Why Does Putin Have So Many Tactical Nuclear Weapons? – Russia’s large arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons has been a source of concern for decades, yet Putin’s potential use of these catastrophic weapons has taken on new dimensions of seriousness due to Russia’s planned deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus.
Russia has ten times the tactical nuclear weapons as the United States and has visibly and repeatedly threatened to use them against Ukraine, NATO, and the West throughout its now long-standing war effort in Ukraine. Has this purely been a manipulative tactic to lessen or minimize Western support for Ukraine and hold the world hostage with nuclear threats?
Perhaps, yet one could make the argument that such an “escalate to win” Russian strategy has been working.
At the same time, the Pentagon’s decision to send Abrams tanks, and its more recent decision to support the deployment of Eastern European F-16s has not, at least as of yet, resulted in Putin’s actual use of nuclear weapons in any capacity. Perhaps Putin is driven by a survival instinct sufficient for him to recognize any use of nuclear weapons would likely result in his demise, loss of power, or death. While by no means hesitant to make threats, Putin has long been thought of as a rational actor interested in self-preservation and his continued authoritarian rule over Russia’s future.
Tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus is the latest curve in the West’s long-standing worry about Russia’s massive arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons. Reuters recently cited steps forward with Russia’s move to place nuclear weapons in Belarus. The Reuters article says Russia is believed to operate as many as 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads, as compared to the U.S. and its 200 nuclear warheads.
Nuclear fighter jets?
Quoting Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu, the Reuters article said Belarussian forces are already armed with Iskander-M missiles capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads. Russian Su-25 fighter aircraft have also reportedly been modified to carry nuclear weapons.
The presence of Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal was cited extensively as part of the rationale for the Pentagon’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review which, among other things, called for the addition of several lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons. The initiative was and continues to be questioned by lawmakers and others concerned that introducing new tactical nuclear weapons into the U.S. arsenal could “lower the threshold” to nuclear war and somehow inspire thinking that a “limited” or “partial” nuclear war might seem feasible, realistic, or somehow winnable.
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis told Congress years ago that the rationale for the lower-yield weapons was merely to “bring Russia back to the negotiating table” following its violation of the INF Treaty. The thinking, Mattis explained, was not to lower the threshold to the use of nuclear weapons but rather to give commanders more range and possibility with the Pentagon’s strategic deterrence posture. A wider envelope of threat or counterattack possibilities, the idea was, could not only prevent a nuclear exchange but potentially get Russia to scale back or negotiate about its nuclear stockpile.
The Pentagon made progress quickly with this low-yield effort following the 2018 review, and within just a few years has built an operational lower-yield or scalable nuclear warhead variant for the existing Trident II D5 nuclear missile. The 2018 NPR also called for a nuclear-capable submarine-launched cruise missile as well, yet this effort was canceled by the Biden administration.
Ultimately, question marks remain to a large extent. While Putin clearly appears to be a leader interested in preserving himself and his autocratic rule, there may be some thinking that a limited nuclear strike could happen without Russia having to confront a massive NATO and Western response. Could Putin use a tactical nuclear weapon to achieve a particular battlefield effect without Russia being subject to a nuclear response from NATO or the West in some fashion?
Perhaps the gamble is that the West might decline to retaliate as part of a clear effort to in essence save the planet and prevent escalation to the point that most living civilization is destroyed. Sure enough, President Joe Biden has been clear to voice the concern that certain escalatory actions could result in, as he put it, World War III.
These dynamics raise the issue of whether there could or even should be an argument for a proportional response. Some deterrence theorists posit that the optimal deterrence strategy is to send a clear, unmistakable message that any use of nuclear weapons, on any scale, will be met with a massive, catastrophic response. Other nuclear deterrence strategy thinkers maintain that the threat or prospect of a proportional response simply provides more options and a greater range with which a deterrence posture can exact pressure on a potential adversary.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University