What would the world look like after Russia used nuclear weapons? Much depends on context but we can still imagine what happens on the Day After.
What will the battlefield in Ukraine look like?
The impact of the use of a nuclear device in Ukraine will depend on the details.
Like any large-scale industrial army, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have obvious pressure points that would be vulnerable to nuclear attack. These include logistical centers, command and communications nodes, and concentrations of front-line forces.
During the Cold War the Soviet Union expected to use tactical nuclear weapons against NATO (and expected that NATO would use them in return) and it is therefore likely that the Russian armed forces have workable theories as to how they might best use tactical nukes to inflict damage on Ukraine’s fielded forces. At the same time, we should refrain from overstating the damage that such weapons can inflict on forces in the field, as most tactical nukes have limited destructive effects and rely on careful targeting.
Of the political effect on the war we can say almost nothing of use at this point. We don’t know whether the Ukrainian leadership and polity would become more or less flexible following a nuclear detonation. The only example of such an attack comes from Japan, and the differences in context are vast.
We can imagine good arguments either way about Ukrainian reaction, but we don’t know until a bomb actually explodes.
At the same time, it’s difficult to predict the impact within Russia. There does seem to be some appetite for escalation in certain segments of Russian public opinion, but the use of a nuclear weapon on Ukraine would undoubtedly provide a shock to the Russian political system. We don’t know enough to judge the impact of that shock.
The Nuclear World
Three of the world’s nuclear powers (France, the UK, and the US) stand firmly against Russia in this conflict. The rest (North Korea, China, Pakistan, India, and Israel) have taken more ambiguous positions.
Russian use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine could shake both of these groups. In the former bloc, many have argued that Russian first use should be met with immediate escalation, such as attacks against Russian naval assets or fielded Russian forces in Ukraine. Strategic nuclear arsenals would presumably secure these states against Russian retaliation, although the dangers of such a move are obvious.
The attitude of the rest of the nuclear powers is more complex. While all of the nuclear powers have reserved some attention to nuclear warfighting rather than to deterrence, the primary job of their arsenals has involved deterrence.
If we’ve decided now that we fight wars with nuclear weapons rather than simply hope that they never go off, then the military establishments across the nuclear world will need to reconfigure their approaches.
Serious multilateral diplomacy might be able to put the genie at least partially back in the bottle, but maybe not; efforts to curtail the expansion of existing arsenals would probably become a lost cause.
In more immediate terms, Russia’s use of a nuke would likely have profound implications for Bloc Ambiguous, with unpredictable effects on popular and diplomatic opinion. India and China at least would likely issue condemnations of the Russian attacks, although the impact of these condemnations would depend on context and caveats.
Either China or India could inflict severe damage on the Russian war effort and the Russian economy by joining the sanctions regime, but it is not at all clear that a nuclear attack would trigger such a move.
The Non-Nuclear World
The war in Ukraine has already transformed the non-proliferation environment.
In the 1990s Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons it had inherited at the collapse of the Soviet Union in return for ambiguous assurances of security from Russia and the United States. Whether Ukraine could have made any use of those weapons is a separate question from the impact of the dissolution of this arrangement on international opinion.
Put simply, it seems quite reasonable to suggest that countries that are considering nuclear programs will view Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a green light; guarantees and declarations cannot ensure security, but nuclear weapons can.
If Russia uses nuclear weapons directly against Ukraine, we can expect to see this interpretation go into overdrive.
Nuclear weapons will then become a means through which nuclear states directly discipline non-nuclear states, presumably with no observable political implications.
In addition to pursuing strategic nuclear systems, we can expect non-nuclear states to look at the prospects of developing tactical nuclear weapons with battlefield applications.
Showing the world that nuclear weapons don’t simply ensure security but also make it easier to win wars will only make them more attractive to countries across international society.
A Changed World?
Non-proliferation has been the guiding principle that has united the world’s wealthiest and most powerful countries since the early 1990s. It animated efforts to limit and transfer control of the old Soviet nuclear arsenal. It animated diplomacy towards Iraq, Iran, and North Korea over the past two decades, with mixed results.
Even if the basic consensus across existing nuclear powers holds that new entrants are bad (and there’s no guarantee that such a consensus can survive this conflict), the nuclear powers already have their work cut out in order to curtail proliferation in the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific, and elsewhere.
If Russia uses a nuclear weapon for battlefield effect, then all bets are off; Moscow may determine whether proliferation is in its broader interest (if only for the disruptive effect on global politics), or not, but leaders around the world will begin to see nuclear weapons as something useful, rather than as a totem of deterrence.
