Even expert Russia-watchers aren’t sure what changed when Vladimir Putin ordered the country’s “deterrence forces” to be put on a “special regime of combat duty” on Sunday.
A U.S. defense official who spoke to reporters on Sunday called the move “escalatory” but declined to offer more details. Many news organizations interpreted the order as placing Russia’s nuclear weapons units on a higher state of alert.
Several experts said that Putin’s order might have been most directly about nuclear command-and-control.
“We’ve never heard announcements like that before,” said Pavel Podvig, a senior researcher with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, or UNIDIR. “I don’t have absolute certainty what it means. My best guess is that he was referring to the way the command-and-control systems operate.
“The way I believe it works, and the way it’s supposed to work, is that normally, under the day-to-day status, the system is not capable of transmitting orders” to launch nuclear weapons, Podvig said in an interview with Defense One. “But you can bring it into the status where it is capable.”
A command-and-control shift is one possibility, said James Acton, who co-directs the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In an interview, he said he believes the increased alert is for a select group of people and units, and possibly not even for all of Russia’s nuclear forces.
Acton noted that there are many other steps required for nuclear use that may or may not be announced. He laid out some of them in an earlier Twitter thread, including warheads for non-strategic systems being moved out of centralized storage and mobile ICBMs being dispersed. And he said U.S. intelligence officials are probably monitoring Russia’s nuclear forces for visible changes.
While the likelihood of use of nuclear weapons is still fairly small, it is now higher than a few weeks ago, Acton said.