Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered an increase in the readiness of Russia’s nuclear forces and has made veiled nuclear threats. Outrageous aggression against Ukraine shocked Europe and the world. The war is a tragedy for Ukraine. It also exposes the limits of the West’s dependence on nuclear deterrence.
Insurance refers to the idea that possession of nuclear weapons protects a nation from attack through threat overwhelming revenge. This concept is widely recognized as helping to prevent war between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine sheds a sharp light on its reverse. The most obvious is that Putin is using nuclear deterrence not to defend Russia, but to break into Ukraine. Russia’s nuclear weapons deter the West from interfering with conventional forces to defend Ukraine. Despite scattered calls in the United States to create a “no-fly zone” over part or all of Ukraine, the Biden administration has wisely resisted. In practice, this would mean shooting down Russian planes. This could lead to World War III. On the other hand, NATO nuclear weapons are believed to deter Russia from extending the war to NATO countries such as Poland, Romania or the Baltic states. Thus, the nuclear balance of terror is likely to deter a broad European war, but allows Ukraine to fight only limited support and possibly eventually to be swallowed. In general, NATO countries do not seem to be very complacent about their vaunted nuclear deterrence. They continue to worry about the (remote) possibility of a conventional Russian attack outside Ukraine.
This is not the first time Putin has wielded a nuclear sword. He also did so in 2014 during the Russian invasion of Crimea, when Russian leaders spoke openly about bringing nuclear weapons into combat readiness. In 2015, Russia threatened Danish ships with nuclear weapons if Denmark joined NATO’s missile defense system. Putin likes to wave his nuclear weapon as a reminder to the West (and perhaps to himself) that Russia is still a great power. In the current crisis, Putin clearly wants the United States and NATO to know that if the West intervenes with military force on behalf of Ukraine, it can reach for its so-called tactical (or “non-strategic”) nuclear weapons.
In the world of nuclear weapons, tactical means an extremely large amount of explosive power, and strategic means even more. Most nuclear weapons today are variable capacity, or “gain-revenue,” providing a predetermined amount of explosive power that can range from kiloton fractions to multiples of megatons. (For example, the latest version of the American B61 nuclear bomb could release 0.3, 1.5, 10 or 50 kilotons of explosive energy. For comparison, the bomb in Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons.) Russia has about 4,500 nuclear warheads in his arsenal. Of these, the largest power – “strategic” weapons – are deployed on submarines, bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
But Russia also has about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons stored in repositories across the country, designed for use against troops and facilities in small areas or in limited combat. Such weapons can be launched by the same short-range missiles that Russia is currently bombing Ukraine with, such as its Iskander ballistic missile, which has a range of about 500 kilometers. And it’s not the only tactical weapon that could be deployed; The United States has about 100 nuclear “gravity bombs” (with less advanced guidance) located across Europe.
Tactical nuclear weapons exist because each side fears that its destructive weapons will deter it from using weapons that destroy large cities. By reducing nuclear weapons and more accurate targeting, its use becomes smarter. Paradoxically, while this makes deterrence threats more reliable, it also makes weapons more attractive to use first rather than simply in response.
However, no one should imagine that using tactical nuclear weapons makes sense. Thermonuclear explosion of any size has a predominant destructive power. Even a “low-power” nuclear weapon (0.3 kilotons) will inflict losses far greater than conventional explosives. (For graphical display of an interactive site NUKEMAPcreated by a nuclear historian Alexander Wehlerstein, allows you to simulate the effects of a nuclear explosion of any size anywhere on the planet.) This would also cause all the horrors of Hiroshima, albeit on a smaller scale. Tactical nuclear weapons will create fireballs, shock waves and deadly radiation that cause long-term damage to the health of survivors. Radioactive fallout contaminates the air, soil, water and food (Ukrainians are already familiar with this outcome due to the catastrophic melting of a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986).
No one knows whether the use of tactical nuclear weapons will lead to a full-scale nuclear war. However, the risk of escalation is quite real. Those who receive a nuclear strike are unlikely to ask whether it was tactical or strategic. On February 6, 2018, in the testimony before the Committee of the House of Representatives on the Armed Forces, the then Minister of Defense James Mattis stated “I don’t think there is such a thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. Any nuclear weapon used at any time changes the strategy of the game. ” Russian leaders have made it clear that they will view any nuclear attack as the beginning of a full-scale nuclear war.
Of particular concern is the possibility that war could escalate into the use of nuclear weapons. By increasing the level of combat readiness of Russian nuclear forces, Putin is increasing the risk of using nuclear weapons through miscalculations or accidents in the fog of war. In the worst case scenario, if the war goes badly, Putin may desperately reach for tactical nuclear weapons. Although it is still unlikely, the risk is not zero. And increasing this risk is unacceptable. Although countless nuclear weapons have been tested over the years, none have been used in war (or terrorism) since 1945. The 77-year tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons – the nuclear taboo – is the most important achievement of the nuclear age. Today’s leaders have a responsibility to make sure that nuclear weapons are never used again. Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov must stop the threat of nuclear weapons. Other leaders must express shock and outrage and make it clear that nuclear threats are irresponsible and unacceptable.
Nuclear deterrence is associated with enormous risks and enormous costs. Arguments in favor of deterrence, although sometimes convincing, are not always true. We must recognize that nuclear deterrence can fail. That is why, despite the trillions of dollars spent on nuclear arsenals, no one is fast asleep under a nuclear umbrella – especially during a crisis such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This war is likely to violate the European security order. It also demonstrates how little real protection nuclear weapons have. The world would be better off without these weapons.
“Limited” tactical nuclear weapons would be catastrophic
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