Ukraine war: in Russia’s nuclear brinkmanship, weapons leave room for warning
- Tactical nuclear arms would take time to prepare for use, giving the Kremlin a tool for signalling the West
- The US has warned of a ‘catastrophic’ response to a nuclear attack, but hasn’t spelled out what that would mean
As Vladimir Putin’s game of chicken with the US and its allies over Ukraine escalates into a new round of nuclear threats, the smaller weapons that his officials have called on him to use may provide vital hours or even days of warning.
While Russia’s long-range missiles and bombers are kept on constant alert, ready to fire in just minutes to ensure they aren’t destroyed by a pre-emptive strike, lower-yielding tactical weapons are locked up in about a dozen warehouses across Russia and it would take time to transport them to launchers.
“At a certain level of readiness, weapons are taken out of storage facilities and moved to some other place, for days if necessary. This would be detected by satellites or other means,” said Pavel Podvig, a nuclear security expert at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva. That would be exactly the point.
So far, US and European officials have said there’s no sign of any such preparations and the nuclear threats have remained purely rhetorical.
But as Russian forces steadily lose ground to a Ukrainian counteroffensive – including territory the Russian president formally claimed as his own last week – the Kremlin has again sought to sow fear with hints that further escalation may involve arms that haven’t been used in war since 1945.
The threats are part of a broad attempt by the Kremlin to intimidate the US and Europe into cutting support for Ukraine and forcing Kyiv into negotiations on Moscow’s terms.
With Europeans braced for a difficult winter after Russia triggered an unprecedented energy crisis by cutting gas supplies, Putin’s seeking to widen divisions within Europe over the price of continued support for Ukraine to try to turn public opinion in key states as tensions grow.
His decision to call up 300,000 reservists to shore up Russia’s struggling army and the hasty annexation of the occupied territories, followed by a fiery speech that accused the West of “Satanism”, were just the latest attempts to show the Kremlin leader is committed to fight to the finish.
Explosions that caused leaks in key pipelines under the Baltic Sea last week described by the US as deliberate sabotage fuelled alarm that other parts of the continent’s energy infrastructure could be vulnerable.
So far, however, Kyiv’s allies haven’t softened in their commitment to continue supplying weapons.
That has many in Moscow calling on Putin to raise the threats even further.
“Fear is the only thing that can stop our opponent,” Dmitri Trenin, an expert at the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, which advises the Kremlin, said in comments published on the group’s site last week that included discussion of a nuclear strike on the US and Europe. “Return the fear.”
UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace on Sunday seemed to demonstrate Western confidence, saying: “We think it is highly unlikely” Putin will use nuclear weapons, based on readouts the British have had on meetings with Indian and Chinese leaders who spoke to the Russian president last month.
Putin has been ambiguous in public, saying Russia would use “all weapons systems available to us” to defend its territory, including the newly annexed parts of Ukraine.
Russia has an estimated 1,900 such weapons dating to the Cold War still in storage, as well as the missiles and planes needed to deliver them.
While use of a nuclear warhead might not be enough to turn the tide on the battlefield, where the front runs to more than 1,200km, it could be a way for Putin to try to shock Ukraine and its Western allies into backing down.
If the Russian leader decided to use such a weapon, he would likely choose a military target in Ukraine as a demonstration strike, according to a person close to the Defence Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters that aren’t public.
“The temptation for the Kremlin to use its last resort is growing” with its troops struggling as the invasion enters its eighth month, Natia Seskuria, an associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said in a commentary. Still, any use would mark the first time nuclear weapons were used to secure gains from invading another country.
Russia’s tactical weapons are relatively large, with a minimum yield of 10 kilotons, or 10,000 tonnes of TNT. That would be two-thirds the size of the 15 kiloton atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
“These are not tiny nukes,” said Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the US-based Arms Control Association. “This would be worse than anything we’ve seen since Hiroshima.”
That blast destroyed 12 sq km (5 square miles) of the Japanese city, killed 70,000 people outright and tens of thousands of others more from radiation exposure.
Still, a low-yield warhead detonated at relatively high altitudes would reduce the fallout from the nuclear strike, helping to keep civilian casualties to a minimum, the Royal United Services Institute said in a report released earlier this year.
“In this context, limited nuclear use as a means of coercion may appear less outlandish,” it said. But it might still expose Russian territory to radioactive fallout without achieving the goal of scaring Kyiv’s supporters into backing down.
The US has warned of a “catastrophic” response to any such move, but hasn’t spelled out what that would mean.
Ben Hodges, former commander of the US Army in Europe, said in a September 21 media interview the US wouldn’t hit back with a nuclear attack but with conventional retaliation perhaps by destroying the Black Sea Fleet or Russian bases in Crimea.
That would still mean a direct clash between the former Cold War rivals that in turn could potentially provoke a Russian nuclear response against the US.
So far, the US has been very careful to avoid a direct conflict with Russian forces.
“Once nuclear weapons are used, even in a so-called limited way, there is absolutely no guarantee that the two sides could control the nuclear use and it wouldn’t quickly escalate into an all-out nuclear conflagration,” said Kimball.
Yevgeny Buzhinsky, a retired Russian general who now heads the PIR Centre, a Moscow think tank, said the Kremlin has a range of ways to escalate and get its message across without risking Armageddon.
Russia could step up attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, destroying more power plants, as well as aiming at the rail and other facilities used to carry US and European weapons.
“Nuclear weapons are not needed to defeat Ukraine,” he said.