There has been increasing public speculation about the possibility of the Russian military using nuclear weapons amid the failed military campaign in Ukraine and a series of defeats over the past month.
They forced Russian President Vladimir Putin to announce a partial mobilization in an attempt to reverse the negative trend. In turn, the annexation of the four occupied regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporozhye provides a formal basis for a nuclear response in the event of a direct threat against the territory of Russia, as envisaged in the 2020 nuclear weapons strategy.
In a similar spirit were the words of Putin, who threatened to “use all available weapon systems” if Russia’s territorial integrity was threatened. He also defined the war in Ukraine as a “battle of life and death” for the very survival of Russia as a nation.
Whether it is a real threat or bluff-like rhetoric is anybody’s guess. The fact is, however, that Russia has a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons that evoke disturbing memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the massive ICBMs of the Cold War.
However, they are not the only option. A much more likely option are so-called tactical nuclear weapons, which are small-charge and intended as a means of delivering a limited strike on a specific point on the front during hostilities.
The point in question may even be located on allied territory or in close proximity to one’s own army.
Such weapons are not designed for total adversary destruction, nuclear deterrence, or providing a nuclear “umbrella.” The goal is to secure a purely tactical advantage by striking an enemy massing of forces, or to permanently disable a given infrastructure, while at the same time avoiding the catastrophic consequences of a devastating nuclear strike.
Here we are talking about weapon systems with very limited action and range. They can vary in power from several tens of tons to several tens of kilotons of TNT equivalent – 1 kiloton = 1000 tons of TNT.
For example, the smallest known such weapon is the W-54 overcaliber munition developed in the US in the 1950s. It has a maximum power of 20 tons of TNT equivalent and could be fired from the specially designed Davy Crockett portable cannon, a tank or even a jeep.
Davy Crockett Tactical Nuclear Weapon
The range of such a projectile is less than 5 kilometers and it is so compact that only one soldier is quite enough to serve it. The idea of such a thing was to serve as a defensive tool in the event of a massive Soviet invasion of West Germany during the Cold War.
For comparison, the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were 15 and 21 kilotons. As of today, they could also be classified as tactical weapons, given their power and the fact that the largest nuclear weapons can exceed 1000 kilotons and have the capacity to level vast areas.
Tactical nuclear weapons delivery systems also tend to have a shorter range, typically less than 500 kilometers, compared to strategic nuclear weapons, which are typically designed to cross thousands of kilometers to other continents.
But what does Russia have and what could it use against Ukraine?
According to rough estimates by the Federation of American Scientists and the Nuclear Information Project, Russia has an arsenal of about 1,900-2,000 tactical nuclear weapons. These are warheads that could easily be used by aircraft, ships or ground forces through standard carriers such as ballistic or cruise missiles, torpedoes, large-caliber ammunition and others.
Unlike NATO, where the emphasis is on high-tech conventional weapons, the power of which is already fully comparable to tactical nuclear weapons, with Russia it is the exact opposite.
They do not have the technological and financial capacity to develop sufficiently powerful conventional weapons and therefore continue to develop nuclear technology, although to date the only advantage of nuclear weapons in a tactical situation is that they allow the use of a single warhead instead of several dozen conventional.
In parallel, Russia is also updating its delivery systems to accommodate both types of weapons. Logically, the deployment of similar “Iskander” systems or “Caliber” cruise missiles with double capacity on the front in Ukraine raises quite a few concerns.
Since tactical nuclear weapons have no significant advantages over conventional ones, then what is the problem with them?
The answer lies precisely in the word “nuclear”. Until now, no one has ever allowed themselves to use such weapons, except for the examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since the Second World War, the very idea of the existence of nuclear weapons has actually been that they should not be used and that they should only have a deterrent effect.
One of the concerns is that, while having an extremely limited and localized effect, they can escalate a conflict beyond the expected boundaries – from the tactical to the strategic level.
In the case of Ukraine, such a thing would bring absolutely no benefits to Moscow. On the one hand, it will be permanently contaminated territory that Russia claims as part of its historical heritage. On the other hand, all remnants of Russian image in international relations will disappear for good.
The other big problem is setting an extremely dangerous precedent. Although the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is clear, it is still a matter of using nuclear weapons to end a military conflict and set an example.
However, an example will be given here of none other than the violation of an 80-year-old absolute taboo in the eyes of other nuclear powers with questionable moral scruples such as India, Pakistan or North Korea, which probably only the international order has so far refrained from pressing the red button.
Therefore, any use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine must be met with a decisive response from the West and the final end of the Putin regime.