If forced to, we will not shy away from using nuclear weapons – a message strongly promoted by President Putin since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Threats of the use of nuclear weapons have often been heard in the past and have always turned out to be a bluff. However, NATO and the US take it “very seriously”. What could Russia be capable of with its nuclear arsenal?
The largest nation in the world also has the largest number of nuclear warheads of any country. The main function of these thousands of nuclear weapons is deterrence. Thanks to the fear of mutually assured destruction (MAD), or the risk of mutual destruction, there has never been a nuclear war.
The United States and Russia combined have more than enough nuclear bombs to wipe out humanity. Yet the number of nuclear warheads has declined dramatically since the end of the Cold War.
Experts considered the chance that Moscow would use a nuclear weapon against Ukraine very small. But if Putin ‘presses the red button’, it will probably be a so-called tactical nuclear weapon. These are much less powerful explosives than the so-called strategic nuclear weapons.
The latter category is mainly formed by intercontinental ballistic missiles with a range of more than 5500 kilometers. These nuclear weapons wreak havoc over a large area. The Russian population would also be affected by such an explosion in neighboring Ukraine, directly or indirectly by the fallout. These are toxic radioactive soil particles that enter the environment.
The less powerful tactical nuclear bombs can be launched at a distance of several hundred kilometers. Russia can deploy them from warships and submarines, drop them from aircraft or launch them from mobile missile launchers.
“The hypersonic missile is irrelevant in this case. It was developed as a counterbalance to the Americans because Russia is very concerned about their advanced missile defenses.” Ukraine doesn’t have such an advanced anti-aircraft system, so Zandee says it would make sense for Russia to launch a normal missile — in this imaginary what-if scenario.
‘Difficult to implement effectively’
Unlike the devastating strategic nuclear missiles, tactical nuclear weapons are intended for military targets. “You are not trying to destroy a country, but to avert the military operation,” says Mart de Kruif, former head of the Land Force. “But aside from the colossal geopolitical implications, the tool is difficult to use effectively militarily, especially offensively.”
The attacking party must take care not to hit its own forces, directly or indirectly through the fallout. In addition, the affected area should be considered lost due to the radioactive radiation. “It’s more intended as an ultimate emergency tool in a defensive scenario when all is lost,” says De Kruif. “I don’t see that happening in the short term.”
Putin bluffed about ‘increased state preparedness’
Zandee also calls it highly unlikely that Putin will order the use of nuclear weapons in the short term. “All nuclear weapons threats have been purely verbal. Russia has never really put its nuclear devices on high alert.” The American intelligence services have refuted Putin’s claim made at the end of February with, among other things, satellite images.
A week ago, Putin again hinted at the possible use of nuclear weapons as a last resort:
Putin on nuclear weapons: ‘I’m not bluffing’
According to Zandee, the deployment of nuclear weapons would completely isolate the Kremlin internationally and also lose the support of major allies such as India and China. In addition, the US and EU warned of “catastrophic consequences” for Russia if Putin pushes the button.
“The Russian president is trying to turn the tide of the war in a conventional way with the mobilization. But if that fails and Ukraine manages to push back even further, for example, then in a panic scenario for Putin it cannot be ruled out what will happen.” Zandee said.
He believes that in such a doomsday scenario, Russia will send out a signal about its nuclear power. “For example, by one air burst; a launched rocket that detonates very loudly. Both the explosion and the fallout will be relatively limited in the hope that Zelensky comes to his knees.”