How likely is nuclear conflict after Putin puts forces on high alert?

In a dramatic escalation following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has put his country's nuclear forces on high alert.

The Russian president is angered by the West's response and "aggressive" statements by NATO, leading to Mr Putin warning the rest of the world of Russia's nuclear prowess.

But what does such an escalation actually mean? And are we any closer to nuclear conflict?

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the construction site of the National Space Agency on the premises of the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Centre, in Moscow, Russia February 27, 2022. Sputnik/Sergey Guneev/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Experts say Russian President Vladimir Putin's latest rhetroic is to strike fear into Ukraine and its allies – but will he follow through with his threats? Source: Reuters

Nuclear exchange 'unthinkable' for Moscow

Dr Thomas Wilkins, Senior Lecturer in International Security from the University of Sydney's Department of Government and International Relations, says both Russia and the US have a "constant readiness" when it came to their nuclear assets.

"The question is if he is putting more forces on alert, which is a clear escalation," he told Yahoo News Australia.

"I'm inclined to believe it's for theatrical effect to "deter" further "hostile" moves by Western allies.

"Putin may have gambled with the invasion of Ukraine, but it's unthinkable that Moscow would want this to end in a nuclear exchange."

He said the subjugation of Ukraine "could never be worth a nuclear conflict to Russia".

Former intelligence analyst Dr David Wright-Neville delivered a similar assessment, telling 2GB the latest announcement should not induce panic and was simply "a bit of bravado", adding the likelihood of nuclear conflict as "extremely unlikely".

Putin's nuclear threat is 'proving a point'

Curtin University political analyst Professor Joe Siracusa however said the announcement was an indication of how quickly Russia can escalate their attack.

"Just to prove the point how dangerous he is – he’s put his nuclear weapons on alert," he told Sky News Australia.

“What that means is – they’re on a 15 minute alert. [Russia] only needs 15 minutes to get these things going in the direction [Putin] wants them to go.”

A Ukrainian serviceman walks near a damaged vehicle, at the site of fighting with Russian troops, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 26, 2022. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
Russia have so far struggled to get a griphold on Ukraine's major cities. Source: Reuters

Russia wants conflict to end 'on its terms'

Professor John Blaxland, at ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, told Yahoo Mr Putin's rhetoric was "deeply concerning" and he hoped Mr Putin was "bluffing".

Dr Wilkins noted it was "fairly impossible" to predict how close we are to a nuclear weapon strike if Russia faces further resistance, but warned of Russia's desire for conflict to "end on its terms".

"One must be cognisant of the notorious "de-escalation through escalation" doctrine that the Russians allegedly subscribe to," he said.

Worst case scenario: Putin could 'lash out'

Prof Blaxland said in a worst case scenario Mr Putin could turn to nuclear in a "desperate" final attempt to "tip the scales" if the invasion of Ukraine proves unsuccessful.

"Cornered by his own ill-conceived invasion, he may be looking to lash out and use the nuclear option," he said.

Australia's role in escalating tensions

And what does this all mean for Australia?

While Dr Wilkins says it is early days to contemplate Australia's involvement, he pointed to Pine Gap, the US-Australian surveillance facility near Alice Springs.

"Remember that Pine Gap tracks missile launches and would therefore be central to any nuclear conflict scenario,' he said.

Prof Blaxland said immediate impacts of Russia's escalation on Australia could be cyber-attacks, shortages in supplies such as fuel and "other technology we take for granted".

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