- Every few days, Russia’s rhetoric around the potential use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine seems to shift back and forth.
- Increasingly desperate Vladimir Putin could use Russia’s nuclear arsenal to turn its fortunes in the Ukraine war.
- Here are 3 scenarios for the Ukraine War.
One day, Russian military leaders are discussing plans for the use of a tactical nuclear weapon; another day, the Kremlin is stating explicitly that a nuclear war should never be fought, and that using such weapons would have no political or military value. There are at least three distinct scenarios for Russia’s use of a nuclear weapon, each of which differs in rationale and likely consequences.
Scenario 1: A Warning Device
Russia could test nuclear weapons as a warning to Ukraine and its supporters, demonstrating both its resolve and capability. Actions speak louder than words, so testing a nuclear weapon could drive home Russian President Vladimir Putin’s past statements that this “special military operation” in Ukraine is becoming an existential conflict for the Russian state.
A nuclear demonstration would not tilt the balance in favor of either side. The efficacy of even Russia’s most advanced nuclear weapons is likely already known to relevant Western governments, and a test likely would not incentivize Ukraine to capitulate because Kyiv already feels that the conflict is existential.
The humanitarian and environmental effects are also likely to be minimal, as the test site would be chosen with those impacts in mind. One unwanted side effect could concern Russia’s relations with China. China has tried to tow a careful line in maintaining the strong personal relationship between President Xi Jinping and Putin without kindling outright hostility from the West.
Scenario 2: A Weapon Of Destruction
Russia could use nuclear weapons against Ukrainian military or energy infrastructure targets in an attempt to weaken the country’s will and damage its military capacity. Tactical nuclear weapons have a smaller payload and more precise targeting, which makes them conducive to battlefield use. Russia has about two thousand tactical nuclear weapons that it could deploy by plane, missile, or ship. It would most likely use the short-range Iskander-M missile system. These weapons have yields of 1–50 kilotons, the largest of which would have a blast radius about half a kilometer wider than the bomb the U.S. military dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II.
Russia’s use of a tactical nuclear weapon against military targets on the battlefield would be unlikely to halt the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Even if a battlefield nuclear weapon made a land advance more challenging, Ukraine would likely continue its focus on aerial attacks and air defense in ways that have been successful in recent weeks.
The environmental effects of tactical nuclear weapons use are difficult to calculate and would depend on warhead yield, detonation height, weather, and local geography. Russia would be cautious not to detonate weapons too close to its own soldiers or occupied territory. The West likely would not respond to tactical nuclear use by sending troops into Ukraine, but the United States and its allies would likely ramp up the number of conventional weapons they send to Ukraine.
Scenario 3: A Reign of Terror
Russia’s most escalatory option is also the least likely—using a strategic nuclear weapon against Ukrainian civilian targets or Ukraine’s neighboring international partners. Such an attack would be hundreds of times more powerful than one that used tactical weapons. Russia’s aim would be to weaken Western resolve, and it would likely target military installations or infrastructure relevant to the Ukrainian war effort, such as arms supply lines in Poland or weapon storage facilities in the Baltics.
While the Ukraine conflict is not an existential threat to Russia, Putin could perceive it as a threat to himself. He likely fears that losing the war would mean losing power or his life. As the likelihood of that prospect increases, Putin could view nuclear weapons as a last resort for self-preservation, no matter the external costs.
Using a nuclear weapon against civilian or non-Ukrainian targets would certainly generate a retaliatory response from Western states. The United States would be unlikely to default to nuclear weapons given its confidence in the demonstration of resolve that would result from a swift, sophisticated conventional response, which would also be tactically effective. Eastern European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), who could fear becoming Russia’s next target.
President Joe Biden has staked out the U.S. position on the issue, noting, “Any use of nuclear weapons in this conflict on any scale would be completely unacceptable to us as well as the rest of the world and would entail severe consequences.” Any Western troop deployment would not cross the border into Russia, and even the use of advanced cruise missiles, drones, and ground operations would be limited to Russian targets in Ukraine.
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