Biden spoke of an “approaching Armageddon” at an event in New York yesterday. This may also be what you think of when we talk about nuclear weapons: huge mushroom clouds and massive destruction. “It’s the image that people have of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on their retinas,” says Niels van Willigen, associate professor of international relations at Leiden University.
But the experts are primarily afraid of the deployment of ‘a small nuclear weapon’. Russia has an estimated 6,000 nuclear weapons. Fortunately, we are still some time away from that scenario. “It only becomes really dangerous when you see that concrete preparations for an attack start, then you really have to worry. As far as we know, that is not the case yet.” Still, Van Willigen understands the references to the Cuban Missile Crisis. “Tensions are rising for the first time in all these years.”
slow down Putin
According to correspondent Erik Mouthaan, Biden’s harsh words are intended to rein in Putin. “It’s a reminder to the Russian leader that the United States has a much more powerful military and will not allow nuclear weapons to be used in the war in Ukraine,” Mouthaan said. “If he does, the US can hit back hard.”
The Cuban Missile Crisis, what was that again?
The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in October 1962. The United States discovered that Soviet nuclear missiles were being installed in Cuba. President Kennedy then announced a blockade around the island so that no new missiles could be brought there. Still, the ships kept coming from the Soviet Union.
Tensions were high and it almost came to a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Presidents Kennedy and Khrushchev eventually reached an agreement. Missile installations in Cuba were dismantled and the United States pledged to respect Cuban sovereignty.
But in the meantime, Putin is threatening these weapons. What does the Russian leader have at his disposal? Van Willigen explains that the country’s nuclear weapons can be divided into three systems. “You have nuclear weapons, which consist of warheads that are screwed onto ballistic missiles. With them, you can carry out an attack on the other side of the globe,” says the associate professor. Such a missile can carry as many as 5 or 10 warheads that can be fired individually.
“You also have planes with nuclear bombs. And submarines that carry missiles with them. They can sail around the world and launch an attack anywhere imaginable.” These are systems that both Russia and the United States have at their disposal.
And the Russian arsenal contains much smaller nuclear weapons, also known as tactical nuclear weapons. “It is an important feature of the Russian arsenal. They have more than the Americans. The backlog is probably quite large.”
For example, nuclear weapons were once designed that act as landmines, or as grenades that you have to launch. “These are weapons from 1 to several kilotons of TNT or less. In comparison, the large nuclear weapons have the explosive power of a few megatons of TNT.” Although the smaller weapons are not to be underestimated: “You still get a big explosion and suffer from radiation and heat.”
So experts expect that if Putin deploys nuclear weapons, it will be such a tactical variant. Although there are bigger guns in the house. Defense expert Patrick Bolder says about this: “They have missiles with a range of 500 to 1000 kilometers. In April they showed Satan 2, a heavier intercontinental missile. With that you can go to America. And that makes it unlikely at the same time, because it is the dumbest thing you can do.”
A more realistic option, according to Bolder, is a rocket that is detonated in the atmosphere. “The so-called neutron bomb. It mainly causes radiation on the battlefield,” he says. “There is a shock wave, but no nuclear fallout where an area is inaccessible for decades. That’s something Putin doesn’t want, especially with areas that they just annexed.”
In addition, according to Bolder, it is also doubtful whether Russia has precision weapons to take out, for example, a column of tanks: “And how accurate are they. They have already used a lot, and we also see that they are not. accurate.”
A threatening Putin, a warning Biden, how much should we worry about the situation? “It is indeed a dangerous situation, so Biden is careful with arms deliveries of long-range weapons. Thus, Russia itself could be attacked on its own territory,” Bolder said.
Biden is doing everything he can to keep the conflict confined to the territory of Ukraine. “To not involve NATO and the West even more and to keep balancing along the nuclear precipice,” Bolder continues.
Van Willigen adds: “If the Russians use a tactical nuclear weapon, it’s a show of force. In their minds, it doesn’t have to lead to a full-scale nuclear war, but you never know for sure.”