Sep 30, 2022,08:36am EDT
Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed four occupied Ukrainian regions on Friday and has vowed to defend Russian territory by any means necessary, including using nuclear weapons, a drastic escalation that has sparked global outrage and ignited fears of a potential nuclear war.
While it’s hard to predict the specific details of a Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine, experts told Forbes that Moscow would most likely deploy tactical nuclear weapons— short-range devices designed for use on the battlefield—against troops or to destroy a logistics hub.
Tactical nuclear weapons are much smaller than the strategic long-range warheads designed to destroy cities, but power is relative—the largest tactical weapons can be as big as 100 kilotons (1 kiloton equals 1,000 tons of TNT)—the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima was 15 kilotons—and Dr. Rod Thornton, a security expert at King’s College London, told Forbes they can still be devastating.
Putin would be highly unlikely to target a Ukrainian city in an initial strike and would possibly avoid casualties altogether, Thornton said, explaining that a nuclear attack would mostly be a symbolic “signaling device” for Moscow to show it is serious and is willing to defend itself.
Predicting possible targets is difficult, Thornton said, though he floated Snake Island, a Black Sea outpost taken by Russia early in the war that has since been retaken and become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, as one Putin could have in mind.
The impact of a nuclear strike depends a lot on what type of weapon is used, how and where it is used and the conditions at the time, but even a low yield nuclear bomb could have far-reaching consequences, with radiation from the blast causing long-term health problems for survivors and radioactive fallout contaminating the environment and possibly drifting across Europe and Asia.
Radioactive fallout is a poor way to make the kind of statement Russia would want to make and could possibly backfire by drifting over Russia or unite people or nations against them, Thornton said, adding that Moscow would probably use a weapon designed to minimize fallout.
“On many fronts, Putin is under pressure,” Thornton told Forbes, pointing to losses in Ukraine, protests at home over mobilization and continued international opposition. “The more desperate Putin becomes, the more he’s pushed on the back foot, the more likely it becomes that a nuclear weapon is used,” he added. Choosing to use a nuclear weapon could pose new problems for Putin at home, Thornton said, and possibly spark opposition from the military or other key figures unwilling to escalate matters and possibly push NATO into directly supporting Ukraine.
Putin formally annexed four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine on Friday. The Kremlin says Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia backed joining Russia in a string of referendums held this week. The votes were widely viewed as a clear pretext for annexation and they have been widely denounced as an illegitimate “sham”, including by long standing allies of Moscow like Kazakhstan. UN chief Antonio Guterres on Thursday condemned Putin’s plans to annex the regions as a flagrant violation of international law and a “dangerous escalation.” The move follows Putin’s decision to order an immediate “partial mobilization” of Russian forces last week to shore up the flagging invasion, which triggered angry protests across the country and an exodus of people fleeing to neighboring countries to escape possible conscription. Putin said Moscow would defend its territory—which it says now includes the annexed regions—using all means at its disposal, including with nuclear weapons. Though he has threatened the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine many times before, Putin insisted he was not bluffing and other nations are treating the threat seriously.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and now the deputy chair of the country’s security council, has said the U.S. and its NATO allies are too afraid of a “nuclear apocalypse” to directly intervene in Ukraine, even if Moscow used nuclear weapons. It’s not clear how the rest of the world might respond. Putin’s comments have prompted India and China to break their long silence on the war in Ukraine and voice concern. NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg warned of “severe consequences” for Russia if it uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine, echoing private warnings of “catastrophic consequences” from Washington. A retaliatory nuclear strike is possible but would mark a dramatic and dangerous escalation. More likely is a “devastating” NATO response using conventional weapons, said Zbigniew Rau, Poland’s foreign minister.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
A Russian nuclear attack would be unlikely to take the West completely by surprise, Thornton told Forbes. There would probably be a lot of “background noise” and “signals chatter” between various government and defense agencies that would be picked up by Western listening stations if Russia was planning to go nuclear, he explained. If the West did pick up on signals pointing towards a nuclear attack, Thornton said there would be a “massive increase in the diplomatic pressure put on Russia” to change course. There would also be significant diplomatic pressure on countries like China and India to take a stronger stance against Russia, he added, which could have more sway given Moscow’s reliance on them for energy exports.
5,977. That’s how many nuclear warheads Russia has, according to an estimate by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). Around 1,500 are retired and due to be dismantled, the organization says. Most of the remaining warheads are strategic—larger weapons that can be used over long distances—and the rest are smaller tactical weapons. Russia is believed to have more nuclear weapons than any other country. It is followed by the U.S., which has an estimated 5,428 warheads, according to FAS, and the two together have approximately 90% of all nuclear warheads. Seven other countries are known or widely believed to possess nuclear weapons: China (350), France (290), the U.K. (225), Pakistan (165), India (160), Israel (90) and North Korea (20).