vested in Canada or America.
But unless Putin is suicidal, the threat of a devastating atomic response should make anyone in the Kremlin think twice before attacking the UK, meaning a mutiny among his inner circle would be all quite possible.
Nevertheless, we cannot trust Putin’s promises. We should take his threats seriously.