Vladimir Putin could not be clearer. ‘I am not bluffing,’ he said, in relation to his threat to go nuclear. But is he? And does it automatically follow that Armageddon would unfold if Putin launched the first nuclear bombs the world has seen since 1945?
The good news is that Putin can’t start World War III by simply jabbing a red button on his desk in the Kremlin. If he decides to launch an attack, the order has to go through at least three layers of checks put in place to prevent the accidental or unauthorised launch of nuclear missiles.
Before reaching the nuclear silos, mobile launch sites and submarines, his command would go via three men: Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov and the head of the Russian nuclear rocket forces, Sergei Karakayev.
Even after travelling down this chain of command, the launches would not follow instantly.
Unless there has been a change in the standard protocols since Russia invaded Ukraine, there would be a 20-minute gap between each transmission from the ‘nuclear football’ [the Cheget] containing the codes required to transmit the launch order and targeting information, to allow the nuclear troops to verify that it is genuinely authorised.
These safeguards are vital given the size of Russia’s nuclear stockpile. It is estimated to be 5,977 nuclear warheads — the world’s largest — mainly stored in 12 depots across Russia. Of these, 1,500 are thought to be ready to be launched.
Before the Ukraine war, Putin boasted that America’s Star Wars missile defence system would be powerless to stop his new hypersonic missiles. In practice, however, the weapons he is most likely to use are smaller tactical missiles capable of hitting neighbours such as Ukraine or nearby Nato states.
Mark Almond: ‘Vladimir Putin could not be clearer. ‘I am not bluffing,’ he said, in relation to his threat to go nuclear. But is he?’
These are stored largely in ‘European’ Russia and the exclave of Kaliningrad, between Poland and Lithuania. Among them is the long-range cruise missile Kalibr, which could reach London. It is possible that Putin could surprise the West by using his shorter-range Iskander rockets to deliver missiles with an atomic warhead. 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 at silos in western Siberia. They could easily reach London or Washington.
What we don’t know is if Russia’s aged atomic warheads still work. While Russia has tested the missiles that would carry the nuclear warheads, test-ban treaties mean neither America nor Russia has actually detonated a nuclear weapon for decades.
Riot police detain a woman during a protest against mobilization of reservists in Moscow, Russia on Wednesday. Putin made the partial mobilization effective immediately
Given the sophistication of our security services’ eavesdropping capabilities, no Russian nuclear attack would come out of the blue. To launch thousands of missiles and bombers will require a blizzard of electronic orders and these would be intercepted by the West’s spooks.
In addition, spy satellite images of the concrete and steel covers of the huge underground nuclear storage bunkers being pulled back, submarines putting to sea and Russian strategic bombers rolling out on to runways would all give us advance warning of an offensive. Indeed, it would be reasonable to assume that we in the West will have, if not the ten-minute warning of popular cliche, perhaps up to an hour in which to prepare.
Not that there’s much we could do to capitalise 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 launch of missiles by Russia it would be too late for people to do much about dispersing to places of safety.
In the circumstances, any public warning is likely to achieve nothing more than mass panic. This is why Western governments have put their faith in nuclear deterrence rather than contingency plans and why I believe they are likely to continue to do the same, focusing their efforts on persuading Putin to pull back from the brink rather than on developing a public warning system.
The worst-case scenario, of course, is that the unthinkable happens: swathes of the UK are destroyed, the population decimated, the Government vaporised. Chilling as it is to imagine, plans have been made for that, too. Command of our Armed Forces would be devolved to Canada or America.
But unless Putin is suicidal, the threat of a devastating atomic strike-back should make anyone in the Kremlin think twice about attacking the UK, meaning mutiny among his inner circle would be entirely possible.
Nonetheless, we can’t trust Putin’s promises. We should take his threats seriously.
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