What are “tactical” nuclear weapons, and would Putin use them?

A tactical nuclear attack would be intended to break the resistance of Ukraine’s forces. (Representative)


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given rise to the ghost of something that until recently was considered almost unthinkable: the use of a small nuclear weapon during a conflict in Europe.

AFP is looking at the risk that Russian President Vladimir Putin will approve a so-called “tactical” nuclear attack on a country he has repeatedly claimed to form “one people” with Russia.

Why is there concern?

On February 27, three days after the start of the invasion, Putin ordered his defense chiefs to place Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert in a highly choreographed meeting in front of TV cameras.

Western countries quickly condemned the move, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling it “provocative” and “the pinnacle of irresponsibility”.

Most Western analysts believe the rhetoric was designed to deter the United States and its allies from increasing their support for Ukraine over existing economic sanctions and arms supplies.

“It’s not just meant to instill fear in the whole world; it’s also meant to scare anyone to help in Ukraine,” said Beatrice Fihn, who leads the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons AFP said.

How big is Russia’s nuclear arsenal?

Russia has the largest number of nuclear warheads of any country, according to the SIPRI Peace Research Institute in Stockholm, which puts the figure at 6,255.

Experts say the risk in Ukraine is not the deployment of a giant “strategic” weapon, which poses a threat to the entire planet.

Instead, Putin may be tempted to use a “tactical” weapon, with a smaller warhead that causes local devastation, but without threatening life across Europe.

These weapons come in different sizes, and their impact depends on whether they explode at ground level or above the Earth’s surface.

US President Joe Biden also claimed this week that Moscow is considering the use of chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine.

“Chemical weapons will not change the course of the war. A tactical nuclear weapon that will reduce a Ukrainian city to rubble? Yes,” Mathieu Boulegue, an analyst at London’s Chatham House, told AFP.

Are nuclear weapons not a last resort?

Yes, but the Ukraine and Western capitals fear that Putin is in a corner, huge battlefield losses and economic problems at home that call into question his political survival.

A tactical nuclear attack would be intended to break the resistance of the Ukrainian forces and force President Volodymyr Zelensky to surrender.

Pavel Luzin, an expert on the Russia-focused think tank Riddle, said the first step would be to see a tactical weapon used over the sea or an uninhabited area as an act of intimidation.

“After that, if the opponent still wants to fight, it can be used directly against the opponent,” he said – referring to a city.

Christopher Chivvis, who served as the top U.S. intelligence officer for Europe from 2018 to 2021, recently said there were “only two ways” to end the war.

“One, continued escalation, possibly over the nuclear threshold; the other, a bitter peace imposed on a defeated Ukraine,” he wrote in the newspaper The Guardian.

What does the Kremlin say?

On Tuesday, Putin’s spokeswoman Dmitry Peskov was asked three times by CNN interviewer Christiane Amanpour to rule out the use of nuclear weapons.

Rather, he referred to Russia’s nuclear doctrine published in 2020, in which “you can read all the reasons why nuclear weapons should be used.”

“If it is an existential threat to our country, then it can be used in accordance with our concept,” Peskov said.

Recent Kremlin claims about Ukraine developing chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons – dismantled by Western officials as disinformation – are a cause for concern.

“The use of a weapon of mass destruction against Russia would be a doctrinal justification for reacting with a nuclear weapon,” said Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, an expert on Russia’s nuclear science at the University of Oslo.

Is it just alarmism?

Possible. William Alberque, an expert on arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank, told AFP he doubted Putin would deploy tactical nuclear weapons.

“The political cost of using nuclear weapons will be outrageous. He will lose the little support he still has. Indians will have to withdraw. The Chinese too,” he said.

Ven Bruusgaard suggested that Putin’s concerns about his own place in history might deter him.

He will also need approval to launch one of either Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu or Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

“The military repercussions will be unpredictable to say the least and potentially extremely dangerous for Russia,” she said, as NATO or the United States may feel compelled to intervene directly in the conflict.

“This is the exact scenario that Russia is trying to avoid,” she said.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by techlives staff and is being published from a syndicated stream.)

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button