Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation last week from the...

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation last week from the Kremlin in Moscow. Credit: Kremlin Pool via AP / Alexei Nikolsky

A nuclear confrontation between Russia and the West remains highly unlikely, according to New York international security experts, despite Russian President Vladmir Putin’s decision to put his nation’s nuclear forces on high alert Sunday.

The experts said the Russian leader’s actions were intended to warn the United States and its NATO allies that he won't tolerate economic sanctions and military support for Ukraine. Putin’s actions should not be underestimated, they said, but his threats are not likely to result in the use of Russia's nuclear arsenal.

"It is a warning," said Kimberly Marten, a professor of political science at Barnard College at Columbia University who specializes on international security and Russia. "Don’t take us on in Ukraine."

Lester Paldy, a Distinguished Service Professor of Technology and Society at Stony Brook University, said Putin is playing the "madman game," trying to convince U.S. and NATO leaders that he’s crazy enough to push the nuclear button.

"There is a low probability that he will use them," said Paldy, a member of the U.S. nuclear weapon-negotiating delegation in Geneva and the United Nations. "The threat won’t get him very far. It won’t change the American and European response."

The biggest danger fueled by Putin’s announcement, according to Hofstra University’s Paul Fritz, an associate professor of international relations specializing in U.S. defense policy, comes from heightened tensions and suspicions that increase the chances of nuclear conflict. Military officials operating in the fog of war, he said, may miscommunicate intentions to foes or misinterpret signals from adversaries, failures that could have far-reaching consequences.

"It’s on the bottom rung of the escalation ladder," Fritz said of the decision to put nuclear forces on high alert. "We need to take it seriously but we should not overreact."

Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces put on high alert Sunday, responding to what he called "aggressive statements" by NATO leaders who have been united in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Marten said it is unlikely that Russia would risk a nuclear attack against the United States and its NATO allies, thanks to the decades-old principle of mutual assured destruction in which any nuclear attack against the United States or its NATO allies would be met with an overwhelming counterattack, annihilating both sides.

"It would be suicidal," Marten said.

Instead, Putin is signaling that economic sanctions, weapons deliveries and other support from the West are viewed as hostile acts and that he will escalate his response as needed, Marten said.

Ukraine is not a member of NATO, so the United States and NATO would not be obligated by treaty to come to its aid if Russia used tactical nuclear weapons against Ukrainian forces. Putin’s announcement was intended in part for Ukrainian leaders, Fritz said.

"He is saying to Ukraine, ‘We have nuclear weapons and you do not,’ " Fritz said.

Putin is unlikely to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, according to Paldy, because there are no appropriate military targets.

Ukrainian forces are not concentrated in one area. Russia could use nuclear weapons against Kyiv or other big cities, but that would simply further enrage world public opinion.

"Nuclear weapons do not have much utility in what Putin is doing in Ukraine," Paldy said.

Radioactive fallout from nuclear warfare would also spread to communities across the border in Russia, Fritz said, fueling opposition to Putin from his own people.

Still, Putin's decision to put his nuclear forces on high alert, Marten said, is a reminder that the Russian president still has options.

"This shows that Putin is willing to take even stronger actions," she said.

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