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4 Reasons Putin Won’t Start a Nuclear War over Ukraine

Russia Nuclear War Ukraine
Russia's road-mobile ICBMs that carry nuclear weapons.

In the last few weeks, there has been widespread speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin might use a nuclear weapon in his war against Ukraine. This has generated speculation on how the West might react, including the use of nuclear weapons in response. As Cheryl Rofer notes, much of this commentary has been irresponsible, trading on the lurid, apocalyptic possibilities of nuclear weapons to throw out alarmist scenarios. Her trenchant term for this is ‘nukeporn.’ She is almost certainly right.

Putin’s Nuclear War? Not Likely to Happen

Putin is highly unlikely to use nuclear weapons. He even had to say he is not bluffing, because he has been, with nukes, since the start of the war. And given that Putin supporters in the West have been the ones talking up this contingency, one strongly suspects bad faith. That is, Putin’s Western flunkies are hyping nuclear war to scare the West into ceasing aid to Ukraine, in order to help Russia win the war, which is their real goal.

There are at least four major reasons why Russian nuclear escalation is a huge gamble, with such a low upside probability, that use is unlikely:

What Target would Putin Strike?

This is the biggest problem. There is no obvious target. Even a small battlefield or tactical nuclear weapon – less than five kilotons in yield – would have massive destructive effects. There would also be enormous geopolitical blowback (discussed below). What huge, valuable, hardened target is commensurate with such force?

The Ukrainian army is not concentrated enough in one location to merit so much striking power. The Russian-Ukrainian front is hundreds of miles long, with fighters stretched out all across southeastern Ukraine. Russia also has poor intelligence for finding possible Ukrainian concentrations. Any meaningful Ukrainian military target can be sufficiently struck with Russian conventional weapons.

Nor is there any obvious infrastructural target. Ukrainian transportation nodes – road and rail exchanges, bridges – hardly merit such massive force.

This leaves striking a city, with the sole intent of killing civilians in huge numbers. This is conceivable; a city is large enough to be commensurate with the power of a nuclear weapon. But the global backlash would be massive. NATO would likely enter the war directly after what would seem to many like nuclear genocide. And such a ‘counter-value’ strike would still not help Russia on the battlefield, to actually win the war.

Would a Nuclear Strike Outweigh the Massive Global Backlash?

No one knows how the world would respond to such a strike. But Russia would almost certainly lose the tepid support it now has in China, India, and the global south. A nuclear strike – raising the terrifying prospect of normalizing nuclear weapons use in future wars – would scare even the most hardened anti-western regimes.

The democratic world’s response would be severe. Russia would face extreme economic sanctions, including complete expulsion from the SWIFT system, confiscation of overseas assets, expulsion of its nationals, and so on. NATO would likely intervene in the air and at sea, enforcing the no-fly zone which was so controversial this spring, and sinking Russia’s Black Sea fleet. And if the Russian nuke were used against a city, with massive civilian casualties, NATO might enter the war on the ground.

The Russian Army in Ukraine Could be Affected

For a battlefield nuclear weapon to meaningfully alter the course of the war, it would have to be used close to the fighting. That almost certainly means exposure of some forward Russian units to the effects of the blast. Russian logistics has not performed well providing Russian units with their basic needs. It is hard to imagine that logistical train also provides protective gear for operations on an irradiated battlefield. So Russia’s new conscript army – already suffering from morale and desertion problems – would be exposed to radiation, and possibly the strike itself if they were close enough. This would almost certainly worse the army’s problem of low commitment to the fighting.

Ukraine Probably Would Not Give Up

The battlefield value of a nuke drop is low. There is no obvious target to offset the huge geopolitical blowback, and the Russian army itself might be impacted too. This might spark a collapse of Russian lines as units refused to fight on a post-nuclear battlefield.

Russia Tactical Nuclear Weapons

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

The impact on Ukraine’s willingness to struggle on is also probably low. Bombing opponents into surrender has a poor record of success. The effects of a tactical strike would be limited to the region hit and would probably not push Kiev to make peace. On the hand, a large or strategic strike on a city, with massive casualties and destruction might, push the remaining Ukraine leadership to give up. Except that NATO would probably enter the war after such a strategic strike, obviating the value of it.

