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Would Russia Dare Use Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine?

Tactical Nuclear Weapons
US Military B-61 nuclear weapon. Image Credit: US DOD.

Would Russia launch a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine? Many military analysts and policymakers have thought about this contingency with the Russian invasion going very badly. Russia, after all, has the most nuclear warheads in the world.

Tactical Nuclear Strikes

Normally, a military would use a tactical nuclear strike to break a battlefield stalemate—existing or potential—and tip the scale in its favor.

A tactical nuclear weapon can destroy even the best prepared defensive line at a moment’s notice. Although tactical nuclear weapons have less power than the atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they still pack an explosive power of approximately 5,000 tons of TNT.

Normally, a military would use a tactical nuclear strike to break a battlefield stalemate and tip the scale.

For example, during the Cold War, the Fulda Gap between West and East Germany offered ideal ground for armored warfare. In the event of a war between the U.S. and NATO, the Soviet Union was planning on pouring its tank and mechanized infantry formations through the Fulda Gap to attack Western Europe.

Recognizing the threat, the U.S. had placed seven brigades to guard the 31-mile gap. Even if the Soviets sent masses of tanks and mechanized infantry, the NATO forces could delay them long enough to allow for reinforcements to arrive or to prepare other defensive positions in the rear.

But a tactical nuclear strike would obliterate the NATO forces guarding the gap and allow the Warsaw Pact divisions to pass. Further, since the strike would be tactical in nature, NATO would be less likely to respond with a strategic nuclear attack, which would cause a nuclear war and the mutual destruction of both warring parties.

In a sense, tactical nuclear weapons are intended to let a country have its cake and eat it too.

A Nuclear Attack to Break the Save Face? 

Early into the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin put his nuclear forces on high alert in response to the military aid the U.S., NATO, and the European Union sent Ukraine and the unprecedented wave of sanctions that the U.S. and its allies unleashed. The move also had a domestic flavor, as Putin wanted to appear tough and capable to the Russian people and balance his miscalculation in Ukraine.

“So, on the nuclear question. . . what I would tell you is we’ve seen Mr. Putin’s announcement. We believe it’s as unnecessary as it is escalatory. But we’re reviewing and analyzing that announcement,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby had said after Putin raised Russia’s nuclear posture.

The U.S. saw through Putin’s motives and didn’t raise its strategic deterrence posture.

“And I would only just tell you that as we continue to review and analyze and monitor that Secretary Austin is comfortable with the strategic deterrent posture of the United States and our ability to defend the homeland, our allies, and our partners,” the Pentagon spokesperson added.

“We believe that this is not only an unnecessary step for him to take but an escalatory one, unnecessary because Russia has not ever been under threat by the west or by NATO and certainly wasn’t under any threat by Ukraine. And escalatory because it is clearly potentially putting at play forces that could that if there’s a miscalculation could make things much, much more dangerous,” a senior Pentagon official had said.

But that doesn’t mean that the Russian leader might not resort to a tactical nuclear strike to save face.

More than a month has passed since the first Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine and the Russian military has failed to achieve any of its primary objectives. The war is going so bad for Moscow that the Russian military has changed its goals, relinquishing the capture of Kyiv and focusing on eastern Ukraine and the Donbas. Should the Russian military fails to make any considerable gains in its publicly stated goals in the Donbas, Putin and his advisers would have nothing to fall back onto.

But a tactical nuclear strike—most likely justified with some sort of outlandish excuse, including a false flag operation—would give Putin a way out.

Russian Nuclear Capabilities 

When it comes to nuclear weapons, the Russian military is the most powerful in the world. Moscow has approximately 6,400 nuclear warheads. In comparison, the U.S. military can field 5,800 nuclear warheads.

The Russian nuclear arsenal is managed by the Strategic Rocket Forces, a distinct branch of the Russian military that controls the country’s nuclear triad—the ground, naval, and air components.

On the ground, the Russian military has about 310intercontinental ballistic missiles that can carry up to 1,189 nuclear warheads.

In the sea, the Russian nuclear deterrence is focused on about ten Delta- and Borei-class submarines, with each packing 16 submarine-launched ballistic missiles that have several warheads each. In total, the Russian nuclear maritime force can launch about 624 nuclear warheads.

Finally, in the air, the Russia’s Aerospace Force has between 50 and 70 strategic bombers—Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95MS Bear—that each can carry from 12 to 16 AS-15 cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads.

1945’s New Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business InsiderSandboxx, and SOFREP.

1945’s Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist with specialized expertise in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Peace-making nukes of US arsenal

    April 2, 2022 at 5:49 pm

    Use of nukes MUST be seriously contemplated if Russia wants to stop NATO in its tracks.

    Ukraine is Stalingrad once more.The evil fascist menace must be halted in its advance.

    NATO has secret plans to INTERVENE in ukraine before midterm elections occur in US otherwise Biden very likely would face a total wipeout.

    Biden and NATO reckon that sending massive arms shipments to zelensky coupled with all kinds of crazy sanctions will weaken Russian forces making them right for slaughter soon

    As such, Russia must employ nuke-tipped kinzhals to stop the dreaded evil fascists before they could flesh out their plans. Give ’em HELL.

  2. Ulf Larsen

    April 2, 2022 at 6:29 pm

    You may be right that Ukraine is Stalingrad over again, but with the positions interchanged…

    During the siege of Stalingrad, the defenders were right to fight against the invading German Wehrmacht. So is true today – the defenders have a moral right to defend their homeland against the invaders from Russia.

