The United States would most likely know if Russia was planning a nuclear attack on Ukraine, and Moscow may want to know, too, experts say.
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After several military setbacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to use “all means” to defend Russia’s territorial integrity, reviving speculation about the risks of a nuclear conflict.
A threat that may have spread to the four Ukrainian regions annexed by Moscow on Friday.
Currently, military analysts are putting that risk into perspective, and the White House says it has seen no activity to suggest an attack plan, but Western intelligence agencies are closely watching the emergence of a real threat.
If it takes shape, experts are instead banking on the use of a tactical nuclear weapon — with a lower explosive charge than a strategic nuclear weapon — likely to be fired from an Iskander short-range ballistic missile.
And preparations for an attack would be obvious, assures AFP Pavel Podvig, a researcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) in Geneva.
where are the bombs
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A 2017 report by this institute maps 47 nuclear storage sites across Russia.
They are constantly and closely monitored by intelligence and military surveillance satellites from the United States and other countries. They can even be monitored by commercial satellites, as evidenced by the widely circulated and regularly updated images of North Korean nuclear facility activity.
For Mr Podvig, Russia has deployed its long-range strategic or nuclear warheads on the ground, on missiles, bombers and submarines.
But its non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons, of which there are as many as 2,000, are not mounted on missiles, he said.
No hidden facilities
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“I am confident that the United States would see any Russian preparation to use nuclear weapons,” adds Mark Cancian, a former US Department of Defense and Energy official.
“Weapons have to come out of storage, the units involved have to be alerted, and the Russians could also alert their strategic nuclear forces,” the expert, who now works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told AFP.
The necessary preparations for the Russian ground forces, such as the provision of protective equipment and instructions for operation in a nuclear environment, are also visible.
“Nuclear weapons need a specific structure, trained personnel and maintenance. You can’t do that just anywhere,” says Pavel Podvig, who believes it is very unlikely that there are “hidden facilities”.
“Technically, you could probably smuggle a few bombs out of a storage facility undetected,” says the UNIDIR researcher.
However, this carries risks, including the risk of provoking a pre-emptive attack from the west. “The Russians will never be sure that it will not be discovered. It would be a gamble,” he warns.
Above all, he adds, Russia wants to show its preparations to the West more as a warning. “It would be a kind of step forward in escalation [et] Russia wants this to be visible,” speculates Pavel Podvig.
warn the world
The United States has warned for weeks that Russia intends to invade Ukraine ahead of its February 24 action, hoping to nurture Kyiv and its allies and dissuade Moscow.
Would Washington openly warn the world if it discovered preparations for a nuclear attack, at the risk of creating an unprecedented panic?
Such a panic would spread not only in Ukraine, but also in regions potentially threatened by nuclear fallout, and further still if an inexorable escalation were feared.
The United States would almost certainly alert its allies and other powers, notably China and India, in the hope that they would then pressure Moscow to give up.
According to Podvig, Washington would also likely find it useful to issue public warnings to increase that pressure. “The strategy must be based on isolation. We must amplify the unacceptable nature of this criminal situation,” he said.
“This news could have a deterrent effect,” says the researcher.