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Putin’s Nuclear Bluff and Lessons


India’s foreign minister, S Jaishankar, recently paid a bilateral visit to Moscow, which coincided with a heightened global perception of Russia’s nuclear threat. The article discusses possible lessons for India from its hostile neighbour Pakistan in the midst of Putin’s nuclear bluff in the ongoing Ukraine war.


GS Paper 2: Multipolar World, Bilateral, regional and global grouping involving India or Affecting India’s interest etc

Mains question

The Russia-Ukraine conflict is not only harming the economies of these two countries, but it also has broader implications for the current world order. Discuss (150 words) 


  • Since President Putin directed defence minister Sergei Shoigu to place the country’s deterrence forces on high combat alert in February, the status of Russian nuclear forces on the ground has remained unchanged.
  • However, there have been no signs of increased nuclear readiness, and Russia has since denied the use of nuclear weapons.

Tactical nuclear weapons deployment (TNWs)

  • Even speculations about the possible use of Russia’s strategic arsenal have been limited to tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs).
    • Strategic nuclear weapons are larger (up to 1,000 kilotons) and launch from a greater distance (over 5500 km).
  • Regarding tactical nuclear weapons:
  • These are small nuclear warheads and delivery systems designed to carry out a limited strike in a smaller area and are intended for use in battle as part of a conventional weapon attack.
    • These are intended to engage targets in the tactical depth of enemy deployment (up to 300 km) in order to complete a tactical mission.
  • These can be “one kilogramme or less” (producing the equivalent to a thousand tonnes of the explosive TNT).
    • The largest can weigh up to 100 kilotons. For example, the US dropped a 15-kiloton atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, making it a TNW.
  • Shifting war outcomes:Limited use of TNWs is unlikely to change conventional battle outcomes unless they are used in large numbers, which is impractical because it would have a negative impact on the user’s forces as well as contaminate the battlefield.

What resulted from Putin’s early posturing?

  • Western moves were thwarted: Putin’s warning of the unpredictable consequences of outside intervention in Ukraine kept the US and NATO at bay.
    • For example, the US and NATO did not deploy forces to Ukraine or respond positively to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy’s request to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
  • Weapons modernization: Each nuclear-weapon state is currently upgrading its nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
  • New acquisitions: Non-nuclear weapon states have been persuaded to acquire nuclear weapons.

Sovereignty must be respected

  • The Budapest Memorandum of 1994: Under this, Russia pledged to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and borders in exchange for Ukraine giving up the 4,400 nuclear weapons stationed on its soil.
  • Weak promises: Recent events have taught non-nuclear weapon states that the negative security assurances offered by nuclear-weapon states are meaningless when dealing with a nuclear-weapon state.
    • This undermines the prevailing international consensus on which the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is based.
  • Raising concerns: South Koreans and Japanese are raising concerns about the US’s dependability.
    • Even before the Ukraine war, public opinion in Japan and South Korea was leaning toward the two countries acquiring nuclear weapons.
    • This was due to a widespread belief that the US would not jeopardise the security of its mainland in order to defend its allies and friends.
  • The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) It is an international treaty whose goal is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapon technology, promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and advance the goal of disarmament.
    • The treaty was signed in 1968 and took effect in 1970. It currently has 191 member countries. India is not a member of the organisation.
    • It requires countries to abandon any current or future plans to build nuclear weapons in exchange for access to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
    • It is the only legally binding commitment in a multilateral treaty by nuclear-weapon states to the goal of disarmament.

Pakistan is defying global trends in TNWs.

  • Dwindling weaponry: According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the number of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) has decreased worldwide since the Cold War, from 20,000-30,000 in the 1980s to 2,500 in 2019. The number of TNWs in the US inventory has decreased from 9,000 in 1989 to 230 in 2019.
  • Outlier: Pakistan was the sole exception to this global trend, having abandoned its declared nuclear posture of minimum credible deterrence in favour of the ‘flexible response’ doctrine and then ‘full-spectrum deterrence.’
  • Pakistan’s justification: For Pakistani officials, increasing and diversifying Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is a necessity in order to maintain an effective deterrent against India.
    • Any advances in India’s conventional military capability, nuclear arsenal, or strategic position amplify the perception of an unending and unrelenting threat to which Pakistan has no other recourse than nuclear weapons.
    • In this view, deterrence is more relative and elastic than fixed; rather than a new strategy, “full-spectrum” capabilities provide a way to keep up and ensure Pakistan’s deterrence remains credible.
  • Apparent objectives: The apparent objectives of Pakistan’s TNWs appear to be conflict management, early termination of military hostilities, and war prevention.
  • Opposite effects: The use of TNWs, on the other hand, would have the opposite effect.
  • Controlling the escalation will be difficult, and wholesale destruction may become a possibility.

Alternatives for India

  • Transnational cooperation: Assess the disposition and deployment of Pakistani TNWs in collaboration with intelligence agencies from friendly countries.
  • Arsenal deployment: Hasten the deployment of multilaterally layered missile defence batteries.
  • Boost domestic capabilities: bolster Indian intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities.
  • Direct communication: Establish a direct line of communication between the Pakistani Strategic Plans Division (SPD) and the Indian Strategic Forces Command.
  • Technological advancement: Continue to improve nuclear weapons and delivery systems in proportion to emerging threats, as well as maintain reliance on credible minimum deterrence.

December 2023