In short, there is no clear pathway where a nuclear strike – inclusive of the harsh global response it would incur – improves Russia’s chances to win the war.

Expert Biography: Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_KellyRoberEdwinKelly.com) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Friend

    October 16, 2022 at 9:31 am

    Oh yeah? So why doesn’t NATO intervene in Ukraine then? Clearly, NATO is on Ukraine’s side. Clearly they have a superior navy and air force, backed by the best and the most well equipped, led, motivated and most numerous infantry in Europe, which is Ukrainian. Putin repeated a dozen time’s that he was already fighting the U.S. and NATO. He has said countless times that NATO must be reduced to its pre-1997 membership.
    Russias demographic decline coupled with it’s geographical predisposition dictates that must act how now in the same way it always had – to secure its borders it must expand them. To other 13 European countries. Sit and watch.

  2. Goran

    October 16, 2022 at 9:56 am

    Nuclear weapons play no role as Ukrainians would obviously rather die than be subjugated by Kremlin dimwits. How do you threaten people that would rather be dead than kneel before you?

  3. pagar

    October 16, 2022 at 11:01 am

    Putin by now could find himself in hot soup or hot water if he doesn’t act quickly.

    Ukro elements have now already conducted violent attacks in belgorod, only 75 km from kharkiv.

    The brazenness of the ukro attacks strongly compels putin to seriously consider whacking them with his nuclear hammer.

    Nuclear hammer is now only choice of weapon. This hammer could at least or at last truly and finally persuade biden to rein in his ukro foot soldiers or foot puppets.

  4. Jon

    October 16, 2022 at 11:08 am

    Right, there’s no rational reason for Putin to use a nuclear weapon against Ukraine. The possibility always exists, and always has to be considered. And the US and NATO have been quite cognizant of that, and have measured their actions to deny Russia any possible justification. NATO is certainly considering their response options if Russia does use nuclear weapons.

    The war may prove to be the death knell for nuclear weapons as geopolitical tools. Russia’s bluff has been called.

  5. marcjf

    October 16, 2022 at 1:11 pm

    If you read around, most pro-Russian bloggers, writers and commentators make the argument that the risk is a USA inspired false flag event designed to drag NATO into a real shooting war with Russia.

    Personally I take the view that Putin does not need to use WMD but I know many here disagree with me. Despite clear reverses, defeats and miscalculations, Ukraine always had a very small chance of achieving a military victory – and despite events – that remains the case.

    Given Nord Stream and ZNPP, I think if there is a single and small WMD event, then it is likely to be a false flag. Russian doctrine would be to use hundreds of TNWs all in one go. And on their borders, I think that unlikely.

  6. Joe Dokes

    October 16, 2022 at 2:05 pm

    The proponents of ending the West’s support of Ukraine have used two primary arguments:

    1. Russia is conventionally powerful and will inevitably overwhelm puny Ukraine.
    2. Russia has nukes, can’t risk Armageddon.

    The first point has been demonstrably refuted. The second argument, reductio ad absurdum, logically extends to the notion that Russia can invade and rape whenever and wherever it wants, because it will ALWAYS have nukes. And if that’s the case, any country with nuclear weapons is entitled to the same latitude.

    So, purveyors of nukeporn, where do you draw the line?

  7. decide

    October 16, 2022 at 2:08 pm

    don’t you think that Putin won’t hit Ukraine 🙂 It’s easier to hit the USA right away

  8. Tony

    October 16, 2022 at 5:45 pm

    Excellent analysis. Another issue…. How does Russia deliver a tactical nuke? I’ve heard it would likely be a bomber, and a large bomber would be an large target to get shot down. Same thing I f they put it on a cruise missile. They could put it on an ICBM (which is overkill) but they would have to launch it very far away from East Russia and risk that getting intercepted.

    In general, there’s a risk that it could get detonated over Russia or it’s own troops.

  9. Johnny Ray

    October 16, 2022 at 5:54 pm

    If the mere threat of using tactical nuclear weapons results in relatively insignificant concessions, from then on the whole world will be under constant threat and attack via N.A.G.: the Nuclear Attack Gambit.

