British navy chiefs believe Russia’s decision to move the submarines, which are capable of carrying 16 ballistic missiles each, was an act of ‘posturing’ rather than an all-out threat.
Despite them returning towards Russia shortly afterwards, western intelligence agencies have kept the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal – believed to be the world’s largest at 4,477 warheads – under constant surveillance.
John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said he has not yet seen any indication that Russia is preparing to use the weapons but that has done little to reassure jittery world leaders, particularly in the West, after Putin used a fire-and-brimstone speech as he declared war on Ukraine to make a thinly-veiled nuclear threat.
Analysts believe Russia’s use of the nuclear weapons found on the submarines is ‘unthinkable’ but some believe the use of shorter range ‘tactical’ missiles – which are intended to destroy specific targets rather than whole cities – is possible.
‘The majority of Russian conventional weapons can be retrofitted with a low-yield nuclear capability. It is more complex than “plug and play” but the Russians are quite innovative in what they put in front of bombs and missiles,’ a navy source told The Times.
This image provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on February 19 shows a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile being launched from an air field during military drills
Vladimir Putin sent ‘several’ submarines into the north Atlantic hours after putting his nuclear forces on ‘special’ alert over its invasion of Ukraine
Western officials pointed to Putin’s original remarks when he sent forces into Ukraine – that he wanted to liberate it rather than destroy – as evidence he was not planning to use nuclear weapons.
However, one official told The Times that the use of tactical nuclear weapons ‘was seen as an option which will be used below a strategic nuclear threshold’, but added there was ‘nothing to suggest’ that is likely at present.
An expert of Russia’s nuclear forces also claimed that weapons fired from aircraft or from the land were not on Russian launchers at present and remain stored in bunkers, usually a few kilometres away from airfields.
Earlier this week, the Kremlin refused to rule out using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, was asked three times on CNN whether he could definitively rule out the possibility of the Russian leader pushing the button – and three times refused to give a straight answer.
Instead, Peskov said only that Russian doctrine allows Putin to use nukes to see off ‘existential threats’ – raising fears he could justify using the weapons over Ukraine, having previously said the country poses a direct threat to the security of Russia.
Ordering the start of his ‘special military operation’ on February 24, Putin issued a warning to anyone ‘who might be tempted to meddle in the ongoing events: whoever tries to stand in our way or create threats for our country.’
He said: ‘People should know Russia’s response will be immediate and lead you to consequences you have never encountered in your history.’
Just three days later, on February 27, Putin then ordered his nuclear forces to be put on a ‘special alert’ in what he said was a response to ‘aggressive statements’ made by the NATO alliance – specifically threatening the West.
Western leaders and intelligence agencies have been warning in recent days that Putin may resort to desperate measures as the war in Ukraine goes against him.
On Sunday, Joe Biden repeated warnings that the Kremlin looks to be developing a pre-text to use biological or chemical weapons by falsely accusing Ukraine of possessing them – saying Putin’s ‘back is against the wall’.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which has published an account of world nuclear arsenals compiled by leading experts from the Federation of American Scientists since 1987, updated its records on Russia’s nuclear arsenal last month.
Russia has unleashed conventional ballistic missiles against Ukraine (pictured, damage caused by a missile in Kyiv) amid warnings they could now be looking to use low-yield nukes
It said the stockpile is at approximately 4,477 warheads, of which around 1,588 are strategic warheads which can be deployed on ballistic missiles and at heavy bomber bases.
The Bulletin also said an approximate additional 977 strategic warheads, along with 1,912 nonstrategic warheads, are held in reserve.
According to the Federation of American Scientists, latest figures state that the UK has a stockpile of approximately 225 nuclear warheads.
It also says that the US has 5,428, France has 290, Pakistan has 165, China has 350, India has 160, Israel has 90 and North Korea has 20.
Russia’s war in Ukraine – intended to be a days-long military mission to decapitate the government and bring the country back under Moscow’s influence – is now grinding into its second month with huge losses for both sides.
Counter-attacks continue to the east and west of Kyiv, with the village of Lukyanivka back in Ukrainian hands on Friday morning while heavy fighting has been reported at Borodyanka as Kyiv’s men try to encircle Russian troops there
With Russian advances at a standstill across Ukraine, Kyiv’s men are increasingly looking to go on the counter-attack – striking to the west and east of Kyiv, attacking Kherson from Mykolaiv, and trying to blunt a Russian pincer movement to encircle troops in the Donbass at Malynivka and Izyum
Earlier today, Russia claimed that 1,351 of its troops have died fighting in Ukraine – a fraction of the 16,000 that Kyiv says it has killed.
The figure is almost treble the 498 that Moscow said had died in its last update, on March 2, as it also admitted 3,825 soldiers have been wounded today. That figure is over double the last figure, which was 1,597.
It marks a stunning admission for the Kremlin, which has been insisting to the Russian people that its ‘special military operation in the Donbas’ is going exactly according to plan.
But the number is likely only a fraction of the true toll. Ukraine claims to have killed 16,000 troops, NATO says that between 7,000 and 15,000 have died, and the US estimates 7,000 – though that figure is now a week old.
Ukraine does not give a figure of wounded, though based on historical averages their casualty toll implies up to 48,000 dead. NATO says up to 25,000 wounded and the US estimates up to 21,000.
Moscow’s defence ministry issued the update as Russia’s invasion continued to falter – with Ukrainians counter-attacking near Kyiv, in the south, and in the north-east. But the situation in Mariupol – the heavily besieged city of the Sea of Azov – appeared grim, with Chechen special forces claiming to have seized the town hall.
Russian shelling also struck the city of Kharkiv, in the north-east, in the early hours, killing at least four people and wounding three others as they lined up to get help at a humanitarian aid centre.