Ukraine Latest: Is The Threat of Nuclear War Getting Closer?

As Vladimir Putin ups the ante again, here's what you need to know.
Vladimir Putin is sparking nuclear concerns among some international leaders
Vladimir Putin is sparking nuclear concerns among some international leaders
Contributor via Getty Images

Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine are causing renewed fears that the Russian president could end up pressing the nuclear button.

The new brutal wave of attacks he has launched across Russia’s European neighbour suggest he will go to all sorts of lengths to declare victory in the war.

But does that include nuclear weapons?

What are the signs that Putin might go nuclear?

Warning speeches

Putin did say in September that Moscow was ready to go nuclear to defend its “territorial integrity” – shortly after illegally annexing four Ukrainian regions, and claiming them as part of Russia.

This would give Moscow an excuse to launch an attack on Ukraine (or the West), especially as Kyiv has promised to retrieve all of its Ukrainian land.

Putin also claimed that the West is threatening “nuclear blackmail” itself by alleging representatives of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) have considered using nuclear weapons against Russia.

He warned in response that Russia “has various weapons of destruction and with regards to certain components they’re even more modern than NATO ones”.

The Russian president said: “If there is a threat to the territorial integrity of our country, and for protecting our people, we will certainly use all the means available to us – and I’m not bluffing.”

Meeting with security council

Putin chairs a Security Council meeting in October 19, 2022.
Putin chairs a Security Council meeting in October 19, 2022.
SERGEI ILYIN via Getty Images

Putin had a televised meeting with his security council on Wednesday where he announced that he was bringing in martial law in the annexed regions of Ukraine.

The law passes on emergency powers to the Russian-installed heads of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson provinces.

Putin claimed this martial law was put in place because of a supposed looming Ukrainian assault on these annexed areas – although Kyiv has denied any such plans.

He then called Ukrainian authorities “satanists” while making yet more vague threats, claiming: “Russia has repeatedly given a chance to the command of the satanists to come to their senses.

“But we were not heard or ignored. Now everything will be different, we will dictate the terms.”

He could also introduce this to anywhere in Russia “if necessary”, as The Guardian’s Andrew Roth pointed out.

With thousands of Russians fleeing Moscow’s (now-dropped) attempts to mobilise its armed forces’ reserves, Putin may try to clamp down on his own population, too.

After all, he has already limited the freedom for the population in any of the eight Russian provinces bordering Ukraine as of Wednesday.

Increased aggression in Ukraine

Over the last two weeks, Russia has been bombing Ukraine relentlessly, extending beyond the east to even hit the western capital of Kyiv.

Civilian areas have been brutally targeted, along with energy supplies, presumably to weaken Ukraine ahead of winter.

Putin also promised that the strikes would stop, claiming Russia has no plan to destroy Ukraine – but he resumed the attacks just a few days after that.

International leaders are changing their tune


Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy had previously said he didn’t believe Putin “will use these weapons”.

On October 6, however, he said it was “hard to say” if the risk of Russia using nuclear weapons have increased.

He questioned if Putin had control over the Russian campaign to direct a tactical nuclear strike, as – Zelenskyy claimed – Russians find it “hard to control everything that is happening in their country, just as they’re not controlling everything they have on the battlefield”.

However, he added: “[Putin] understands that after the use of nuclear weapons he would be unable any more to preserve, so to speak, his life and I’m confident of that.”


There’s been widespread speculation that the UK’s defence secretary Ben Wallace cancelled a select committee to rush to Washington on Tuesday over international concerns about Putin.

According to The Sun’s Harry Cole, Wallace headed to the US over fears the Russian president would push the trigger, as a source told the newspaper: “The threat has increased recently.”

Downing Street has not commented on Wallace’s meeting but said: “We are very clear with Putin that the use of nuclear weapons will lead to severe consequences.”

The spokesperson also claimed that they would advise not speculating on this – “the public need to be reassured that we are taking a strong lead in this area”.

James Heappey, the armed forced minister, also told the media: “We are at a time when these sorts of conversations are necessary.”