    So, threats must be not only resisted, but if acted on, the WHOLE world must react with overwhelming force to defeat the state actor. A tactical nuclear strike on any one country is an attack on the whole world.

  10. Serhio

    October 16, 2022 at 9:42 pm

    I have already given a similar comment to another article, I repeat here. The Russians REALLY stood on the “brake”. It is enough to compare the potential (both in quantity and quality, as well as the goals that have been achieved) and what has been applied.
    Are journalists, geopolitical and military analysts really being given some kind of secret lobotomy that prevents them from thinking and multiplying two by two? Sadly…
    What kind of tactical nuclear strikes are you talking about? Russians want a future in which Ukrainians (at least those who are not overcome by some phantoms of the past) will be a fraternal people.
    They understand that the Russian state originated in Kiev. They know how stupid and helpless these people are to face this nightmare.
    And now what? Should the Russians bombard these people by atomic bombs? I want to spit in the face of the authors of such articles. And to all those who spread such nonsense. When are tactical nuclear missiles used? When you face a stronger opponent, and this is the only way to avoid defeat.
    Have the Russians really come to this? Wanting to save Ukraine (I don’t believe in the nonsense about wanting to wipe Ukraine off the face of the earth and so on), they have so far not only “slowed down”, but also fought with their hands and feet tied…
    Why? They are not stupid.
    Personally, I think they didn’t want to go down in history as those who didn’t try all the methods. They understand that this is not a war between Ukrainians and Russians, but a war because of their backs, and someone else from the outside gloatingly enjoys their spilled blood.
    In addition, in the Russian defense strategy, it is written in white: “the use of nuclear weapons is possible in the event of a threat to the existence of the state.” There is no such monent now. And there is no such threat in the near future, despite the yapping of Western propagandists.

  11. Neil Ross Hutchings

    October 17, 2022 at 12:32 pm

    Thank you for this article, and for articulating the ‘nukeporn’ issue. This is Putin’s war, not Russia’s, and I truly think this war is about the legacy he wishes to leave after he leaves office. I do not think he is a madman, yet obviously not a perfect leader for the people of Russian. I think he has a true love for his country’s survival so would likely only resort to using nukes if a major city was under direct threat by NATO. I do not think he wants his legacy to be a member of the small group of madmen that have already used combat nuclear weapons.

  12. Tamerlane

    October 17, 2022 at 6:20 pm

    The author makes a number of uninformed and mistaken assertions:

    1) “NATO would likely enter the war directly after what would seem to many like nuclear genocide.”

    Why? Ukraine is not a NATO or American ally, nor is there appetite for WWIII (which is what NATO entrance would signify) amongst the American population. If the use of nukes is not a bluff, in what universe would the United States deliberately enter a thermonuclear war when it is patently obviously that conventional military defeat and existential threat to their existence will result in Russia using thermonuclear arms?

    2) “The democratic world’s response would be severe. Russia would face extreme economic sanctions, including complete expulsion from the SWIFT system, confiscation of overseas assets, expulsion of its nationals, and so on. NATO would likely intervene in the air and at sea, enforcing the no-fly zone which was so controversial this spring, and sinking Russia’s Black Sea fleet. And if the Russian nuke were used against a city, with massive civilian casualties, NATO might enter the war on the ground.”

    Let’s break this down:

    A)”expulsion from SWIFT” Russia is already persona non grata in the SWIFT system, and their exclusion from it 6 months ago was a casus belli, an act of war. Why does Russia have any reason to believe they will be readmitted to this system if they merely lose conventionally and accept the loss and destruction of Russian capacity for self-defense? Meaning, why does the threat of continued exclusion have any weight when a defeat means continued exclusion anyway?

