When Russia first revealed previously secret details of its nuclear weapons doctrine in 2020, it confirmed what US war planners had long suspected: Moscow would be willing to use nuclear weapons to avoid losing a conventional war.
But as Putin’s army met fierce opposition from Ukrainian forces, bolstered by large infusions of Western weaponry, concerns have grown in Washington and allied capitals that Russia may consider using a so-called tactical nuclear weapon to gain the upper hand on the battlefield to win.
Such weapons, which generally have a less powerful warhead than a strategic nuclear weapon carried on an ICBM, were part of Cold War military thinking, although they were never included in past arms control agreements between the US and Russia or the Soviet Union Union.
The move would aim to break Ukraine’s will to fight, turn the tide of the war or signal that current Western support – including the transfer of anti-tank and air defense systems – is intolerable, Russian and Western analysts say.
The first use of a nuclear weapon since the US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II would likely result in major damage and radioactive contamination to every Ukrainian city hit — and perhaps more, depending on winds and other factors. It would also present Washington and Europe with a major security test.
“We don’t know exactly where it is, the red line where the Russian leadership is considering using tactical nuclear weapons,” said Petr Topychkanov, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “The Russian leadership knows the value of ambiguity.”
Further complicating efforts to predict Mr. Putin’s actions, according to Topychkanov, is that it is difficult to assess the nature of decision-making in the Kremlin. “The biggest question is how sane the Russian leadership is at the moment,” he said. “I don’t know what kind of information he’s getting.”
In the days leading up to the invasion, Mr Putin led an exercise by Russia’s strategic forces and launched some of the country’s most advanced missiles, such as the Kinzhal hypersonic missile. At the start of the invasion, he warned of consequences “unlike you have seen in history” if the West intervened.
Days later, he raised concerns and ordered his military to ensure the “special combat readiness” of his nuclear forces.
While those threats were an open allusion to nuclear war, they have failed to define exactly where Russia’s red lines lie, observers of Russia’s nuclear policy say, giving Mr Putin more leeway to escalate threats if he deems it necessary or even to strike.
The point of a tactical nuclear strike to end a conventional conflict, based on the doctrine known as “escalate to de-escalate,” is to change the rules of the battlefield while shifting the burden of escalation to your opponent, Elbridge said Colby, co-founder of the Marathon Initiative, a political initiative focused on competition between great powers.
“Putin could use a smaller warhead to protect what his conventional forces are doing,” he said. “Ukrainians may be the target, but the real political target would be the US and the West.”
At the height of Cold War tensions, the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons was never a direct threat to the US, but since the fall of the USSR, American attempts to establish controls have been rebuffed by the Russians, according to a congressional report released earlier this year.
Russia relied heavily on nuclear weapons, including non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons, in its military thinking, largely due to the decay of Russian forces following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since Mr Putin’s military modernization in 2008, nuclear weapons have remained a military staple, giving Moscow some sense of equality with the US
At the same time, its stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons has remained high at 1,000 to 2,000 warheads, while the US has just over 200, of which around 100 are in Europe, the congressional report said.
Despite active signals, Russia has rejected the idea of using nuclear weapons. Mr Putin’s spokesman said on CNN that Moscow would only use them if there was an existential threat, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on state TV: “We are dealing with this issue very responsibly, we never escalate.”
On the one hand, while the US has made it clear that it does not want to cross any nuclear red lines in Ukraine — and even canceled a routine test launch of an Air Force Minuteman III missile to avoid escalating nuclear tensions with Russia — Washington has the presence signaled its nuclear-capable forces in Europe this month.
Weeks before the Russian invasion, the US sent B-52 strategic bombers to exercises with British and European air forces.
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“There is already some kind of signaling in Europe,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
While tactical nuclear weapons could unleash larger and more powerful strategic weapons in response, Mr. Kristensen said it would not mean immediate all-out nuclear war.
“I don’t think there’s a likelihood of automatic, super-rapid escalation going all out,” he said. “Both sides will want to look for ways to contain it because they both know full well what the consequences of full escalation are.”
Analysts said Ukraine would be the most likely target for a tactical nuclear strike, but an escalation thereafter would be difficult to predict, especially if NATO got involved.
“You cannot imagine that NATO would just stand by and do nothing about it using nuclear weapons for the first time in 80 years,” Mr. Kristensen said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned against letting the war in Ukraine slide into a nuclear conflict and urged Russia to stop its nuclear rhetoric.
“Russia needs to stop its nuclear saber-rattling,” Mr Stoltenberg said ahead of a summit of leaders of the western military alliance in Brussels last week. “Any use of nuclear weapons will fundamentally change the nature of the conflict, and Russia must understand that nuclear war should never be fought and it can never win nuclear war.”
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