Putin’s failure in Kharkiv province has renewed concerns about Russian use of nuclear weapons. Although tactical nuclear weapons are smaller, their use would be associated with great risks.

The spectacular failure of Vladimir Putin’s army in Kharkiv province has renewed concerns that Russia might resort to nuclear weapons. “I fear that they will now strike back in really unpredictable ways,” warned Rose Gottemoeller, a former NATO deputy secretary general, “in ways that might even involve the use of weapons of mass destruction.”

Speaking to the BBC, Gottemoeller said she wasn’t concerned about Russia’s large-scale ICBMs that can cross the oceans and destroy cities, but rather about its so-called tactical nuclear weapons. What are tactical nuclear weapons and could Putin use them if he threatens to lose the war?

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Tactical nuclear weapons (experts prefer the term “non-strategic”) have a relatively low yield. They can weigh a few kilotons or less. A B61-12, an American variable-yield weapon, can be reduced to as little as 0.3 kilotons when used as a tactical weapon – about one-fiftieth the yield of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

The explosion of several thousand tons of inadequately stored ammonium nitrate in Beirut in August 2020 showed how terrible such detonations can be. However, they are far less devastating than the weapons used in a real nuclear war.

America has deployed around 100 tactical nuclear weapons at air bases in Europe, primarily to provide nuclear deterrence to its NATO allies. Russia is believed to have thousands and sees them as a way to offset the strength of NATO’s conventional arms. Their military use is relatively limited.

Today’s conventional (i.e. non-nuclear weapons) precision-guided weapons are extremely accurate and capable of destroying most targets, with the exception of deeply dug command posts and bunkers. Sure, Russia’s precision-guided munitions have often missed their target in this war, and they’re running out. However, tactical nuclear weapons would not be a realistic substitute: large quantities would have to be used to have any lasting military effect.

A study of Indo-Pakistani war scenarios concludes that a five-kiloton nuclear bomb could only destroy 13 tanks if they were widely scattered. In any case, Russia has rarely demonstrated its ability to locate and hit moving targets.

The fear is less that Russia would use its tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield and more as leverage. Christopher Chivvis, who served as America’s top intelligence officer in Europe between 2018 and 2021, says that at various war games held after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Western experts and military officers who played Russia’s part met sometimes determined to conduct nuclear tests or a high-altitude detonation that would disrupt communications across wide areas.

“Imagine an explosion that would turn off the lights in Oslo,” he says. Gottemoeller points to the possibility of a single attack over the Black Sea or a Ukrainian military facility. “The aim would be,” said Gottmoeller, “to persuade the Ukrainians, in their shock, to capitulate.”

The article first appeared in The Economist under the title “Do Russia’s military setbacks increase the risk of nuclear conflict?” and was translated by Andrea Schleipen.

The post “Because of war bankruptcies: is Putin reaching for his nuclear weapons?” comes from The Economist.