    B) “confiscation of overseas assets” Again, this is a “fait accompli”, and is also a casus belli, an act of war. The American and NATO governments have already engaged in acts of war by seizing Russia’s sovereign wealth, despite denying being in a state of war with Russia. These acts are acts of war independently. Moreover, NATO and the west have openly discussed permanently expropriating this sovereign wealth anyway and redistributing it to Ukrainian toadies. Why should Russia have any rational reason to believe they will have their sovereign wealth returned to them if they merely lose conventionally and accept the loss and destruction of Russian capacity for self-defense? We in America have already decided to telegraph to the rest of their world that their deposits here—the “full faith and credit” of the U.S. government is worthless, and that we will expropriate another country’s sovereign wealth if they do something we don’t approve of, despite our protestations that we are not declaring war on Russia. Meaning, why does the threat of continued confiscation of what has already been expropriated in all but finality have any weight when a defeat means the status quo anyway? Why should Russia believe it’s sovereign wealth will be restored if they merely “lose with grace”?

    C) “expulsion of its nationals”. Of all these; perhaps this is the weakest argument. Let’s examine it—why should Russia be concerned about the expulsion of its nationals back to Russia when most of the Russians leaving are cannon fodder who would prefer not to be in Russia/which Russia would prefer to have as manpower. Expelling Russians would simply have the effect of repatriating the brain drain back to Moscow. Russia would love this, and would love to be able to use western attribution of “collective guilt” onto the entire Russian people to encourage nationalism and resentment at NATO and the U.S., not at their own government. This would also add real world verification to Russia’s long-standing argument that the west and the U.S. seek expansionary domination and control over dissenting developing countries, not as a mere exemplar of “liberty”.

    D) “NATO would likely intervene in the air and at sea, enforcing the no-fly zone which was so controversial this spring, and sinking Russia’s Black Sea fleet”

    Such acts would be direct casus belli—acts of war. And would result in the striking of NATO and the U.S. with thermonuclear weapons. This is for a number of reasons, including of course the fact that Russia is conventionally unable to stop NATO invasion/intervention, and yet, their existential interests require them to prevent Ukraine from being within NATO. If they can’t win conventionally, and to lose is to lose the capacity to defend Russia, then they will escalate all the way in response.

    It is naive in extremis to maintain, as does the author and some of the bellicose Ukrainian trolls/neoconservative chickenhawks and liberal interventionists here, that if Russia were to use a nuke in response to American/NATO participation in enabling Ukraine to prevail conventionally through provision of arms, training, equipment, logistics, direct command and control, and live intelligence—that they would not similarly escalate were NATO and the U.S. to directly attack Russia and directly threaten her ability for self defense. If that is threatened, Russia will of course go to complete nuclear exchange—over a billion dead. If everything is being threatened and attacked anyway, you might as well destroy your tormentor on the way out.

    The author and the turbo warmongers here are consumed with their own hubris, and though they have (unlike those of us advocating for non-intervention or realpolitik here) been consistently wrong on the predicted reactions to their adopted escalatory policies, they ask us again to follow them up the escalatory ladder and risk all American lives here on this fool’s gambit.

    No thanks.

  13. Gary Jacobs

    October 17, 2022 at 7:21 pm

    Serhio

    As usual you are stuck in the downward spiral of Putin’s propaganda

    You make so many false claims it’s absurd, let’s pick a couple:

    “There is no such monent now. And there is no such threat in the near future, despite the yapping of Western propagandists.”

    Yet it is constantly the Russian side speaking of using nukes. Especially in their media and Milblogger space, but some of their government officials as well. Then the west naturally tries to dissect how that might happen… to avoid it. Biden has also refused to give certain weapons to Ukraine to not escalate. Especially not giving them ATACMS, and those only have a 300km range. Russia is 11 time zones. 300km is a spec on that map.

    As well you make the bizarre claim that “Personally, I think they didn’t want to go down in history as those who didn’t try all the methods.”

    If by “all methods” you mean randomly firing suicide drones, incendiary munitions, and other missiles at apartment buildings… not to mention setting up torture chambers and using rape as a weapon… yep, they are trying all methods of terrorism against Ukraine.

    So many people on this forum need to try stepping out of the Putinista echo chamber and get yourselves some better sources of information. It really isnt that hard if you actually try.

