Putin’s final step: the nuclear threat

During the announcement of the “partial mobilization”, Putin threatened Ukraine and the whole world with nuclear weapons, which the Russian Federation had put on high alert in the first days of the full-scale invasion.

This Putin’s address became a continuation of his usual tactics of using nuclear weapons – for him, it remains a tool of pressure and control over world powers. However, this time, assurances about the use of all possible means to “protect Russia’s territory” are taking place against the background of heavy defeats of the Russian Federation on the military front.

The inability to advance to new positions and achieve significant military success on the ground for the “second army” of the world, as well as the recruitment of new fighters, are indicators of the deep crisis in which Russia appeared. Another detail – Putin’s threats are made against the background of pseudo-referendums on the annexation of the occupied eastern and southern territories of Ukraine and their accession to the Russian Federation, where >90% of the population supposedly “voted for”. Such “results” lead to the formalized annexation of Ukrainian territories, while President Putin claims he is ready to defend the “territorial integrity” of the regions “by all means.” In such a way he implied that Russia would use tactical nuclear weapons when Ukraine comes close to re-capturing lands of occupied Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk or Luhansk regions meaning capturing the biggest cities in those areas which would be considered as total shame for Putin’s regime.

Pseudo-referendums and nuclear threats are aimed at the same goal – inflicting a psychological shock on opponents, Ukraine and its Western partners, which would hinder the further advance of Ukrainian troops, as well as divert the leadership of Western states from humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine.

Nuclear blackmail has always been an effective element of Russia’s diplomacy tool in recent decades. One of the reasons why Ukraine and Georgia were refused NATO membership, the same reason for the absence of a strong reaction to the annexation of Crimea and other territories, one of the bricks of confidence for the invasion of Ukraine. It seems that Russia still lives with the illusion of its ability to intimidate NATO countries using the old tactic.

The modern Russian nuclear doctrine of “escalation for the sake of de-escalation” was formed and consolidated due to a long history of lenience toward Russia, and eras of relationships reconstruction with the country, whose appetites only grew larger with time. An urge to confirm the seriousness of his intentions and the importance of preventing final defeat pushes Putin to raise the stakes. However, there are a number of objective reasons for which the very possibility of using nuclear weapons is called into question.

The use of nuclear weapons by Russia will change the security balance in the world, under such conditions, a possible scenario for the end of the war will include the denuclearization of the Russian Federation and a change in its regime. Such action will undoubtedly undermine Russia’s position on the international stage, especially from the side of “neutral countries” – India, and Brazil, and may deprive it of the support of its most valuable ally – China altogether. The West, in its turn, will have the opportunity to remove all restrictions on the supply of various types of weapons to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.

Despite the possible repercussions, the risks of using nuclear weapons also exist. One of these can be the return of popular support through a show of force, creating the illusion of omnipotence even in the face of the enemy. Further front-line losses of the Russian army and the approach of its complete defeat may also lead to agony and despair for Putin and his aides, which are capable of pushing them into a fatal error.

In this case, according to experts, the most likely option is the use of tactical nuclear weapons. In addition to a simpler approval mechanism compared to strategic nuclear weapons (which require verification by the president, the chief of the general staff, and the secretary of defense), their low power blurs the line between conventional and nuclear weapons.

Tactical nuclear weapons are nuclear warheads, delivery systems, and munitions designed to engage targets on the battlefield or to deliver a limited strike at close range. The equivalent of tactical nuclear bombs typically ranges from a kiloton to hundreds of kilotons. Accordingly, such weapons are used at a closer distance – as artillery shells, and warheads for cruise and ballistic missiles. It does not have such a wide blast radius as the strategic one. It can be fired from a cannon or dropped from an airplane. It has a relatively small charge, smaller than that of the Hiroshima bomb, which is considered very small compared to modern nuclear arsenals. The power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was approximately thirteen kilotons. This is thirteen thousand tons in TNT equivalent.

