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What Happens If Russia Uses Chemical or Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine?

Trinity nuclear weapons test. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Trinity nuclear weapons test. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Is Russia out of military options in Ukraine?

The symbolic chess board is looking bleak. It’s like Russia has lost its queen, two rooks, and two bishops. It will be forced to fight on with only knights and rooks. Vladimir Putin is clearly backed into a corner. He has tried firing generals. Attacks on civilians have only hardened Ukrainian resolve. Anti-tank weapons have decimated Russia’s armored forces. Troops are on the run, leaving tanks, artillery, and armored personnel carriers behind. The main question is what is next for Russia militarily?

Would He Really Do It?

The answer could come down to weapons of mass destruction if Putin is considering the unthinkable. A chemical attack is possible, but this could blow back over the Russian border and endanger his own citizens or its own troops, even though Russia used chemical weapons in Chechnya. Putin has been willing to use biological weapons against enemies, but these have been limited to individuals that have run afoul of the regime. But a broader use of biological agents against a larger number of people is plausible.

Some are pondering whether Putin would order a nuclear attack. This could come in the fashion of a battlefield nuclear weapon. Again, Russia would have to worry about the fallout coming from the explosion drifting onto Russian soldiers, pro-Russian separatists, and Russian citizens.

Ukraine Would Fight Harder

It is not clear how effective a tactical nuclear weapon would be. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would rally his troops even more after the attack, and they would be motivated to furiously fight to the death after the initial round of casualties. Zelenskyy would have the world’s support and even more arms would travel to Kyiv.

Send the Heavy Military Hardware

What could NATO do? Despite such an awful act of war, this would not trigger an Article V retaliatory military action from the alliance since Ukraine is not a member. But NATO would probably loosen the restrictions of major end items going to Ukraine such as main battle tanks like the German Leopard and fighter jets such as the American F-16. NATO could also mass troops and materiel around the borders of Russia spoiling for an attack if Moscow opted to use WMDs.

Does Allied Leadership Have the Resolve?

Are we talking a third world war here if the worst happens? Not exactly. President Joe Biden has not shown he is willing to escalate even when Russia was attacking civilians in unending air strikes. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is also known for caution and the wish to prevent escalation.

Testing a Nuclear Weapon

One thing Russia could do is to create some type of false flag use of chemical weapons to make it look like Ukraine did the attack and then escalate to its own use of chemical weapons. It could also test a battlefield nuclear weapon to show that Russia means business and is not scared of the global consequences. A nuclear test could give Moscow time to re-deploy troops and restore supply lines to give its conventional forces a chance.

Perhaps after a nuclear test, the United States and NATO could broker some type of pause or ceasefire in order to give the international community time to process the situation. The United States and NATO are not likely to respond in kind if Russia uses WMDs. They are more likely to buy time with quick-reacting diplomacy after a potential attack to examine options going forward.

Bomb the Russian Chem-Bio Storage Centers

Could the United States and NATO choose to bomb a Russian chemical or biological storage or manufacturing facility if these weapons are used? Once again, this could spark a larger war and give Putin reason to attack NATO countries with conventional means.

Russia ICBM

Note: Image is of a generic Russian mobile ICBM.

Putin is a risk taker, but he is not likely to use WMDs. He has shown some restraint by not putting a complete blockade on Ukrainian grain and allowing exports to avoid a global food crisis. This shows that he probably wants to keep the war between Russia and Ukraine and not escalate beyond the “special military operation” that he sees as vital to restoring his country the territory that he believes is rightfully Russia’s. Hopefully, Putin sees the problems inherent in a WMD attack, mainly that it would bring NATO’s best weapons systems to Ukraine and put his own people in jeopardy. A WMD attack is thus plausible but not probable.

Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood 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. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, 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.