  14. Serhio

    October 17, 2022 at 10:55 pm

    Gary Jacobs
    “As usual you are stuck in the downward spiral of Putin’s propaganda”

    I can also say that you are stuck in a downward spiral of Western propaganda. Maybe even worse: you believe in your propaganda and do not distinguish your own propaganda from reality.

    “Yet it is constantly the Russian side speaking of using nukes. ”

    In none of his speeches did Putin talk about the use of nuclear weapons. All the talk about Russia’s nuclear weapons comes from Western politicians. They just fight hysterically and insert phrases about nuclear weapons into any of their speeches, showing their fears. Putin said Russia would use “any weapon it sees fit to use.” In addition to nuclear weapons, the concept of “any weapon” includes many other things. For example, the destruction of the satellite grouping of NATO countries. After that, many weapons will become expensive scrap metal. This may be the striking of hypersonic weapons on aircraft carriers. America has no protection against hypersonic missiles, which not only fly fast, but can also maneuver. The US air defense capabilities were remarkably demonstrated by Iranian missiles and drones when they attacked Saudi Arabia’s oil fields. Despite the big pile of money that the Saudis spent on the American Patriot complexes. It turned out that the American air defense is good only in advertising brochures, but in fact resembles a colander for pasta. The “any means” also includes a call for volunteers from different countries to come and exterminate Ukrainian Nazis. The so-called “International Brigades” proved themselves quite well during the Spanish Civil War, and in case of a real danger to Russia, Putin may well use this experience. A few small guerrilla detachments (2-3 million people each) from the Chinese can significantly change the situation at the front. North Korea will definitely remember its grievances against America. India will write its colonialists a long list of grievances: the brutal suppression of the Sepoy uprising, when the “civilized” British shot people tied to artillery. Famine, many times arranged by the British in India (Benares, Jammu, Bombay, Bengal Madras) from which several million Indians died. The list of countries that have claims to their “Western friends” is large: Iraq, Iran, Serbia, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Indonesia, all of Africa, half of Latin America. I am sure that if the Russians invite representatives of these countries to see what kind of giblets the American proxies have in Ukraine, many will be happy to participate. And this will be much more terrible than the nuclear weapons of the Russians. After all, if all these people realize that by participating in any conflict on the side of NATO opponents and their allies, they will take revenge on their abusers, then the days of the United States will be numbered.

    “If by “all methods” you mean randomly firing suicide drones, incendiary munitions, and other missiles at apartment buildings… not to mention setting up torture chambers and using rape as a weapon… yep, they are trying all methods of terrorism against Ukraine.”

    1. The use of rape as a weapon is propaganda nonsense or erotic dreams of an ugly aunt that a normal man will not look at.
    2. The use of torture chambers has no evidence. These are only statements by Ukrainian propagandists. No authorized person from the UN has yet stated that they have seen torture chambers that were guaranteed to be used by Russians, not Ukrainians.
    3. When air defense works, it is natural that some missiles and drones are shot down and they fall into the wrong place where they were aimed. Also, air defense missiles fall down when they miss and also explode. You forget about it in your propaganda curage. “”””””””Russian drone hit residential building” is a wonderful headline for newspapers. And even partially truthful. There was indeed a Russian drone. Indeed, he fell on a residential building. That’s just the reason why he fell on this building and not on his target is not indicated: the Ukrainians could not shoot down this drone when it flew up to the city and shot it down over residential areas. What happens if several kilograms of explosives fall down from a height? Explosion. If the fact that a fallen drone will hit its own population does not bother the Ukrainian leadership, then why should the Russians care? Why should it bother you or me? Because it’s a great opportunity to once again pour a basin of slop on the Russians?

  15. Serhio

    October 17, 2022 at 11:10 pm

    When the author talks about the arguments “why won’t the Russians use nuclear weapons”, ру forgot about one more thing: why do the Russians need а nuclear dump near their borders? Even the existing Chernobyl creates a lot of environmental problems. And several such sources of pollution will increase these problems at times.

    It is much easier to destroy energy and infrastructure (bridge, railway stations) in Ukraine by conventional means. This will create problems for the military to move weapons and soldiers. This will create additional flows of refugees to Europe. This means that Russia’s enemies will get new problems and will be forced to solve them.

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