Some tactical nuclear warheads are three, four, or five kilotons. They would be rather used to destroy a target like a dam or a bridge. Such a projectile will kill a significant number of people nearby and cause a lot of symbolic damage. Crossing the nuclear threshold is very serious, but it is completely different from the use of strategic nuclear weapons.

Currently, according to SIPRI, Russia has up to 1,912 tactical nuclear warheads with a capacity of up to 100 kilotons and quite a variety of means of delivery of these warheads, including Operational-tactical missile systems, cruise missiles and even the S-300 missile system, which are widely used by Russia in the war against Ukraine. Accordingly, the possibility and risk of using prohibited weapons remain high.

Ukraine takes Putin’s threats very seriously because it is the Ukrainian people, who feel all the impunity and insanity of the Russian leadership through the numerous victims and destruction. President Zelenskyi stated that he does not consider Putin’s nuclear threats to be a bluff, and the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Oleksiy Danilov, assures that the Ukrainian authorities have already prepared instructions specifically for the use of tactical nuclear weapons. The population of Ukraine also feels the tension and is preparing for all possible options – the mass media and social networks are actively spreading information on how to protect themselves from nuclear attacks, and the State Emergency Service recently completed testing its emergency notification system about various types of threats.

The Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine assesses the threat of Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine as “very high.” “The strikes will likely target areas along the front lines where a large number of personnel and equipment are deployed, as well as important command centers and critical infrastructure. To stop them, we need not only anti-aircraft but also anti-missile systems,” said Intelligence Directorate’s representative Vadim Skibitskyi.

The use of tactical nuclear weapons in missiles is considered one of the likeliest options. However, if Ukrainian air defense has learned how to shoot down Kh-101 cruise missiles effectively, the elimination of others (Kh-22, Iskander) is more difficult and Ukraine needs more powerful systems to destroy them.

If Putin does not hold to objective reasons, as happened in the case of the invasion of Ukraine and the start of a military campaign against a sovereign state, there are still ways to stop him.

An effective mechanism for deterring the use of tactical nuclear weapons by the Russian Federation is a decisive and clear response from Ukraine’s partners, in particular the United States, to such statements. Russia must be convinced that any steps with the use of nuclear power will have “catastrophic consequences” not only in words, but also in actions. The response of the international community should involve greater losses for Russia than those it considers permissible and which it expects. Therefore, the threat to the Black Sea or Baltic Fleet is significant, but not decisive. The direct threat to the physical and political existence of Putin and his immediate circle of persons is also one of the ways to show the seriousness of the consequences of his actions. The arrest and confiscation of Russian assets abroad, which amount to more than $300 billion, in favor of Ukraine could also be a considerable signal from the West, that would remind Putin and his aides that not only the reserves of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation are under attack, but their own wealth is about to disappear. In the case of the use of nuclear weapons messages of concern and veiled threats have no real force and are not perceived by Russia with due attention.

If the world community fails to convincingly demonstrate the repercussions of nuclear blackmail to Putin’s regime, the only resort available would be to hope for the disobedience of the military personnel responsible for the direct launch of the warhead. It is worth noting, that the use of tactical nuclear weapons, unlike mass nuclear weapons, requires a long chain of coordinated actions, which can be detected and warned with proper intelligence by Ukraine’s partners.

“Tactical ammunition is not in the military. It has to be taken from a centralized storage warehouse, transported, carriers have to be prepared and loaded, and the military must be briefed ahead. It is a long chain, and at each stage, there may be doubts about whether we really want it. All of it is tracked. The U.S. intelligence and NATO will quickly discover it,” said Maxim Starchak, an expert on Russian nuclear weapons.

Although history has already witnessed moments when humanity was on the verge of a possible nuclear war, and saw the officers capable of breaking the protocol, leaving the fate of the future of the world and its security to the will of luck would be one of the riskiest and most irresponsible decisions of the international community. The world must understand that such an important issue as the use of nuclear weapons cannot go unpunished or ignored. And, therefore, decisive action here and now, helping Ukraine now, and not later, is the most valuable contribution to international security in general and for all.