President Joe Biden asked Congress for $33-billion to help Ukraine and stock markets tanked because the allocation indicates that Russia’s war will last at least another year. The notion of a protracted war has also led to the resurgence of fear about nuclear conflict, stoked by Putin who claimed in February to have put his nuclear deterrence forces on “high alert”. In March, he tested two hypersonic missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads at speeds fast enough to elude conventional anti-missile defenses. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that “all of the countries of the world” should be prepared for the possibility that Putin could use “tactical nuclear weapons” in Ukraine. So the question is will Putin use nukes or won’t he?
Decades of negotiations to create arms control agreements have slowly reduced the number of intercontinental nukes, or “strategic nuclear weapons”, capable of destroying cities and countries. But the world has become awash in so-called “tactical nuclear weapons” because they are exempt from nuclear arms control agreements due to their size and the claim they are “non-strategic”. “Tactical nuclear weapons are designed to be on a battlefield in a military situation, mostly with friendly forces in proximity and perhaps even on contested friendly territory,” reads one definition.
This is rubbish, a loophole has made the world more dangerous than ever. It means that using a nuke inside a nation you are at “war” with is okay but not an intercontinental one. Besides that, these weapons, collectively and individually, have become more lethal. Not only are they portable — and can be fired from moving targets such as artillery, ships, aircraft, or conventional missiles — but are as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. “Tactical nuclear weapons” range in size from 1 kiloton to 100 kilotons: the atom bomb in Hiroshima was 15-kilotons and killed 146,000 people, created a fireball radius of about 100 meters and destroyed everything inside a 1.6-kilometer radius. Estimates are that Russia has 1,500 of these while the U.S. has several hundred.
The print on the table above is tiny but here are the salient facts: The Federation of American Scientists estimates that the total nuclear warhead inventories of 13,000 in 2022 “include stockpiled warheads for use by military forces as well retired warheads in the queue for dismantlement. Of the 9,440 warheads in the military stockpiles, about 3,730 are deployed on ballistic missiles and bomber bases [“tactical” nukes]. Approximately, 2,000 warheads on ballistic missiles are on alert and can be launched on short notice.” Put another way, some 3,730 warheads represent the world’s unregulated stash of “tactical nuclear weapons”.
Below is a “conflict” map of Europe which shows the extent of nuclear capability on the continent. Locations include NATO countries —nuclearized and not — that host U.S. nuclear facilities in undisclosed, and likely changing, locations. NATO’s two other nuclear powers, France and Britain, also have formidable nuclear forces. Then there’s Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Hundreds of these nukes are located on submarines, ships, missile bases, and bomber aircraft. Their locations are top secret but monitored by one another’s intelligence operations. For instance, after Putin scared everyone that he had put his nuclear forces on “high alert”, U.S. and NATO intelligence spokesmen later said there was no indication that had happened.
European conflict map showing nuclear facilities in the European theater: NATO and Russian
Obviously, taking on NATO would be suicidal, but NATO has stood on the sidelines as Ukraine was invaded and is being destroyed and may do so even if a bomb is dropped. Unfortunately, the same pattern emerges concerning a Russian nuclear threat — NATO and America scold but don’t pointedly threaten him with specific, commensurate, and horrific attacks or violence. This is why tactics must shift: NATO’s three nuclear powers – the U.S., France, and Britain – must heighten their rhetoric and shift away from shaming Russia as “irresponsible for talking about nuclear escalation” or from Biden’s opaque, nuanced and polite veiled threat that “we are prepared for whatever they do”. Their message should be, in private, “Mr. Putin if you drop a nuke on Ukraine or NATO soil, we will respond in kind” or better yet a blunt Russian-style threat — “if you drop a nuke on Ukraine we will vaporize your Black Sea and Arctic fleets in 15 minutes”.
Perhaps that has happened, but anxiety remains, and the failure to do so publicly represents another “deterrence and assurance gap” that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley has referred to. Scolding and shaming did not frighten Putin away from invading Ukraine in February when Biden spoke of “swift and severe” consequences. And NATO squabbling doesn’t help either. As one military expert told me “the three NATO powers [U.S., Britain, France] are the only adults in the NATO room and they have to make the call. Perhaps any nuclear attack in Ukraine should be matched by a nuclear attack on a Russian city or by attacks on Putin’s tactical nuclear capability everywhere”.
Retired U.S. General Barry McCaffrey said recently that he doesn’t believe that Putin will drop a nuke on Ukraine. “I cannot imagine a lieutenant colonel in the Russian Air Force telling Mr. Putin this is a good idea. We have tactical nuclear weapons sitting on submarines of the U.S. Navy that, within 15 minutes, could respond to a tactical attack. No one in their right mind thinks you can win a nuclear conflict,” he said.
But what if Putin is not in his right mind or if a frustrated Putin decides to use a single tactical nuke in Ukraine as the war grinds down his forces and patience to bring the country to its knees – as happened in 1945 when Japan surrendered after the nuclear attacks. Of this, McCaffrey points out that Ukraine is “not Japan in 1945. Ukrainians would fight even harder if he used a tactical nuclear weapon.”
All evidence points to the fact that Putin is rational which is why he hasn’t dropped a bomb or two already to end the conflict. A red line, with ruinous consequences for Russia, must be delineated publicly if Putin uses chemical or nuclear weapons or bombs a nuclear facility in Ukraine. NATO’s big three must pre-emptively provide blanket nuclear protection to prevent Putin from speeding up his genocidal war with weapons of mass destruction. Shaming, scolding, and gentlemanly threats are pointless. Only a stern ultimatum will fortify Ukraine’s heroic struggle to survive and protect Europe’s future.