The Russian invasion is now finally in trouble. The Ukrainians are about to recapture large parts of the Donbass. This also increases concerns about a Russian nuclear strike. How will Russia react now and what do the Germans say about a possible Russian nuclear strike?

Ukraine has recaptured important tracts of land in eastern Ukraine in recent days. Russia is trying to intimidate the Ukrainian population with retaliatory strikes. Since the start of the Russian attack on Ukraine, Russian leaders have also threatened Ukraine and NATO member states with nuclear weapons.

For example, on February 24, 2022, the day of the invasion, Russian President Putin threatened that anyone who tried to obstruct Russia would face “unprecedented consequences.” Russia is “one of the most powerful nuclear powers in the world”. Most security experts assume that Russia is bluffing. However, the idea of ​​a Russian nuclear strike is not unthinkable.

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The idea of ​​such a limited, so-called tactical nuclear strike (which would be carried out with relatively low explosive power compared to a far more destructive strategic nuclear strike) was developed during the Cold War as a sort of last stage before nuclear war. The goal here is not the complete destruction of the opposing forces or the enemy.

Felix Lemmer is Research Associate at the “Centre for International Security” at the Hertie School in Berlin.

Rather, a tactical nuclear strike aims to create a risky scenario; It is said to be so unstable that the adversary considers the consequences of further escalation to be worse than withdrawal or agreeing to negotiations. The use of nuclear weapons in such a scenario is therefore primarily a political strategy. Your target is the opponent’s psyche.

In the current situation, the following scenario would be conceivable: the Russian invasion of Ukraine is becoming increasingly stagnant. Russia has nearly 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads, which have long been a bone of contention in arms control negotiations. Putin could decide to detonate such a warhead demonstratively over Ukraine in order to break the Ukrainians’ will to fight and intimidate NATO.

Putin could bet that panic would erupt in both Ukraine and the thirty NATO member states, and that decision-making would be so paralyzed that Ukraine’s will to fight and further arms deliveries or other support to Ukraine would be off the table.

That’s the theory, but would it work? How would the German population react to a tactical nuclear strike? We asked this question in two representative surveys that we conducted in spring 2021 and summer 2022. In our hypothetical scenario, Russia attacks the NATO member state Latvia, after which NATO launches a defense mission.

Then Russia detonates a tactical nuclear weapon to force the end of NATO intervention. In one variation, this nuclear strike is demonstrative over the North Sea, in another, a NATO ship is attacked with a tactical nuclear weapon.

The results of our surveys show that a large part of the German population (approx. 40% in 2021 and 2022) do not know how the federal government should react in such a scenario. About 18% of respondents (19% in 2021 and 17% in 2022) want to continue defending Latvia but without responding militarily to the Russian nuclear strike.

Around 18% of the German population (17% in 2021 and 20% in 2022) would call for a non-nuclear retaliatory strike and around 10% of those surveyed are in favor of NATO also considering a demonstrative nuclear weapon explosion over the Black Sea .

Only around 13% (15% in 2021 and 11% in 2022) are in favor of immediately starting peace negotiations with Russia and ending the defense of Latvia. In the variation in which the NATO ship is attacked, respondents are more likely to choose more aggressive responses, such as non-nuclear military retaliation, rather than an end to Latvia’s defenses.

These results suggest that a nuclear escalation by Russia would not go the way Putin might envision. A demonstrative use of nuclear weapons seems to trigger more anger than fear in Germany and would therefore by no means lead directly to an end to a NATO operation.

Despite the many Russian nuclear threats in recent months, fewer respondents are intimidated by a nuclear strike in 2022 than in 2021. However, the high rate of “don’t know” responses indicates that public opinion is malleable and there is a lot to be said for such a scenario the political leadership will arrive.