Tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, rhetoric or real threat?

The Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine has accelerated in the last week, when two months have passed since the beginning of the invasion and the symbolic date of May 9 is approaching. That day, Russia celebrates Victory Day over the German army in World War II and in Moscow it was pointed out as a possible milestone in the war against Ukraine, with some important triumphant announcement by President Vladimir Putin in Red Square. However, and although the Russian advance continues in the area of ​​Donbas and southern Ukraine, the billions of dollars added by the United States to military aid to Ukraine and the announcement of the shipment of battle tanks with anti-aircraft and artillery capabilities heavy by Germany and other countries predict a still long war and a greater attrition which may be impossible for the Russian army to take on.

This week, Russia successfully tested an RS-28 Sarmat ballistic missile, also known in NATO terminology as satan 2. The missile was fired from the Plesetsk cosmodrome, on the shores of the White Sea, and hit a target at the Kura military range, in Kamchatka, eastern Russia and more than 6,000 kilometers away. This intercontinental missile, capable of carrying up to fifteen nuclear warheads, was presented by Putin four years ago as one of the most powerful weapons in the Russian arsenalcapable of destroying a target anywhere on the planet.

While the successful test of Satan 2 raises the tension many notches in a world where regular atomic containment agreements seem like nothing more than a myth of the past, the main threat at the moment lies in tactical nuclear weaponswhose use had not weighed realistically in the strategic plans of the great powers since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia could have two thousand weapons of this type, which have a much shorter range and can be used to eliminate specific strongholds of resistance, columns of tanks and stationary units of the enemy army. They can also annihilate population areas and the command and decision posts of the opponent. One of these tactical weapons could, in this sense, behead the Ukrainian government and give an unexpected turn to the war in a matter of hours.

Russia could have two thousand tactical nuclear weapons

The first nuclear alarm on the armed conflict in Ukraine was given by Putin on February 27, just three days after the invasion began. The head of state ordered to put “the containment forces of the Russian Army in a special mode of combat duty.” That contingent includes precisely the Russian nuclear weapons. Two months after the start of the war, he was again blunt: “If someone, I want to underline, intends to interfere in ongoing events and create unacceptable strategic threats to Russia, we will respond with lightning and devastating attacks.”

The threat of using atomic weapons by Russia has been taken as a display of empty rhetoric by the Ukrainian government, as Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba said, for whom the statements made by Putin and other members of the Russian leadership they are just a boast and a sign that “Moscow feels the defeat in the Ukraine”.

But after the Russian Foreign Minister, Serguei Lavrov, also insisted this week that the danger of a nuclear war “is serious and real”, a more specific question hovers over decision-making centers in Washington, London and Brussels, albeit At the moment an unbelievable hypothesis: What should be the Western response to a Russian tactical nuclear attack on Ukraine? Would it immediately lead to an irremediable nuclear escalation or are other forms of containment planned in the face of a warlike development of these characteristics?

Tactical nuclear weapons have a destructive force ranging from 1 kiloton to 50 kilotons

Tactical nuclear weapons figured in the basic combat manuals of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact throughout the Cold War as part of the plans to advance rapidly into enemy territory and rule out the use of strategic atomic bombs, with greater capacity for destruction. . tactical nukes they have a destructive force that ranges between a kiloton and 50 kilotons (although there are some up to one hundred kilotons). The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was around fifteen kilotons.

There is no clear roadmap for the direction to be followed if one of the opposing parties uses a tactical nuclear warhead in a specific theater of operations, especially since at the moment there is no single command in Europe that can make that decision. In times of the Cold War, the so-called “balance of terror” that guaranteed peace considered the use of atomic bombs as an issue to be avoided, since the result seemed obvious: “total mutually assured destruction”, another of the concepts of the time.

The war in the Ukraine seems to have put an end to these considerations. There are two leaders, Putin and US President Joe Biden, Ukraine’s main ally, who have demonstrated on several occasions since the conflict began. his intention to see the enemy kneeling and unarmed. The panorama is very worrying in this sense, since the rhetoric of war has in some cases surpassed that expressed in the thirteen days of the Crisis of the Soviet missiles taken to Cuba, which, in 1962, brought the world to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe. .

Ukraine does not belong to NATO and article 5 could not be invoked

It is not only Russia that has in its documents on nuclear deterrence, the last of 2020, the forecast of using atomic weapons in the event that its “survival” is at stake. Biden himself has signed a memorandum that contemplates the use of atomic weapons by the United States in response to a nuclear or chemical attack. What would happen, for example, if Russia attacked a military target in the Ukraine, for example, the Azovstal iron and steel plant in Mariupol, where hundreds or perhaps thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are still holding out and which prevents effective Russian control of that Black Sea city? ? Ukraine does not belong to NATO and article 5 could not be invoked. But what would be the reaction of Washington and Brussels, which have promised endlessly to carry out the defense of Ukraine in the framework of a conventional war?

And under what conditions would Putin be willing to use a weapon that would surely give him a devastating superiority over the Ukrainian army? Russia’s survival does not appear to be at stake, but would Putin use such weapons to ensure his own political survival? And a key question that is independent of the response that the United States and NATO could give to the detonation of one of these nuclear warheads: What would be China’s reaction? This is one of the greatest risks that Moscow could have when using a nuclear weapon of any kind. It seems unlikely that Beijing would continue to back Moscow, even indirectly. The example of the use of a weapon of this type would put China in an unacceptable commitment. The tense rivalry between its neighbors India and Pakistan, and China’s own differences with New Delhi, with the possibility that one of these devices could be detonated on the borders of the Himalayas, make China’s acquiescence unlikely with such a decision on the part of China. Moscow in the Ukraine and possibly lead to a clean break with its Russian partners.

Sergei Karagánov, who was an adviser to Putin and President Boris Yeltsin, said in a recent interview with the Indian digital newspaper The Statesman that, for the Russian elite, the war in Ukraine is “an existential war” and, therefore, “Putin cannot afford a defeat”. Karaganov, honorary chairman of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, one of Russia’s leading think tanks, said that looking at the history of US nuclear strategy, it seemed unlikely that Washington would defend Europe, let alone Ukraine, with atomic weapons. However, he specified, in this conflict “there is the possibility of a military escalation and that is an abysmal scenario. I am confident that some kind of peace agreement can be reached between us and the United States, and between us and Ukraine, before further progress is made in that dangerous direction.”.


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