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How a Tactical Nuclear Weapon Could be Deployed in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin’s mixed signals about whether his invasion of Ukraine could go nuclear and a reported conversation among his military chiefs about atomic weapons have stoked speculation about what Russia might resort to in the war.

The discussion, which took place in Putin’s absence, about when and how Russia might use a tactical nuclear weapon alarmed the Biden administration and Western capitals, according to The New York Times.

There is a cautious consensus among experts that the risk of Russia using nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war is low.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin on the National Unity Day on Red Square, in Moscow on November 4, 2022. He has played down the prospect of Russia using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, although the New York Times has reported his military chiefs discussed using tactical nuclear weapons.
MIKHAIL METZEL/Getty Images

But the military leaders’ alleged conversation came amid frustration at battlefield losses and Putin’s veiled threats about defending four annexed oblasts in Ukraine by “all available means.”

Last week, Putin insisted there was “no need” to employ nuclear weapons.

James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that Russia resorting to nuclear weapons in the future is not impossible.

He told Newsweek: “I assess Russian nuclear use to be very unlikely in the short term, but if things go badly for Russia, I believe it is a possibility.

“We should be modest in our ability to predict what Russian first use would entail. There’s much uncertainty.”

He said in order of increasing forcefulness these would be an underground nuclear test in Russia; an above ground nuclear test in Russia, or a demonstration shot over international waters such as the Black Sea.

The next step up would be a demonstration shot over a sparsely inhabited part of Ukraine and the most forceful move would be battlefield use against Ukrainian forces.

“I don’t claim to know which of these is most likely. Even more escalatory options are possible,” he said, such as attacks against Kyiv or even the United States, “but I think they’re substantially less likely for first use.”

“In any case, even for battlefield use, the goal would be to terrify Ukraine and particularly its partners into backing down or making concessions, not tactical advantage.”

The Pentagon estimates that Russia has as many as 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, which have lower yields and are used at shorter ranges than the warheads carried on intercontinental ballistic missiles. They have never been used in combat and can be deployed a number of ways, including by missile or artillery shell.

Russia has an “escalate to de-escalate” deterrence doctrine and last month the United States Institute of Peace said one option could be for Russia to publicly transfer a nuclear weapon closer to Ukraine or detonate a tactical nuclear weapon offshore as a “demonstration strike.”

This could allow Moscow to “de-escalate” the situation, so it is frozen in place allowing them to keep their forces inside Ukraine for Putin to declare victory.

A strike over the Black Sea has been mooted by some analysts but Patricia Lewis, research director for international security at London’s Chatham House think tank, said this would put Russia’s own fleet at risk.

“A number of countries that they rely on heavily, not least of which is Turkey, would have something to say about that,” she told Newsweek.

Lewis said there was no need for Moscow to send a message of nuclear capability through a demonstration strike because “we already know they can do it.” Regarding a strike on what they call their own territory in Ukraine, “they might do that for example in a city that they’re currently evacuating.”

“But then people in Russia will say ‘why are you nuking your own territory?’ And this is the problem with nuclear weapons, however small you leave behind a radioactive mess.”

Lewis believed another option would be to deploy a nuclear weapon in a rural area further west in Ukraine on the pretext of targeting a nuclear or biological weapon facility that Moscow would say it had to act quickly to thwart.

This would be followed by a pause in fighting and “NATO‘s approach of not responding in kind would allow that to be a different kind of pause,” she said, “what I think they are trying to do is make us all very frightened.”

She described the prospect of Russia resorting to nuclear weapons as “unknown rather than unlikely.”

Pavel Podvig, an analyst based in Geneva where he runs the Russian Nuclear Forces research project, said that in Ukraine forces are dispersed and mobile and so there would be no suitable military targets.

“There is a consensus that the battlefield use of nuclear weapons would be pointless,” he told Newsweek. “The only way nuclear weapons could be used is to send that message of preparedness and readiness to escalate.”

“You could conceivably think of a demonstration strike,” he said, “but then the question is a demonstration of what? The answer is that the demonstration of your readiness to go ahead and kill tens or hundreds of thousands of people, because otherwise it’s not a demonstration of anything

“Unless the message is there that we are prepared to follow up with an attack on cities, on civilians” he said, “this demonstration would be totally ineffective.”

On Friday, the Group of Seven (G7) countries warned that Moscow would face “severe consequences” if it used any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, but the deterrent could also come from within Putin’s own military.

“I think it is difficult to imagine that Putin would kind of summon generals and tell them ‘look, we are going ahead and we’re just going ahead with this kind of a plan, we are killing ten or hundreds of thousands of people,'” said Podvig.

“It’s not that they would necessarily disobey the direct orders. But you could imagine that’s a difficult order to give and they could have their opinions about the wisdom of that move.”

Newsweek has contacted the Kremlin for comment.

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