War in Ukraine – The tactical nuclear arsenal, an opportunity for Moscow?


Russia’s use of a tactical nuclear weapon, less in explosive charge, is an option on the list of the myriad scenarios of this war.

A protester holds a sign with the text ‘From Trump to Putin, another nuclear threat’ during a demonstration against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in Madrid, on March 20, 2022.


A tactical nuclear weapon that is smaller in explosive charge than the strategic nuclear weapon is in theory intended for the battlefield and transported by a vector with a range of less than 5500 km. “At the vertical level, there is a real risk. They desperately need to win military victories to turn them into political leverage, ”said Mathieu Boulègue, of the British think tank Chatham House. “Chemical weapons would not change the face of war. A tactical nuclear weapon that would level a Ukrainian city, yes. It is unlikely, but not impossible. And it would be 70 years of nuclear deterrence theory that collapsed.

strategic weapons

Russian doctrine is the subject of debate. Some experts and military officials, especially in Washington, say that Moscow has abandoned the Soviet doctrine of not using the ultimate weapon first. Moscow now wanted the theory of “escalation to de-escalate” in its capabilities: to use the weapon in limited proportions to force NATO to withdraw.

But recent Russian statements have cast doubt on this interpretation. Moscow will only use nuclear weapons in Ukraine in the event of an “existential threat” to Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov assured CNN on Tuesday, citing one of the points in the official Russian doctrine. “We have not seen anything that leads us to conclude that we need to change our strategic stance on deterrence,” responded his Pentagon counterpart, John Kirby. Technically, Moscow is equipped.

1588 heads inserted

According to the highly respected Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “1,588 Russian nuclear warheads are exposed,” including 812 on land-based missiles, 576 on submarines and 200 on bombers. Slightly less than 1000 other heads are stored. For Pavel Luzin, an analyst at the Moscow-based think tank Riddle, Russia could use a tactical nuclear weapon “to demoralize an opponent, to prevent the enemy from continuing to fight.” The goal is first and foremost “demonstrative”, he adds. “But if the opponent still wants to fight next time, it can be used in a more direct way.”

“Initial Rubicon Crossed”

“In case one gets stuck or humiliated, one can imagine a vertical escalation. It is part of the Russian strategic culture to go into intimidation and escalation to achieve deescalation, ”recalls a senior French officer on condition of anonymity. “Putin did not go into this war to lose it.”

But others would like to believe that the absolute taboo persists. If Vladimir Putin decides to annihilate just one Ukrainian village to show his determination, the area will potentially be excluded from human life for decades.

“The political costs would be outrageous. He would lose the little support he has left. The Indians would retire, the Chinese too,” assures William Alberque, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). “I do not think Putin will.”

The fact is that even apart from the Ukrainian question, Russia would not enjoy such a status today without nuclear weapons. It would not pose a threat of such magnitude alone with its conventional forces, which for a month have shown enormous capacity for destruction, but also real tactical, operational and logistical weaknesses.

No security

In Western chancelleries, securities are no longer valid. “We have no reason to believe that Putin does not intend to go all the way and that he will not use all means to achieve it (…), possibly through the use of banned weapons,” a Western diplomat said. with reference to chemical substances. arms.

“The original Rubicon was crossed” during the invasion of Ukraine, “there really are no borders anymore,” he admits. But he hopes that this “taboo, which has lasted since August 9, 1945” and the bombing of Nagasaki will last.


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