Expert: Western intelligence would see Russian nuclear preparations

Martin Hurt.
Martin Hurt. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

Russia is increasingly threatening the use of nuclear weapons. Western intelligence would likely detect an attack before it took place, while it is much more difficult to protect Ukraine. Russia could also consider a warning shot, ICDS fellow Martin Hurt said.

Russia and the Soviet Union before it have attached nuclear warheads to everything that can carry them. Russia still has nuclear anti-air missiles, cruise missiles, bombs, torpedoes, depth bombs and ballistic missiles. Should Russia decide to use a nuclear weapon, it would most likely be delivered by a missile such as the Iskander that have been used since the start of the Ukraine war, albeit to carry conventional warheads.

"The preparatory phase is perhaps even more important. The order would have to come not just from President Putin. Formally, the use of such weapons needs to be approved by the defense minister and head of the general staff. Next, the weapons would have to be prepared and transported, which is why U.S. and other Western intelligence services would probably see those preparations," Martin Hurt, research fellow at the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS), told ERR.

It is very difficult to keep an eye on every nuclear-capable weapons systems. We can give the example of the Gulf War where U.S. air and coalition special forces hunted for Scud missiles that predated the Iskander. They had little success. Luckily, Saddam Hussein did not have nuclear warheads.

"The West's intelligence capacity is better today than it was in the 1990s. Mobile missile units, of which Russia has plenty, are difficult to detect. They are also used to fire conventional warheads. The chances of discovering preparations for and transport of nuclear weapons are higher."

Nuclear weapons can be used to attack cities or large stationary forces. Hurt suggested Russia could also consider a warning shot.

"In that case, they could detonate a nuclear weapon over the Black Sea where it would endanger very few people."

Ukraine would likely not be able to defend itself against a nuclear attack. The West could decide to intervene before a potential attack, while what this would entail remains unspoken.

"It is possible that what that move would entail has been hinted to the Russian leadership. I believe we would not see nuclear war in such a situation – Western powers would not immediately resort to nuclear weapons. However, kinetic attacks on Russian objects would not be out of the question."

But the promise of a response might not be enough to deter Putin.

"The risk is that we cannot really predict based on what Putin makes his decisions. We saw earlier in the year, when the decision to attack Ukraine was made, that he probably does not heed sensible and traditional military advice, or he would have attacked Ukraine differently," Hurt said.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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