That’s very bad news both for efforts to reduce existing arsenals and for the project of limiting the proliferation of new nuclear-capable states.
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Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.
October 8, 2022 at 7:56 pm
Keep stoking the fear. The better question is, “What would Russia look like after Russia used nuclear weapons…”
October 8, 2022 at 7:56 pm
Interesting topic in run up to november 2022 Bali G20 summit where Biden has pressured host to invite zelenskiyy.
Zelenskiyy had famously on 6 October 2022 called on west to unleash preventive strikes on Russia’s nuclear arsenal to cripple its response to Ukrainian offensive.
Now Ukrainian forces are directly attacking Russia, so risking a nuclear response from Moscow.
That calls for Biden to decide what to do. Pour more weaponry into the fight and increasing the risk. Force IMF & world bank to send more money to Kyiv to entice total destruction.
Or order US/NATO forces to prepare for nuclear CONFRONTATION with Russia.
Biden if he makes wrong decision will condemn entire world to nuclear ARMAGEDDON.
The fate of the world now rests with Biden the brilliant president who is the ‘force’ & the prime mover, the chief of dogbarkers responsible for the conflict.
October 8, 2022 at 8:19 pm
I’m an American, born in Texas. I’m of Euro-ethnic extraction. That said, if it comes down to a nuclear exchange between Russia and the US, I hope that Russian ICBMs can reach Washington DC in time to incinerate all the Democrat and Republican cockroaches before they can flee. Every last one of them need to pay for bringing the world to the brink of annihilation. And make no mistake – this deadly state of affairs is America’s fault. They goaded Russia into this. There was a way out. But that door is even now fast closing.
October 8, 2022 at 8:44 pm
The Ukraine situation is an abject lesson for warmongers never to impose war on a nuclear power, especially one that possesses rs-28 ICBMs.
When US sent Pershing 2 missiles to Europe, Gorbachev instead of sparking tension negotiated for removal by giving up Soviet SS-20 and other types of missiles.
It was a huge mistake as it emboldened US to go on and develop a globalized ABM system, later withdrawing from the important ABM treaty and subsequently drawing up the top secret doc for joint nuclear operations that called for US to employ preventive strikes or decapitation operations against nuclear arsenals of threat countries.
In all those moves, no president ever made the mistake of stoking war on a nuclear-armed nation.
Even trump ‘fell in love’ with Kim jong-un.
But when Biden entered white house in 2021, he began calling Putin killer, floated idea of NATO accepting Ukraine into its fold, sailed warships near Russia’s coast and made frequent provocative flights in the black sea near Russian bases, once actually forcing a civilian airline flight to divert its path to avoid a USAF plane.
The endless provocations and war dogbarking directly led to the Feb 24 2022 special military operation to defang biden’s neo-nazi allies in Kyiv and also to stand up for the Donbass natives.
With Biden opting to send heavy weaponry to neo-nazi elements in Europe instead of negotiations, Kyiv forces acted on offensive with CIA & DoD intelligence support
Result is (was) Russia incorporating four Donbass regions and thus legitimizing use of NUCLEAR WEAPONS to defend Russian soil and Russian citizens.
The world is tip-toeing on the edge of the Great Abyss, since the greatest head-spinnin’ hours of cuban crisis which was also initiated by US contrary to most reports in western narratives.
October 8, 2022 at 9:37 pm
The escalation is all on our part. If we weren’t adding Baltic states to NATO which has no purpose anymore and then pressuring Ukraine to join… maybe we wouldn’t franking be here. Maybe if we weren’t proxy warring Russia while spilling Ukrainian blood to weaken Russia maybe we wouldn’t be here. Maybe if we didn’t blow up nord steam 2…we wouldn’t be here.
Why are we upset about Europe buying Russian LNG?? What because it’s cheaper than ours OR because we are dumping 4.6% of OUR GDP into defending Europe FROM RUSSIA WHILE EUROPE GIVES RUSSIA BILLIONS ANNUALLY FOR ENERGY….???
This stupidity needs to end. As a combat veteran I know only the dead see the end of war but society needs to put an end to our political stupidity and cast off the Joe Biden and Lindsey Grahams of the world. I’m talking permanent vacation. There is no place for their ilk anymore. Ike was right.
October 8, 2022 at 9:41 pm
The time for russia to use nuclear weapons is now.
Strategists in russia must realize the stark danger arising when in a couple of years US has developed its hypersonic arsenal and starts forward deploying them.
