The world braces itself for Putin's implicit warning: "To defend our people and peace in our country, we will use all means at our disposal"

Moscow's nuclear threat: what can happen now?

AP/RUSSIAN MINISTRY OF DEFENCE - Rocket launched from a missile system as part of a test of ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from the Plesetsk facility in northwest Russia

The growing victories achieved by Kiev's counter-offensive - which began at the end of August - seem to have taken the Russian-Ukrainian conflict into a new phase. A stage marked by international fear of an increasingly militarily, diplomatically and economically cornered Vladimir Putin, unable to step back and assume that his plans might not be working out as he had originally conceived.

In this scenario, the conflict has already escalated with Russia's unilateral decision to annex the Ukrainian regions of Lugansk, Donetsk, Zaporiyia and Kherson, as well as Moscow's announcement to strengthen its army - through a "partial military mobilisation" that calls up 300,000 reservists - which, according to several analysts, would prepare it for a long-term war. In response, Kiev seems to have buried any diplomatic avenue of rapprochement that, after 223 days of war, might have been left open: the Ukrainian government has decreed the total impossibility of negotiating with the acting Kremlin leader.

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However, it is the emergence of the nuclear threat as a further element of the escalation that has marked the difference between this stage of the conflict and any of the previous ones. 

"There are statements by high-ranking NATO representatives about the possibility of using weapons of mass destruction against Russia," Putin warned a few weeks ago. "I would like to remind you that our country also has different weapons, some of which are more advanced than NATO weapons. To defend our people and peace in our country, we will use all the means at our disposal". Now, the mobilisation of the Belgorod K-329 submarine, a submersible carrying the nuclear torpedo known as "Poseidon", seems to bear witness to this.

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Russia has one of the world's largest nuclear arsenals, with some of the most powerful atomic missiles on the planet, but analysts' fears focus on its low-intensity weaponry. Tactical nuclear weapons', 'small' atomic bombs designed to have a limited battlefield impact, have an explosive capacity ranging from 0.3 to 100 kilotons (the 'Little Boy' bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 had a yield of 15 kilotons) and have been the ammunition of choice for Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. 

"Moscow should consider using low-intensity nuclear weapons in Ukraine given the recent setbacks it has suffered on the battlefield," Putin's ally urged via his Telegram account. 

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A nuclear show 

The possibility of Russia using this type of weaponry in territories far from residential areas has been described by the Democratic representative and member of the Intelligence Committee, Mike Quigley, for CNN, as "a nuclear spectacle". A scenario in which Putin would not go so far as to order a nuclear strike against Ukrainian forces or population centres, but would go so far as to demonstrate his atomic force. This could be aimed at pushing Kiev into surrender, or strengthening Russia's diplomatic negotiating position. 

Faced with this possible but "absolutely unknown" scenario, as Jesús Núñez Villaverde, co-director of the Institute for Studies on Conflict and Humanitarian Action (IECAH), has stated, the United States and the entire world are preparing contingency plans to deal with a nuclear Moscow. In this line, former CIA director David Petraeus has already revealed to ABC News that, in the event of a nuclear attack affecting the international community, both Washington and all its allies would destroy all Russian troops and military equipment in Ukraine, and "sink every last ship" of its fleet in the Black Sea. 

But since Ukraine is not part of NATO, the Alliance could not enter the conflict unless there was an attack on one of the member states. That is, if radiation were to reach one of NATO's member states

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International division 

At the same time, the escalation of the war to a new nuclear level would also lead to further division in the positions of the members of the international military organisation. On the one hand, Alliance members face the prospect of reflecting international weakness if they fail to respond to an implicit nuclear threat or a de facto atomic attack. 

On the other hand, a forceful Western response could "provoke a nuclear retaliation by Russia, raising the risk of a nuclear exchange on greater terms and a humanitarian catastrophe", political scientist Matthew Kroenig told the AFP news agency. Added to these possibilities would be the scenario in which a NATO member does not accept the use of nuclear weapons in response, thus weakening the military organisation as a whole. 

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In any case, the option of sending NATO offensive and defensive weaponry to Ukraine, via the United States, would remain a safe move in these hypothetical scenarios. Washington could offer Patriot short-range anti-missiles (also deployed in Poland), THAAD anti-missile batteries (to shoot down short- and medium-range missiles in their downrange phase) or long-range ATACMS missiles, to attack Russian positions within its own territory. 

A gradual escalation of a conventional conflict, as we have seen to date, remains, however, the option that most analysts and experts seem to be considering in the coming weeks. 

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