Would Putin actually use Russian nuclear weapons in Ukraine?
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the prospect of a nuclear war, which has been somewhat dormant for sixty years since the Cuban missile crisis, has resurfaced.
Vladimir Putin has repeatedly flirted with the prospect of using nuclear weapons in response to NATO intervention in Ukraine. In his statement last month prior to the annexation of four regions in eastern Ukraine, he said Russia was prepared to use “all means” to defend its territorial integrity. “It is not a bluff,” he warned.
Now with the official annexation of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson, any Ukrainian attacks - let alone territorial gains - in these regions will be deemed an attack on Russian territory. This, goes the concern, allows for the activation of Russia’s nuclear doctrine, which grants Moscow the “impetus” to use a first nuclear strike had its territorial integrity come under threat. Whichever way this may develop, Moscow’s resolve in the coming weeks will be tested and that will raise the stakes for new drastic measures to decide the war.
Pavel Podvig, a senior researcher in the WMD programme at the Institute for Disarmament Research, argues that should Russia decide to use nuclear weapons, this will require preparations that will be observable via satellites and ground agents working for the United States and other countries.
"The Kremlin, in other words, still operates within the parameters of the international rules of nuclear deterrence, but has little reservation about pushing its boundaries to unprecedented levels"
As of yet, Podvig said, there are no confirmed reports that Moscow has begun moving in that direction. Likewise, two former Russian generals estimated that Moscow is unlikely to use nuclear attacks unless NATO puts boots on the ground, which remains a weak possibility at the moment.
On his part, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president and currently the country’s security council’s deputy chair, has said NATO countries would be too scared of a “nuclear apocalypse” to directly intervene in Ukraine, even if Moscow used nuclear weapons.
From this angle, Moscow is playing hardball, deliberately taking the nuclear threat well beyond the country’s conventional self-defence nuclear doctrine. The primary goal is to increase the chances of a favourable outcome of the war, including forcing NATO to accept Moscow’s territorial gains. The Kremlin, in other words, still operates within the parameters of the international rules of nuclear deterrence, but has little reservation about pushing its boundaries to unprecedented levels.
Nuclear weapons are there only as a deterrent and not to be actually used. A nuclear war will mean mutual assured destruction (MAD) and, therefore, must not be fought at any cost. This has been the security doctrine developed during the Cold War between the US and USSR.
Nuclear deterrence offers the state an international status and insurance against aggression at a modest financial cost. It is a war prevention mechanism that forces peace (or the semblance of it) through the fear of retaliation - and potential annihilation.
Analysts like to cite the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 to showcase that the nuclear doctrine has been relatively successful and that the likely outcome of a crisis situation will be additional transformative measures to curb a nuclear eruption. The missile crisis prompted USSR-US cooperation, resulting in the 1968 Treaty of Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the expansion of the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
But, as the war escalates, we are faced with the grim fact that our knowledge of the trajectory and ramifications of a nuclear war is contextually narrow, and that the limits of our ability to stress-test a nuclear threat remains largely theoretical.
The absence of a solid mutual understanding of the conditions under which nuclear weapons could be used leaves the door open for interpretations and causes nuclear deterrence to lose its predictability, ergo, controllability.
"As the war escalates, we are faced with the grim fact that our knowledge of the trajectory and ramifications of a nuclear war is contextually narrow, and that the limits of our ability to stress-test a nuclear threat remains largely theoretical"
Of these interpretations is the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. These are short-range, relatively low-yield devices used against ground troops or logistical hubs. Their power theoretically ranges between 10 to 100 kilotons (The Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons) . Russia has roughly 2,000 tactical nuclear devices, which can be deployed via conventional air-to-land and land-to-land missiles, artillery shells, and torpedoes.
Rod Thornton, a security expert at King’s College London, suggests that Russia is unlikely to target Ukrainian residential centres but specific military targets that bear a geopolitical and symbolic value to the Ukrainian forces.
Snake Island, the Black Sea outpost which has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, could be a target. In addition to delivering a significant blow, both militarily and psychologically, to the Ukrainian forces, a nuclear attack will also serve as a warning to NATO that Russia is dead serious in pursuing its goals.
No country has ever used tactical nuclear weapons in conflict. Therefore, drawing out a detailed conceptual map of what might happen the next day after the blast remains hypothetical. What we are certain about, however, is that a small, limited nuclear explosion will not be without dire consequences.
Radioactive fallout will contaminate the environment for decades to come, including parts of Russia and Europe, and long-term health problems will become the norm amongst the local population. For Ukrainians specifically, who experienced first-hand the devastating environmental and health consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, this scenario is hardly far-fetched.
It is also difficult to quantify the level of international reaction to a Russian nuclear attack, particularly as the state of affairs of the war is constantly changing and the number of variables rising as a result.
Putin’s threats caused India and China to break their silence and voice concerns over the war in Ukraine. NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg has warned of “severe consequences for Russia” if Putin resorts to nuclear weapons. The United States reportedly communicated privately at a high level with the Kremlin, warning the Russians that any nuclear strike will be met with “catastrophic consequences” for Moscow.
Without downplaying the nuclear threat, the White House Coordinator for Strategic Communications, Jack Kirby, said that there were no indications that the US strategic deterrence posture is changing, implying that Russia is not showing signs it is preparing to launch a nuclear attack. This came at the time as Russia's Belgorod-class submarine, allegedly armed with “doomsday nuclear weapons,” has gone missing from its harbour in the Arctic.
"For Ukrainians specifically, who experienced first-hand the devastating environmental and health consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, this scenario is hardly far-fetched"
Neither the United States nor Europe recognise the newly annexed regions as Russian, which broadens the scope of interpretation for both the West and Russia on what justifies escalation. NATO is likely to continue providing Ukrainian forces with advanced weaponry to build pressure on Russia’s troops in these regions. Russia is already looking at that as a Western attack on Russian territory.
Nonetheless, bringing the Russian nuclear doctrine close to fruition will be contingent on the Ukrainians making significant territorial gains and, more importantly, on Moscow’s exhaustion of its vast conventional military power, which only a part of has been used so far.
A single nuclear strike will be a catastrophic development, and there are no guarantees a second or a third strike will not follow should the escalation continue, certainly if NATO ends up in direct confrontation with Moscow.
Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.