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Here’s what ‘high combat alert’ for Russia’s nuclear forces means

And how did the United States and its allies respond?

- February 28, 2022

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Sunday that he had ordered the country’s nuclear forces to “high combat alert.” Here’s what you need to know.

What does Putin’s command mean in practice?

Experts are unsure as to the practical implications of Putin’s order, because the literal Russian translation of the president’s command — “special regime of combat duty” — does not conform to any of Russia’s known alert levels.

The United States and its allies have not observed any major changes in the deployment of Russia’s nuclear forces. The meaning of Putin’s order is “not completely clear yet,” a U.S. defense official told journalists. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said that his country had not detected any “significant change” in Russia’s nuclear force posture.

The Ukraine crisis is now a nuclear crisis

This indicates that Moscow has not taken steps consistent with a higher alert level, such as sending its ground-based mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles out on patrol, more ballistic-missile submarines to sea or arming its nuclear bombers — all things that the United States and its allies could see from reconnaissance satellites.

There are some measures that Russia could take that may not be visually detectable, such as bringing its nuclear command and control system to a higher state of readiness, enabling Russia’s forces to launch more rapidly, especially if under nuclear attack. However, there has been no confirmation that Russia has taken such a step.

Why would Putin do this?

Putin’s nuclear threat is directed primarily at the United States and Europe, but beyond that his specific aims are unclear.

Putin cited “aggressive statements” and economic sanctions from the West as the reasons for his move. Sanctions have already inflicted significant economic damage on Russia. The value of the Russian ruble has crashed, and the Moscow Stock Exchange did not open Monday morning in anticipation of a rout.

The Russian president may be attempting to dissuade the United States and its allies from further increasing the economic pressure. Putin may be concerned that the Russian economy could collapse under the weight of sanctions and ultimately place the viability of his regime in doubt.

While Russia’s nuclear declaratory policy does not include economic sanctions as grounds for nuclear escalation, it does list attacks with “conventional weapons that place the very existence of the state in jeopardy.” Caitlin Talmadge has pointed out in her analysis that the personalist nature of his rule may make Putin more willing to take significant risks to save his regime.

Putin may also feel pressured by the faltering campaign in Ukraine. Western governments and independent analysts assess that Russia’s further invasion of its neighbor has fallen short of the Kremlin’s initial objectives. Meanwhile, the United States and Europe have increased their supply of weaponry to the Ukrainian government and agreed to deploy additional conventional forces to NATO’s East European members.

Russia is about to plunge into financial crisis. How will citizens react?

Putin may be trying to deter the United States and its allies from taking further steps to influence the outcome of the war in Ukraine, either through increased arms supplies or direct military intervention. He has already made implicit nuclear threats designed to dissuade NATO from intervening in the conflict. The Russian president may not fully believe U.S. and NATO assurances that they will not deploy combat forces to Ukraine, especially if — as seems possible — the Russian military responds to its initial failures by increasing the violence of its attacks on Ukrainian cities and civilians.

How has the United States responded?

The Biden administration has not responded to Putin’s move by raising the alert level of the United States’ nuclear forces. The U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) issued a statement saying that it “remains at an appropriate posture,” indicating that its combat readiness has not increased.

There is no need for the United States or its allies to put their weapons on a higher alert. The United States, as well as Britain and France, maintain forces capable of surviving and retaliating against any Russian attack. This second-strike capability should act as a significant deterrent against any precipitous Russian moves, while any increase in force readiness could raise fears on the Russian side of a Western strike, thereby contributing to crisis instability.

Diplomatically, the Biden administration has pushed back against Putin by stigmatizing his attempts at nuclear coercion. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield condemned the Russian president’s move as “completely unacceptable.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki accused Putin of “manufacturing threats that don’t exist in order to justify further aggression.”

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What are the implications of Putin’s move?

This is not the first time Putin has issued nuclear threats during the Ukraine crisis, but by making them more explicit he has succeeded in increasing the influence of nuclear weapons over the war’s course and eventual outcome. Western policymakers may dismiss or condemn Putin’s rhetoric while attempting to coerce Moscow into changing course, but they will have to take his words into account when deciding how far to increase the economic, military and political pressure on the Russian regime.

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James J. Cameron is a postdoctoral fellow at the Oslo Nuclear Project in the political science department at the University of Oslo. He is the author of “The Double Game: The Demise of America’s First Missile Defense System and the Rise of Strategic Arms Limitation” (Oxford University Press, 2017).