'Delusional' Putin could launch a vindictive nuclear strike on Ukraine

‘Delusional’ Putin could launch a vindictive nuclear strike ‘to cause misery and destruction in recognition of Russian failure to conquer Ukraine’, expert warns

  • Moscow has prompted fresh concern amid major nuclear preparedness drills
  • Chatham House warned a nuclear strike would be punitive rather than tactical
  • Research paper urged US, UK and allies to toughen up messaging to Moscow

Vladimir Putin could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine if he feels defeat is imminent, a leading think-tank has warned. 

Moscow has prompted fresh concern in recent days over its willingness to deploy the devastating weapons, last week announcing it would move nuclear missiles into Belarus before today commencing exercises with its Yars intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) systems.

In a research paper for the UK’s leading foreign policy think tank Chatham House, Russia and Eurasia expert Keir Giles warned there is a ‘non-zero’ chance Putin could seek to use nukes in Ukraine.

He wrote: ‘A nuclear strike could be ordered if there is no longer any possibility of claiming conventional victory and a powerful destructive attack on Ukraine is perceived as the only means of avoiding admission of a clear defeat.

‘The moment at which Putin feels his options are exhausted is likely to be the most significantly dangerous decision point,’ he concluded.

A rocket launches from missile system as part of a ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile test launched from the Plesetsk facility in northwestern Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 24, 2023

Giles pointed out that nuclear weapons would have very little military utility on the ground in Ukraine, given that the frontline stretches hundreds of miles and that any strike would not only kill Ukrainians, but also irradiate the land and render it uninhabitable for Russian troops. 

READ MORE: Putin stages major nuclear missile exercises involving 3,000 troops in show of strength to the West 

This means a strike is unlikely to be delivered to achieve military goals, but rather as a ‘vindictive response intended simply to cause misery and destruction in Ukraine in recognition of Russian failure to conquer it.

‘The rationale being that if Russia can’t have Ukraine, nobody can,’ Giles reasoned.

The paper added that the barriers preventing Moscow from launching a nuclear weapon – such as the risk of retaliatory strikes, further nuclear proliferation among its enemies, and the prospect of becoming a pariah on the world stage – do not take into account the possibility that Putin is unable to make rational decisions. 

‘The above conditions need to be considered with the caveat that they assume President Putin is able to make a rational choice based on an objective assessment of his and Russia’s situation. 

‘They do not take account of the possibility of Putin being obsessed and/or delusional, or of him simply not receiving a clear or accurate picture from those around him of world events and the progress of his war. 

‘Neither is it impossible that this problem is exacerbated by Putin’s own state of physical or mental health… Factors like these may contribute to the indicators of an increasingly wide disconnect between Putin and reality.’

In order to deter Putin from considering the possibility of deploying nukes, Giles argues that US, UK and Western allies must not buy into Moscow’s nuclear sable-rattling and instead make clear the consequences Putin himself would face.

Topol-M nuclear missile at a Victory Day parade in Moscow, Russia

‘If Russia is allowed to achieve success through nuclear intimidation, this validates the concept of nuclear coercion not only for Moscow but for other aggressive, assertive or rogue states around the world.

READ MORE: Putin puts nukes in Europe for the first time: Russia will station ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons in Belarus, President says in new threat to the West 


‘The non-zero chance [of Putin using nuclear weapons] should be reduced still further by reconsidered messaging from the US and its allies regarding the probable outcomes of nuclear use. 

‘In particular, this messaging should highlight that… a nuclear strike would in fact unleash processes that would be far beyond Russia’s control because they would involve responses and reactions not just from the US but from across the world.  

‘This requires a clearer and more unambiguous statement of intent from the US and its allies that goes beyond a promise of ”grave consequences” and instead touches on interests of personal significance not only to Vladimir Putin but also to his senior military leaders.’ 

In keeping with the Kremlin’s longstanding tactic of nuclear posturing, Russia today began exercises with its Yars ICBM system and several thousand troops, its defence ministry said on Wednesday.

President Putin has aimed to make the Yars system, which replaced the Topol system, part of Russia’s ‘invincible weapons’ and the mainstay of the ground-based component of its nuclear arsenal.

‘In total, more than 3,000 military personnel and about 300 pieces of equipment are involved in the exercises,’ the defence ministry said in a statement on the Telegram messaging service.

The drills involve the Strategic Missile Forces comprehensive control checking of the Omsk missile formation together with a command and staff exercise with the Novosibirsk missile formation equipped with the Yars systems.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko during a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow . Last week, Putin announced that he intends to deploy tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus

During the exercises, the Yars mobile systems will conduct manoeuvres in three Russian regions, the ministry said, without identifying the regions.

‘Also, strategic missilemen will carry out a set of measures to camouflage and counter modern aerial reconnaissance means in cooperation with formations and units of the Central Military District and the Aerospace Forces.’

There are few confirmed tactical and technical characteristics of the Yars mobile intercontinental ballistic missile systems, which reportedly have an operational range of 7,500 miles.

According to military bloggers, the systems are able to carry multiple independently targetable nuclear warheads and can be mounted on truck carriers or deployed in silos.

Last week, Putin announced that he intends to deploy tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus in what appeared to be another attempt to raise the stakes in the conflict in Ukraine.

Belarus said it had decided to host Russian tactical nuclear weapons in response to Western sanctions and what it said was a military build-up by NATO member states near its borders.

US President Joe Biden had indicated he would be concerned by the decision, although the United States said it had not seen any indications that Russia was closer to using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

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