    Will Russia use tactical nuclear weapons? They may, but hopefully Putin will be stopped if he so order, and if not, taken from office afterwards. The world opinion should not be kind to him if he is breaking the taboo that rightly has been on using nuclear weapons since the end of the second world war.

  3. Vladolph Putler

    April 2, 2022 at 9:06 pm

    Tacnukes in an offensive war against a weaker neighbor after a dramatically poor showing of conventional force…Russian bullies could never again engage in nuclear sabre rattling without seriously risking the full wrath of a preemptive strike. Which would be politically and morally justifiable in such context.

    “Escalate to deescalate” is an interesting theory, but ignores the unpredictable realities of consequence.

    No, Alex, your team lost. As I stated before, Russia cannot win, but it can absolutely lose harder. Kinda like mining the bodies of hastily executed civilians in Bucha. Such tactics harden the resolve of Russia’s enemies, and makes them more numerous.

    Best thing Russia could do for itself right now, is say: “Oops. That was a big mistake. Very very sorry. Won’t do it again.” Will they? Of course not. And that wedgie that they got languishing outside Kyiv, can now turn into a vigorous boot in the rear as payment for the stupidity. Unless Russia is very VERY lucky. Which so far, doesn’t *appear* to be the case.

  4. LeftofCanuk

    April 2, 2022 at 11:43 pm

    To answer the question “Would Russia dare to use tactical nukes?” one only has to review the past six weeks. Would it dare to openly commit genocide, bomb hospitals and kintergardens, conduct massive deportations – in short, violate every international treaty, convention and charter that governs the conduct of warfare? Russia will dare anything unless the consequences are clear, unambiguous, spelled out and backed by a credible resolve that has been lacking to date. The Western world has been openly cowed by Russia’s red lines, which has allowed this atrocity to unfold. It is past time to draw clear red lines which go beyond “territorial” interests but include the values democracies are built on. One such red line must be: one single nuke, and you bake! If the line is not drawn now, the threat will be used until it is drawn, after untold more civilians are slaughtered to a madman’s delusion.

  5. Jacky

    April 3, 2022 at 1:18 am

    Ukraine has paid a heavy, a VERY HEAVY price for zelenskiyy’s ignominous hubris and NATO & US’s utter ruthlessness in pursuing full-court press for its desired political-military domination in europe.

    But do the war gnomes in washington and brussels care? As far as they’re concerned, ukrainians are fully expendable. Hey, there’s plenty more of these expendables.

    While ukrainians sweat blood, biden and stoltenberg and co are planning their NEXT MOVE, which is to move against moscow, wrongly or stupidly thinking russia is now kaput.

    What russia needs to do now is observe movements of military supplies and men to ukraine and at the right time, hit Lviv (western gateway of UKR) with a nuke-tipped kinzhal.

    Then, let’s see whether biden and stoltenberg have the balls to reply.

    An all-out nuclear exchange will wipe out the caucasian powers and allow asian nuke powers to claim the high mountain of geopolitical greatness-could this be the very deep secret wish of biden all this while ?

    We know asians paid doughboy hunter millions & millions in tax-free greenbacks and biden is thus indebted to them. It all makes sense.

  6. Alex

    April 3, 2022 at 6:16 pm

    You can write whatever you want, but at the moment there is only one truth: Russia did not use nuclear weapons, and the United States used nuclear weapons on peaceful cities. You’re just impossible to argue.

  7. Stefan Stackhouse

    April 4, 2022 at 11:03 am

    Has anyone even considered the possibility that the Russian forces are withdrawing from Kyiv because a nuclear strike is being planned? Try to put yourself in Putin’s mind: 1) Assume that a Ukraine that remains unassimilated in the Russian Empire 2.0 (and that now actually hates it) remains an existential threat to that empire, and 2) Ukraine has proven itself to be too resistant and unconquerable by the conventional Russian forces available, thanks in no small part to the effective and charismatic leadership of Zelenskyy, and 3) the destruction of Kyiv (and Zelenskyy with it) would be a game-changer, and 4) think that a Russian Ukraine with Kyiv in ashes would be preferable to an anti-Russian Ukraine intact. I fear that this is very close to what Putin might actually be thinking. Dark days ahead.

  8. DavidC

    April 4, 2022 at 1:35 pm

    Through Maneuver Warfare, see Operation Desert Storm and WWII (Naazi Germany vs the Soviet Union), Russia is winning the war in Ukraine, it doesn’t have to use nukes. Period. Ukraines fuel infrastructure has been decimated, the Ukrainian army is running out of gas. Stop listening to all the MSM propaganda and neocon psyops.

  9. Al Smith

    April 5, 2022 at 6:00 am

    There are some real objective problems with Russian use of tactical nukes. The first is selecting a worthwhile target. Ukrainian forces seem to be fighting in dispersed operational groups, not in massed formations. So a tactical nuke is unlikely to kill enough of them to justify the political cost. The second problem is the weather. basically, it moves from west to east. So popping a nuke is going to end up blowing the fall out back over both the Russian forces and their clients. Finally, why would the Russians want to irradiate the very objectives they’re trying to capture. There is one, potentailly effective use for nukes. This would be an upper atmosphere detonation that would hammer Ukraine with a massive EMP burst. This would severely degrade Ukrainian communications as well as western media coverage. Overall, it appears that the threat of nukes has more value than their actual use…

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