Putin, Ukraine, and the Nuclear Threat, Redux

As Russian military failures in Ukraine pile up and Ukrainian forces counterattack and recover territory once seized by Russia, some analysts are raising the specter of Vladimir Putin’s possible employment of nuclear weapons. Such talk is not new. Even before he launched his invasion of Ukraine, Putin was rattling his nuclear saber, warning against Western interference with his assault on Ukraine and placing Russian nuclear forces on alert.

As I have argued in the past, although such a threat must be taken seriously, the likelihood of Putin using nuclear weapons appears low. In an essay for American Greatness  in April, I offered a tutorial on the evolution of nuclear technology, policy, and strategy explaining why this is the case. Even though Putin seems backed into a corner, I maintain that the potential costs of Putin’s use of nuclear weapons far outweigh the benefits to him.

A nuclear weapon produces a violent release of energy arising from either the fission or fusion of an atom. A conventional high explosive weapon generates blast and some heat. A nuclear weapon generates vastly more blast and heat as well as radiation.

Strategic, Theater, and Tactical Nukes

It is customary to classify nuclear weapons as “strategic,” i.e. capable of striking assets in the enemy’s homeland; “theater,” capable of striking strategically important targets within a theater of operations; and “tactical,” intended to attack enemy units or weapons in relatively close proximity to one’s own forces. 

Strategic weapons have generally featured a higher “yield” of explosive power. In the early years of the Cold War, the main means of delivery was a gravity bomb dropped by an aircraft. Next came ballistic missiles, both land and sea based. These were of intercontinental range, meaning that the United States could attack targets in the Soviet Union and vice versa. The United States ultimately deployed a nuclear “triad” consisting of strategic bombers (e.g., the B-52 and B-2), land based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The Soviet arsenal followed a similar pattern. At the theater and tactical level, delivery systems included aircraft, cannon artillery, and intermediate range ballistic missiles. Today, cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles are also in the mix.

With the end of the Cold War, the central importance of nuclear weapons to U.S. security policy declined sharply. Of course, there were concerns about potential rogue actors such as North Korea and Iran. And one of the justifications for launching the Second Gulf War was to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring a nuclear capability.

As a result, thinking about nuclear strategy and force structure atrophied. For instance, the 2010 Obama Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) stated that although Russia remains a nuclear peer, “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries, and prospects for military confrontation have declined dramatically.” The Trump NPR attempted to reinvigorate U.S. nuclear weapons policy and strategy, especially in light of the reemergence of great power confrontation and Russia’s nuclear modernization. Joe Biden has yet to issue his own NPR.

What does this all mean for Russia in Ukraine? According to the Arms Control Association (ACA), currently deployed U.S. and Russian warheads are about equal in number: 1,458 warheads on 527 intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles and bombers for Russia; and 1,389 warheads on 665 intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles and bombers for the United States. Both sides have more warheads in storage. No other country possesses anything near these numbers.

A major development in the evolution of nuclear strategy has been the vast improvements in accuracy. For instance, satellite-linked guidance systems make it possible to deliver a warhead much closer to a target than in the past. This means that even strategic nuclear weapons now feature reduced yields because of the cubic relationship between accuracy and effect: doubling the accuracy of a weapon is equivalent to increasing the yield eightfold.

In practice, this means that a more accurately delivered weapon requires a much smaller yield, compared to a less accurately delivered warhead, to achieve the same effect on the target, producing the necessary overpressures to destroy even hardened targets while simultaneously reducing collateral damage. Ironically, this theoretically removes an obstacle to the use of nuclear weapons, which has led some observers to express concern that increased accuracy means that nuclear weapons have become more “usable.” 

Given this reality, would Russia consider using tactical nuclear weapons within Ukraine to break the current stalemate? On the one hand, the Russians have apparently developed very low-yield nuclear warheads that can be delivered by air or short-range ballistic missile (SRBM). Of most concern is the Iskander-M (NATO designation SS-26 Stone), which has already been employed extensively to deliver nonnuclear explosives.

On the other hand, Russia possesses nonnuclear warheads that produce blast effects and overpressures similar to those of a small nuclear weapon, e.g. thermobaric weapons. The Russians no doubt also have munitions such as the U.S. Massive Ordnance Air-burst Bomb (MOAB), which was used against an ISIS tunnel complex in Afghanistan in 2017. The latter contains some 18,000 pounds of an ammonium nitrate/powdered aluminum gelled slurry detonated by a high explosive booster. 

Russia also has a nonnuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) warhead capable of knocking out communications and modern electronics in a broad area. Such a specialized Iskander radio frequency warhead delivered by an Iskander-M would affect electronics and communications within a radius of some 10 kilometers from the detonation point.

So far the United States and its NATO allies have been successful in providing aid to Ukraine without being drawn into a direct conflict with Russia. This is the mirror image of Soviet and Chinese support for North Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

But the critical fact is that Russia has already escalated the conflict in Ukraine, attempting to achieve the psychological effects of nuclear weapons by conventional means. It did so by launching a series of widespread and coordinated missile strikes against targets in 20 Ukrainian cities, attacking primarily civilian and critical infrastructure targets and leaving the country in ruins. Notably, Russia attacked Ukrainian thermal power plants and command centers, forcing Ukraine to impose emergency measures on electricity use.

These escalatory attacks were intended to raise the cost of the war for Ukraine. The fact that many of these targets were part of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is a signal to the Ukrainians that they are in for a long, cold winter. As the recent critical infrastructure attacks illustrate, for all of its operational, personnel, and logistical shortcomings, Russia still has escalatory options that Ukraine does not. But since Putin is achieving the same effect with his infrastructure attacks, there is no military reason for him to choose the nuclear option. 

In the end, as one commentator has noted, “Putin has nothing to lose by threatening to use nuclear weapons. But he has everything to lose by actually using them.” The reality is that technological advances have caused the effects of nuclear and nonnuclear weapons to converge, making it less likely that Russia will cross the nuclear Rubicon in Ukraine. 

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About Mackubin Owens

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a retired Marine, professor, and editor who lives in Newport, RI.

Photo: Contributor/Getty Images