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

Nuclear Weapons Russia
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.



  1. Ian

    September 14, 2022 at 7:23 pm

    Well, I’m not really sure how he’s going to fight with, and I quote.
    ” forced to fight on with only knights and rooks”


    “It’s like Russia has lost its queen, two rooks, and two bishops”

    So, where did Putin get them other 2 rooks?
    Is this the sort of *up the cuff* skullduggery which the Ukrainians need to keep thier eyes out for?

  2. Walker

    September 14, 2022 at 7:47 pm

    Putin is in a battle for existence. A Russian loss is the end of Putin. So he must be thinking almost anything is possible. Effects on Russians and his troops is acceptable if it ultimately allows him to maintain power.

    I think the author gets a lot right in this article. I just feel he doesn’t go down deep enough into the rabbit hole.

    I agree that chemical and biological are likely loosing strategies as they don’t cripple NATO intervention. Nuclear does seem to have this ability. The use of nukes would be a statement, “hands off, we aren’t playing any more, no holds barred.” So if I were Putin and decided that it is time to go this route, I wouldn’t use battlefield tactical nukes, I would target Kiev or maybe Kharkiv. This would likely end of the war in a day. And I don’t think there could be a lot NATO or anyone could do about it.

    The only chance is that NATO or the US makes or hopefully made clear already that Nukes can not be allowed to be used or NATO will return fire with Nukes. Essentially, NATO has to extend self assure destruction beforehand as the only way to avoid.

    This may sound dumb, but it is actually highly likely that NATO has made this secretly clear to Russia. Nukes can’t be allowed to be used for interstate squabbling. If Russia is allowed to use them on Ukraine, If Russia even hints at issues with any NATO ally we have to assume nuclear war. In other words, mutually assure destruction is set already. But if NATO hasn’t done this yet, they better get on it time is running out. I would say we may have evidence that this conversation has already been had as Putin has said that it will not preemptively use Nukes. That is likely an answer to this being passed to him.

    Let’s just hope that is so. Nukes would be a very bad idea for not just Ukraine, but also Russia and the entire world

  3. Andrew P

    September 14, 2022 at 10:30 pm

    I think Russia will eventually use nuclear weapons, but only once it has run out of all other options. And Russia still has other options. For instance, where is Russia’s air force? Why aren’t they carpet bombing the Ukrainians with thermobarics?

  4. Ray

    September 15, 2022 at 7:05 am

    I think you meant knights and pawns. Most Russians are pawns, so he’s got millions of those left to kill.

  5. David Chang

    September 15, 2022 at 1:53 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Any attempt to use nuclear weapons against Russia and its allies will be regarded by Moscow as a nuclear attack and its retaliation will be instant, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his annual State of the Nation Address to the Federal Assembly on March 1. 2018.

    Then Democrats have formally threatened Russia’s existence when a law professor appointed by Democratic Party in the hearing at Dec. 4, 2019, that Russia people are the enemies of United States. But Republicans did not condemn the Democrats for their erroneous remarks at the time.

    Then Russia announce the nuclear war policy in June 2020, they will use nuclear weapons when an enemy attack with conventional weapons that threatens the country’s existence.

    Moreover, Zelenskyy is wrong, he reject Kissinger’s three strategies at 2022 World Economic Forum, and the foreign minister of Ukraine appointed by Zelenskyy ever declare that Ukraine need nuclear weapon, then Zelenskyy accuse other countries of standing idly by.

    Thinkink about these statements, Zelenskyy wants to against Russia with total war, and his strategy for the socialism warfare is already the 22-step ladder of what Herman Kahn say.

    I hope that peoples in Ukraine and Russia will issue declaration exhorting the presidents of both countries to obey Ten Commandments and refuse to use WMD.

    If Russia and Ukraine involve the United States to the peace agreement, Rep. Pelosi and this law professor shall be the negotiation officers of United States.

    God bless America.

  6. Old Desert Coyote

    September 15, 2022 at 3:16 pm

    Does any one remember the first Russian Revolution of Feb (really March of 1917) in which the inefficiency, corruption, and massive causalities on the German front caused the people of Russia (and the major ethnic groups that made up the Russian empire) rose up in revolt and installed a democratic government (the Kerensky government.) Which in turn was overthrown by the November Revolution which brought the bolsheviks (linen Marxist) to power. While history does not repeat itself it does certainly rhyme. We could be seeing the next stanzas of the on going Russian poem.

  7. David Chang

    September 16, 2022 at 9:00 am

    God bless people in the world.

    If nuclear triad is Queen, Russia President Putin may do that.
    The Shortest Checkmate in Chess: The Fool’s Mate.

    According to Joseph Stalin’s policy of war, socialism with nuclear weapons, so they have Seven Days to the River Rhine exercise. Each socialism party accuses the other socialism parties of waging nuclear war first, but Trump as president have a question, if America’s infrastructure is destroyed by non-nuclear weapons, shall America military do the same to the other country?

    God bless America.

  8. CRS, DrPH

    October 9, 2022 at 6:35 pm

    I think Putin is gearing up to deploy chemical weapons, specifically nerve agents.

    Russia’s Defence Ministry on Saturday named Air Force General Sergei Surovikin, the commander of the Russian Air and Space Forces, as the overall commander of Russian invasion forces in Ukraine.

    Surovikin is the brute who oversaw the deployment of nerve agents by Assad in Syria. Obama said he had a “red line” but did nothing, so Putin may gamble that Biden will be the same. Watch for it.

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