- That would still amount to a direct conflict between the two former Cold War rivals, which might lead to a Russian nuclear attack on the United States.
- The US has threatened that any such move would be greeted with a "catastrophic" response, without elaborating on what that may mean.
As their game of chicken over Ukraine evolves into a new round of nuclear threats, the smaller weapons that Vladimir Putin has been urged to deploy might provide the US and its allies with important 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 are not destroyed by a pre-emptive strike, Russia’s lower-yielding tactical weapons are locked up in about a dozen warehouses across the country, and it would take time to transport them to launchers.
When they are at a specific state of readiness, weapons are taken out of storage facilities and relocated somewhere else, potentially for days at a time. Pavel Podvig, a nuclear security expert at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, satellites or other technology might be able to detect this. That would be the primary message.
US and European sources, there are currently no signs of such preparations, and the nuclear threats are just symbolic.
In an effort to sway public opinion in key states as tensions rise as Europeans prepare for a difficult winter as a result of Russia’s triggering of an unprecedented energy crisis by cutting gas supplies, Putin is attempting to widen divisions within Europe over the cost of maintaining support for Ukraine.
In an effort to show that he is prepared to fight to the final end, the Kremlin leader recently called up 300,000 reservists to reinforce Russia’s sputtering army and hastily annexed the conquered areas.
Concern was expressed that explosions that resulted in leaks in crucial pipes beneath the Baltic Sea last week, which the US labelled as purposeful sabotage, could have an impact on other areas of the continent’s energy infrastructure.
The allies of Kiev, though, are still adamant about continuing to provide armaments.
In reaction, many in Moscow are now pressing Putin to make more severe threats.
“Fear is the only thing that can stop our opponent,” said Dmitri Trenin, a specialist at the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, an advisory body to the Kremlin, in statements published last week on the group’s website. Bring the fear back, I say.
Ben Wallace, the defence minister for the UK, gave the impression of Western assurance on Sunday when he said, “We think it is highly unlikely” that Putin will use nuclear weapons, basing this on readouts from meetings with the presidents of China and India who spoke to the Russian leader last month.
Putin has been coy in public, saying only that Russia would use “all weapons systems at our disposal” to defend its country, including the recently seized territories of Ukraine.
By claiming that the US had “established a precedent” by using them against Japan during World War II, he suggested that he wouldn’t view any Russian use of atomic weapons now as breaking a taboo. Following the most recent incident, a significant lieutenant was even more explicit over the weekend, calling for the use of “low-yielding nuclear bombs.”
There are still believed to be 1,900 of these Cold War-era weapons in storage in Russia, along with the missiles and aircraft needed to deliver them.
With a front spanning more than 1,200 kilometres, the use of a nuclear bomb might not be sufficient to alter the direction of the conflict, but it may be Putin’s attempt to terrify Ukraine and its Western friends into quitting.
If the Russian president decided to deploy such a weapon, he would probably pick a military target in Ukraine as a demonstration strike, the defence ministry who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personal affairs.
Natia Seskuria, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, claims that as the invasion enters its ninth month, there is a rising temptation for the Kremlin to turn to its final resort. However, using nuclear weapons would be unprecedented because it would be done to gain an advantage from an invasion of another country.
10,000 tonnes of TNT, or 10 kilotons, is the minimum yield of the tactical weapons that Russia uses. By two thirds, that would be less than the nuclear weapon unleashed on Hiroshima, which had a yield of 15 kilotons.
These are not little nukes, Daryl Kimball, executive director of the US-based Arms Control Association. Someone remarked, “This would be the worst thing we’ve seen since Hiroshima.”
The Japanese metropolis was completely decimated by the explosion, which destroyed 12 square kilometres (5 square miles), killing 70,000 people immediately and tens of thousands more from radioactive exposure.
However, a low-yield weapon exploded at relatively high altitudes would decrease the fallout from the nuclear assault, helping to keep civilian casualties to a minimum
The paper said that in this scenario, limited nuclear use as a means of coercion could seem less ludicrous. But even if it fails to intimidate Kyiv’s backers into making a surrender, it might still expose Russian soil to radioactive fallout.
The US has threatened that any such move would be greeted with a “catastrophic” response, without elaborating on what that may mean.
Ben Hodges, a former commander of the US Army in Europe, said in a media interview on September 21 that the US would retaliate conventionally, maybe by destroying the Black Sea Fleet or Russian bases in Crimea, rather than launching a nuclear attack.
That would still amount to a direct conflict between the two former Cold War rivals, which might lead to a Russian nuclear attack on the United States.
Up to this point, the US has taken great care to prevent any direct clash between its forces and Russian forces.
When nuclear weapons are deployed, even in a supposedly restricted way, there is “absolutely no guarantee that the two sides could manage the nuclear use and it wouldn’t swiftly grow into an all-out nuclear inferno,” Kimball.
The head of the PIR Centre in Moscow, retired Russian general Yevgeny Buzhinsky, asserted that the Kremlin has a number of ways to intensify situations and spread its message without putting the entire globe in risk.
Russia may further up its strikes on Ukraine’s infrastructure, destroying other power plants in addition to the rails and other infrastructures that convey US and European military equipment.
He argued that Ukraine might be defeated without the use of nuclear weapons.