A hypersonic missile force stationed in ukraine would certainly emasclate russia and render russian defense totally useless.
The time to employ nuclear weapons is now, before it’s too late or before the threat takes on a death-dealing form.
October 8, 2022 at 9:55 pm
NPT is already a joke.
A bunch of haves lording around a bunch of have nots. Not to mention free passes already given to countries that never signed on NPT like India an Israel to go ahead and accumulate hundreds of nuclear weapons!
How is this ever fair to “non-nuclear states”?!
You wonder why Iran has cheated on NPT? Because the entire thing is a rigged game. When the game is rigged against you, you cheat!
Of course Russia’s use of nukes will make every country want to get them. This is why everyone instead of being a keyboard warrior should demand from their government to start talks with Russia and Ukraine to come up with a negotiated settlement.
With the current trajectory, I believe chances of Russia using nukes is higher than it not using them.
Peace-keeping nukes of US arsenal
October 8, 2022 at 11:53 pm
Well, Dr Farley, a russian strike in ukraine using nukes could greatly excite old joe biden and make him earn title of ‘doomsday bringer’.
In may 2022, when visiting seoul, protesters greeted biden with ‘Destroyer of global peace’ cards but old joe seems to have learned nothing useful.
Biden must not be another zelensky or stoltenberg guys who only view all-out war as the answer.
If biden attacks russia, especially russia’s missile silos, american cities would be right on the firing line.
Biden will, if he’s still around, have to contend with a nuclear winter caused by dense smoke rising up from american cities and entering into the atmosphere 20 miles high or even higher.
At that height, the smoke and dust can’t be dispersed by rain because of the height and sunlight will become blocked resulting in damage lasting up to two years to the wheat fields, corn fields and other crops on the great plains.
By 2024, biden won’t be in any shape to re-run for president.
October 9, 2022 at 2:31 am
It is more likely that Putin will escalate with a nerve agent like SARIN. 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.
October 9, 2022 at 3:37 am
Here is the funny thing. If Russia uses tactical nukes on the battlefield they will be doing it inside “Russia”. Think about that. All the areas where Russia is currently fighting are inside areas where they had their so called referendums. Russia doesn’t fully occupy any region they seized except for Crimea. So they would be nuking themselves so to speak. Would even Russians accept that? The other possibility is to nuke Kyiv. If I were Russia and decided to use nukes, that is what I would do. That should knock the fight out of Ukraine almost instantly and have the least likelihood of escalating to NATO.
But otherwise, I think this article gets a lot right. Putin and his ruscist propaganda fools may say that nukes will achieve the escalate to de-escalate stance. That won’t happen. Russia has proven that they are the aggressor. Therefore, their use of nukes must be seen for exactly what it is, global terrorism by a fascist state. This is critically important because we know that Putin’s goal is to “rebuild” the Russian state back to the level of the USSR. That mean that the world must assume that Russia will try to retake the baltics, Poland and dare I even say it, eastern Germany? If he is to go that far, why not take all of Europe and be the greatest Russian military in world history? The implications of using nukes to achieve his goals in Ukraine have even larger implications for his dreams of taking Europe. This is why the world can not let Russia even believe that using nukes in Ukraine will do anything but ensure that (shall I say it?) all you Russians on here trolling these arguments are dead. Yes! That is right! Keep calling in Russia to use nukes, you are calling on suicide. Yeah, I know, I will die too. But better to die than let you think you can control the world by bullying everyone. Those of us who do survive, Like perhaps New Zealand, will remember what happened and remember that bullying does not win in the end. That is the history that mankind will remember 500 years from now as humans slowly rebuild civilization all around the world.
October 9, 2022 at 5:58 am
“…it is therefore likely that the Russian armed forces have workable theories as to how they might best use tactical nukes to inflict damage on Ukraine’s fielded forces.”
Really? Even now, after all the incredible number of examples of Russian ineptitude, you’re still taking the line that they have workable theories?
Russia is an angry child with a loaded gun. It has no theories. No plans. Just mindless rage.
October 9, 2022 at 6:05 am
3 western nuke powers stand firm against russia.
Others like north korea and china have taken more ambiguous positions.
Well, looters, rapists and robbers (or ex-colonial powers) naturally band together. Such an alliance is a given. For like-minded fiends. Recall kosovo. Pried away from yugoslavia with max force.
As for the ‘more ambiguous nuke powers’ a soft approach won’t spare them from total destruction should nukes start getting hurled here and there or to and fro.
