Would Russia Dare to Use Nuclear Weapons? – Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his generals to put Russia’s nuclear weapons systems on alert. While it is not likely that Russia would use strategic nuclear-equipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), he could order the employment of a low-yield, tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine. Russia certainly has a numbers advantage with these devices.
It is believed that Russia has around 1,912 battlefield nuclear weapons in reserve. The United States maintains only an estimated 100 to 150 low-yield B61 nuclear gravity bombs deployed in Europe that would be available for use by NATO.
Putin potentially warned during his announcement of the invasion of Ukraine that the nuclear option was on the table.
“No matter who tries to stand in our way or…create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history,” he said.
Putin Is Ready to Escalate
Putin may try to claim that he is justified in using nuclear weapons in the theater because of the forces that NATO is repositioning in Poland, Romania, and the Baltics – troop and military hardware deployments he thinks are threatening Russia.
He has also alluded to financial sanctions against his country as a reason to escalate the nuclear threats. So, it is likely that his use of heated words about nuclear weapons could intimidate NATO, and especially the United States, and force them to resist intervening in Ukraine.
Would Russia Do It? Nuclear Analysts Are Divided
Some nuclear experts are not sure Putin would take such a drastic step and believe this is Putin boasting unnecessarily.
Matthew Bunn, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, explained his skeptical point of view to Vox News on February 27. “I think there is virtually no chance nuclear weapons are going to be used in the Ukraine situation.” The main reason, Bunn said, is that “the United States and its NATO allies have made it clear that they will not send troops to Ukraine. Without the threat of military intervention, Putin has little reason to use his nuclear weapons, especially since Russia has a staggering numbers advantage over the Ukrainian military.”
But other analysts are less certain and fear that this potential escalation from Putin must be taken seriously. A former British general believes that ICBMs, in addition to lower-yield weapons, are on the table.
General Sir Richard Barrons told Sky News, that there is an international strategic threat. “Putin has raised the stakes – he’s started to insinuate nuclear weapons at a global level. This means the sort of equipment (like) an intercontinental ballistic missile – that means it reaches from Russia to the United States and obviously into Europe.”
Russia Has Battlefield Delivery Mechanisms
Barrons believes that Russia can mount a small nuclear device on a battlefield 203mm 27C artillery shell that would have one kiloton warhead (1,000 tons of TNT equivalent) with a range of 22-miles. The Russians also have the nuclear-capable land-attack Iskander ballistic missile with a range of 310-miles. Conventionally-armed Iskanders have already been launched from Belarus into Ukraine on February 27.
Escalation Is Part of Russian Nuclear Strategy
One of the most dangerous aspects of Putin potentially preparing for the use of nuclear weapons is the chance of mistakes, accidents, or miscalculations. Some of which happened during the Cold War and led to brinkmanship. Putin could also test a low-yield nuclear weapon to display his willingness to use a device. This would likely freeze the war in place and allow the Russians to further consolidate and hold more Ukrainian territory.
This strategic concept is known as “escalate to de-escalate” a doctrine that aims to paralyze NATO and the United States in fear that nuclear Armageddon could occur. This chance of a nuclear exchange could force Ukraine to sue for peace in terms advantageous to the Kremlin.
The potential threatened use of battlefield nuclear weapons by Russia is likely the main way that Putin will keep the United States and its NATO partners from deploying troops into Ukraine to help against Russia. This is Moscow’s deterrence strategy, and the West should take Putin at face value, even though he is becoming increasingly unhinged with his public statements.
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, Ph.D., is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.