An RAF spy plane also flew close to the Crimean coast on Tuesday, in a bid to find any evidence of enemy signals (including nuclear weapons).

Minister for the Armed Forces and Veterans James Heappey (L) and Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace (R)
Minister for the Armed Forces and Veterans James Heappey (L) and Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace (R)
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


Prime minister Liz Truss has spoken to her counterpart in France, Emmanuel Macron. No.10 explained: “They discussed their deep concern at Russia’s recent barbaric attacks on civilian areas in Ukraine.

“They agreed the UK and France will continue to work closely together with allies to support Ukraine and co-ordinate our response to Russian aggression.”

Germany’s head of national intelligence agency also warned this week that Moscow could use “sub-strategic nuclear weapons” – these can only travel short distances with a lower explosive yield, but would still have an impact.


US president Joe Biden has also warned that the world is closer to Armageddon than it’s ever been since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the 35-day standoff between the US and the Soviet Union.

Speaking in early October, Biden said: “He is not joking when he talks about the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons. I don’t think there’s any such thing as an ability to easily use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”

However, the White House said this was not based on new evidence.

So, why would Putin increase nuclear threats now?

Russia is reportedly running low on other supplies, including warheads – which is why Putin is thought to have turned to Iranian-made drones – and officers.

On top of this, Moscow is struggling to fight back against Ukraine’s recent, successful counteroffensive in the east, which has seen it retake much of the Russian-occupied land.

The UK’s ministry of defence explained in its daily update: “Major elements of Russia’s military leadership are increasingly dysfunctional.

“At the tactical level, there is almost certainly a worsening shortage of capable Russian junior officers to organise and lead newly mobilised reservists.”

“Poor lower-level leadership is likely worsening the low morale and poor unit cohesion in many parts of the Russia force.”

On top of this, the UK intelligence claims four of the five generals with direct operational command of elements of the invasion back in February this year have now been dismissed.

“Their replacements have so far done little to improve Russia’s battlefield performance.”

Are there any arguments against Putin using a nuclear weapons?

There is widespread speculation that Putin is using the nuclear threat in the hope that the west will back down.

After all, going nuclear actually wouldn’t change anything on the battlefield – Ukraine is still moving too quickly, pushing back Russian forces.

Putin would also have to think about the international consequences with its allies in the global south, such as India and China. So far, they have tried to remain neutral and if anything, urged against any further escalation of violence.

If he were to go against such allies, Russia would become a global outcast.

The reaction from the West would be swift too, with leaders vowing to show their “extraordinarily serious” responses – this could lead to NATO actually wading into the war, which would add even further weight to Ukraine’s side.

With Moscow struggling to repel even its much smaller European neighbour, it’s unlikely it would want to invoke a response from more Western nations which could wreck permanent damage on Russia.

But, of course, Putin has already made many strategic errors with this war. Former US ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, wrote in TIME magazine: “A rational actor in this case would conclude that the risks and costs of using a nuclear weapon are simply too high.

“Putin seems a rational actor, though he also seems more emotional today than in the past, which may cloud his calculation of risks and costs. And he has made many miscalculations, beginning with his disastrous decision to invade Ukraine.”

Have we seen nuclear war before?

Yes – and nuclear weapons cause chaos when detonated. There are only two instance of nuclear weapons being employed in history – in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945. Both were detonated by the US in a bid to end World War 2 by weakening Japan. Together, it’s estimated up to 226,000 people died.

In March, at the start of the war, both of these cities wrote to Putin calling for nuclear weapons not to be detonated.

There have also been accidental nuclear explosions, including the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 in Ukraine, when a local power plant failed, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, when earthquake disturbed a power plant.

Both of these events seemed to have a relatively low death toll compared to nuclear weapons but actually the long tail of the accidents may have led to thousands more deaths over time.

This could be repeated with Zaporizhzhia’s nuclear plant.

As Ukraine’s largest power plant, it is close to the front line of fighting and has been controlled by Russian soldiers while still being run by Ukrainian technicians. There are fears that a nuclear accident could stem from this, too, if it was shelled.


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