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What Are “Tactical” Nuclear Weapons, And Will Putin Use Them?

The tactical nuclear attack was aimed at breaking the Ukrainian military resistance. (Representative)


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised the specter of something considered almost unthinkable until recently: the use of small-scale nuclear weapons during the conflict in Europe.

AFP sees a risk that Russian President Vladimir Putin will allow so -called “tactical” nuclear attacks against a country he has repeatedly claimed formed “one people” with Russia.

Why is there concern?

On February 27, three days after the start of the invasion, Putin ordered his defense chief to put the Russian nuclear force on high alert in a highly choreographed meeting in front of TV cameras.

Western nations were quick to denounce the action, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling it “provocative” and “highly irresponsible.”

Most Western analysts believe the rhetoric is designed to prevent the United States and its allies from increasing their support for Ukraine beyond existing economic and arms supply restrictions.

“This is not only intended to instill fear around the world, it is also intended to scare anyone away from helping in Ukraine,” Beatrice Fihn, who leads the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons, told AFP.

How big are Russia’s nuclear weapons?

Russia has the largest number of nuclear warheads of any country, according to the SIPRI peace research institute in Stockholm, which puts the figure at 6,255.

Experts say the risk in Ukraine is not the use of giant “strategic” weapons, which pose a threat to the entire planet.

On the other hand, Putin may be tempted to use “tactical” weapons, with smaller warheads that cause local destruction but without threatening lives across Europe.

These weapons come in a variety of sizes, and their effect depends on whether they explode at ground level or above the surface of the Earth.

US President Joe Biden also claimed this week that Moscow is considering the use of chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine.

“Chemical weapons will not change the course of the war. Tactical nuclear weapons that reduce Ukrainian cities to rubble? Yes,” Mathieu Boulegue, an analyst at London -based Chatham House, told AFP.

Aren’t nuclear weapons the last resort?

Yes, but Ukrainian and Western capitals are worried Putin finds himself trapped, suffering huge losses on the battlefield and economic problems in his own country that put political survival in doubt.

The tactical nuclear attack was aimed at breaking the Ukrainian military resistance and forcing President Volodymyr Zelensky to surrender.

Pavel Luzin, an expert at the Russia-focused Riddle think tank, said the first step would be to see tactical weapons used over the sea or uninhabited areas, as an act of intimidation.

“After that, if the enemy still wants to fight, it may be used to oppose the enemy directly,” he said – meaning over the city.

Christopher Chivvis, who served as the top U.S. intelligence officer for Europe from 2018 to 2021, said recently that there are “only two ways” to end the war.

“One, the continuous increase, potentially crosses the nuclear threshold; another, the bitter peace imposed on the defeated Ukraine,” he wrote in The Guardian newspaper.

What did the Kremlin say?

On Tuesday, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was asked three times by CNN interviewer Christiane Amanpour to reject the use of nuclear weapons.

He instead pointed to the Russian nuclear doctrine published in 2020, where “you can read all the reasons why nuclear weapons are used.”

“If it is as a threat exists for our country, then it can be used according to our concept,” Peskov said.

The latest allegations from the Kremlin about Ukraine developing chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons – dismissed as misinformation by Western officials – are alarming.

“The use of weapons of mass destruction against Russia would be a doctrinal justification for responding with nuclear weapons,” said Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, a Russian nuclear doctrine expert at the University of Oslo.

Is this just an emergency?

Possibly. William Alberque, a weapons control expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank, told AFP that he doubted Putin would use tactical nuclear weapons.

“The political cost of the use of nuclear weapons will be outrageous. He will lose some of the support he still has. The Indians will have to withdraw. The Chinese too,” he said.

Ven Bruusgaard suggests that Putin’s concerns about his own place in history may deter him.

He also needed approval to launch it from either Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu or Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

“The military impact is unpredictable and may be very dangerous for Russia,” he said, given that NATO or the United States may feel responsible for entering into conflict directly.

“That’s the exact scenario that Russia is trying to avoid,” he said.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)


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