US will nuke these people to kingdom come since they are not part of the friendly forces. They have refused to provide bases or allowed US military advisers to oversee their defense forces.
US loudly lecture entire world on rules and orders. But, but but what the godamn heck is US doing in syria.
In syria, US forces occupy the eastern part of deir ez-zor province, in particular the al-Omar oilfields, stealing 80% of syria’s total daily oil output.
Besides illegally occupying syria’s oilfields, US is working hand in glove with turkiye to support armed islamist/jihadist groups to carve out zones of occupation that provide military bases and logistics to sustain military operations in iraq and elsewhere. Totally unholy alliance.
US has a very extremely dirty and massively evil record in the middle east.
Its unenviable record would elicit a big smile of admiration from adolf hitlet if he were still alive today.
Putin, the terrorist
October 9, 2022 at 10:06 am
Wow, lots of Russian trolls trying desperately to vindicate the runt’s illegal attack on Ukraine. Russia’s ‘army’. if you can call a bunch of murders and rapists an army, is collapsing at the hands of AFU. Pootie is wetting himself at the prospect of more humiliation and losing the war. How long before he is poisoned or has an accidental fall out a window?
October 9, 2022 at 10:33 am
You must be stupid to think that NATO goaded Putin into a war. NATO’s purpose is defense, not offense. The US/NATO Nuclear Arsenal is meant as a deterrent. When we had a real President, Putin suggested to POTUS Trump that he was interested in taking over The Ukraine. He asked Trump what he would do. Trump’s answer, “I would bomb the crap out of Moscow!” Putin replied, “Really?” Trump said, “REALLY”. If Trump were POTUS…Putin would never have invaded Ukraine. Biden’s incomptetence and weakness provoked this war. NATO existed for Years and never attacked or threatened Russia. The same can’t be said for Putin. Example….Putin’s take over of Crimea 2014. Did NATO provoke this too?
October 9, 2022 at 11:07 am
Mr. Putin has initiated a war of aggression against a smaller country by invading it – can anyone truthfully deny that simple fact?
NATO is far from an alliance capable or motivated to do any invasion of its own. Trump couldn’t even get our partners to contribute their contracted dues much less man up for an invasion. Nor could Trump get Germany to eliminate their fatal dependency on Russian energy.
That said, what military advantage would tactical use give them on the battlefield WITHIN Ukraine? I can think of none since it just not that kind of war. There are no massed tank columns roaring through the Fulda Gap nor mass infantry waves swarming Pork Chop Hill.
Blasting Kiev might decapitate Ukrainian leadership but the country is so all-in on defense that new leaders would quickly reorganize the resistance. Hitting outside of Ukraine (Poland?) would be an escalation on him and would bring NATO into a direct shooting role. He’s losing already, and heavily attrited. NATO would be the closer.
Politically, it would all be to the downside for ANY use, tactical or strategic.
Putin is, in my opinion, bluffing. He’s rattled the chattering class and given them click bait to rattle the population. Biden is just doing the same.
October 9, 2022 at 11:36 am
The winds in Ukraine usually blow towards Russia, so Russia would risk that the radioactive dust from the wind would fall on Russian territory.
Poza tym Rosja planowała podbić całą Ukrainę, a użycie ładunku jądrowego utrudniłoby jeśli nawet nie uniemozliwiło taką ewentualność.
Finally, Ukraine announced that it would continue to fight after using a nuclear charge against it, which would mean that nuclear weapons cannot force de-escalation of the conflict.
If the US wanted to play chess with Putin, it would announce the handover of one nuclear but strategic warhead, along with a missile aimed at Moscow, and publicly announce that the US itself, if not attacked, would not use nuclear weapons, leaving a possible nuclear rematch to Ukraine. However, it will be a strong strategic warhead right away, so Russia would not be bothered to use a tactical nuclear charge, and the use of a strategic nuclear charge would automatically destroy Moscow, and the Russians would not forgive Putin for that.
October 9, 2022 at 12:13 pm
Whitehall : “That said, what military advantage would tactical use give them on the battlefield WITHIN Ukraine?”
Zero. There is zero military and zero political advantage. Whether threatening with nukes is a calculated move, or as some are trying to spin it, a move of a madman trying to avoid Ghaddafi’s fate, it should not be acceptable as it will encourage others to resort to same tactics and in a multipolar world, that spells a disaster. If Putin is allowed to force his way with these threats, everyone and their mother will add the prospect of a nuclear annihilation to a list of foreign diplomacy tools.