The spectre of tactical nuclear weapons use in Ukraine

As Russia flounders on the battlefields of Ukraine, the once-unthinkable possibility of nuclear weapons use is now on the rise, as President Vladimir Putin’s options for victory narrow. Tactical nuclear weapons have not been part of strategic thinking since the end of the Cold War in 1991. What are these weapons and what would be the significance of their use?

What are they?

Tactical nuclear warheads were created to give military commanders more flexibility on the battlefield. In the mid-1950s, as more powerful thermonuclear bombs were being built and tested, military planners thought that smaller weapons with a shorter range would be more useful in “tactical” or military situations.

Modern warheads have a variable “dial-up” yield, meaning an operator can specify its explosive power, and a tactical weapon would be anywhere from a fraction of a kiloton to 50kt in strength. For a sense of scale, the weapon that destroyed Hiroshima was roughly 15kt. A single kiloton is equivalent in power to a thousand tons of TNT, a high explosive.

Tactical weapons were meant to be used against troop concentrations, ships, marshalling yards, airfields, etc. During the Cold War, they were integrated into every level of military planning by both NATO and its communist equivalent, the Warsaw Pact.

The Czechoslovak army alone had plans to use 131 nuclear weapons against NATO targets as part of its initial attack. Other Warsaw Pact and NATO members had their own plans for nuclear use.

Any such exchange would have rendered much of central Europe immediately uninhabitable, the concern being that tactical nuclear use would very quickly escalate to strategic nuclear use with most of the United States, the Soviet Union, France and the United Kingdom all being destroyed within the space of an afternoon.

Why would Russia use them?

With the stakes being so high, why would anyone take that risk?

Russia has done badly in this war, the myth of its new professional armed forces lying in tatters, the country’s international prestige at rock bottom.

Inefficient, inept and clumsily brutal, Russia’s military has one more chance to reverse its misfortunes on the battlefield as a new wave of reinforcements, culled from overseas, begin to make themselves felt.

If Putin cannot come out of this war with something that looks like victory or there is an occasion where Russian soldiers are being seen to be generally routed, the chances of nuclear use by Russia to shore up its status as a world power start to grow.

All tactical nukes are ‘strategic’

Most of the calculations for how the US and Russia would respond to the use of nuclear weapons have their origins in the Cold War and the delicate “Balance of Terror” that kept the world safe but in fear. Nuclear weapons’ use was a taboo that had not been broken since the Nagasaki bombing in the closing days of World War II. During the ensuing Cold War, the seamless integration of nuclear weapons at every level of military war planning, and their use, by both sides made the use of just one weapon a trigger for a global nuclear conflict in which everyone’s destruction was “mutually assured”.

One thing nuclear weapons were meant to do was deter each other from the possibility of large-scale invasions in Europe, the post-WWII epicentre of the Cold War conflict. NATO and Warsaw Pact forces maintained a constant state of readiness in case hostilities broke out. This did not prevent the Warsaw Pact from crushing rebellions within its own sphere of influence, in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Still, there were no major wars between the two blocs and an uneasy peace was maintained.

But with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact at the end of the Cold War, NATO expanded eastward to absorb most of the former Warsaw Pact countries. The implementation of significant nuclear arms reduction treaties successfully shrank the nuclear stockpiles of the US and Russia. Both now possess only a fraction of the nuclear weapons once at their disposal.

Ideas and doctrine on nuclear deterrence atrophied as the dangers of armageddon receded. Budgetary defence funds were diverted to the thorny problems of occupation and counterinsurgency, and the so-called “Global War on Terror”.

Doctrine is useful, as are detailed plans, but in the worst nuclear crisis, when in 1962, the US was faced with Soviet nuclear weapons just off its coast in Cuba, all these plans were thrown aside, as they all led to one thing – global annihilation. Instead, in this game of nuclear poker with the entire planet at stake, intense negotiation, civilian backchannels, last-minute private assurances and sheer bluff between the two superpowers won the day. This dialogue ignored military thinking, focusing instead on the dynamic between US President John F Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and their teams.

But in 2022, two very different individuals are in charge, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The questions are simple: Would Putin break the nuclear taboo by using these weapons in anger for the first time in 77 years? And, if so, how would President Biden respond?

So, if Russia detonated just one nuclear weapon, say over a military target, would the United States risk climbing the escalatory ladder by retaliating in kind, with global destruction waiting on the top rung? President Biden recently signed a memorandum allowing the US nuclear weapons use in retaliation for a chemical or nuclear attack. Ukraine is not a NATO member though, so would Biden retaliate in kind to protect Ukraine, while running the extreme risk of destroying a country already ravaged by war. One of the ironies of nuclear weapons, not lost on the Ukrainian people, is that not only did they not deter Russia from invading Ukraine, but the potential use of nuclear weapons has in fact deterred NATO from coming to Ukraine’s aid.

Russia has increased its nuclear alert posture, a concerning but not unusual act in a time of war. However, Russia has alluded to nuclear weapons use before. In 2015, it threatened to target Denmark, of all countries, if it joined NATO’s missile defence shield.

With the war going so badly in Ukraine, the scenarios President Putin could claim as victorious or successful for Russia are rapidly diminishing and Putin’s political survival is now increasingly tied to the outcome of the conflict.

Weakened leaders – with a strong sense of survival, their armed forces failing and the country’s prestige at rock bottom – might well be tempted to remind the world that while they didn’t win this conflict, no one would win the next and that Russia might be down but is not out.

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Alex Gatopoulos