Skip to main content

Ryan Robertson

Anchor, Investigative Reporter

Share
International

How, why Russia might use nuclear weapons in Ukraine

Jul 21, 2023

Share

Ryan Robertson

Anchor, Investigative Reporter

Share

From the start of the invasion in Ukraine, the threat of nuclear weapons has loomed large on the battlefield. Russian President Vladimir Putin regularly says the use of tactical nukes is very much on the table. President Biden said those threats are very real, but what does that mean?

Nuclear arsenals

Nine countries around the world have nuclear weapons at their disposal, and the exact numbers are a closely guarded secret. However, it is known the United States and Russia have the most, with Russia beating out the U.S. by about 500 warheads.

Of course, just like the U.S., not every nuclear bomb in Russia’s arsenal is ready to use. Most are in storage, and some are being decommissioned. The Russians have about 1,600 deployed warheads of various sizes, very similar to the U.S.

Those warheads have come a long way in their potential for devastation since the U.S. dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It’s important to understand the impact of nuclear weapons is measured in terms of kilotons or megatons. A one kiloton bomb has the same destructive power as 1,000 tons of TNT. 1,000 kilotons equal one megaton.

The bombs used in World War II had a strength of about 15 kilotons. The largest nuclear bomb ever detonated, Tsar Bomba in the 1960s, had a 50-megaton yield.

Today, most U.S. nukes have an explosive yield around 300 kilotons while Russian nukes typically range from 50-100 kilotons on the low end and 500-800 kilotons on the high end. But there are larger weapons in both countries’ stockpiles.

“Nuclear weapons are actually used every day,” said Dr. Tyler White, the director of the National Security Program at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“So, every single day, we have a nuclear deterrent that we use, and we use that to assure our allies that we will take care of them and defend them. And we assure our adversaries that if they do something, we will, you know, respond in kind.”

Types of nuclear devices: strategic and tactical

Strategic weapons are usually what is thought of when it comes to nuclear warheads. They tend to be larger and are delivered by things like intercontinental ballistic missiles, cruise missiles launched from submarines, or guided bombs dropped from planes.

Russia’s newest strategic weapon is the Poseidon torpedo. The length of a tennis court, it’s meant to be detonated underwater, producing radioactive tsunamis.

A Russian propagandist claimed the Poseidon could wipe out the British Isles with a 500-meter-tall radioactive wave, a claim most in the West dispute as outlandish.

Tactical nukes are harder to define. They can have yields between five and 50 kilotons, enough to destroy cities, and are designed to be used on the battlefield.

“When you’re thinking about how these things could be used, you got to think about the strategy, and there might be a couple of different things that Putin could do,” White said. “Thing number one is he could use it as a signaling device, right? So, he could find a target like Snake Island or something like that and detonate a nuclear weapon there. He’s not going to kill very many people. But he’s going to demonstrate, ‘Hey, I just broke the nuclear taboo and I’m willing to use these weapons. Your move,’ right? He could also use them on the battlefield to destroy formations, right? He could try to wipe out a Ukrainian, you know, offensive or something like that. And that would deal a significant military blow to the Ukrainians, but also again, breaks the nuclear taboo.”

So that’s how Putin might use nukes in Ukraine. As far as the why; if Russian troops continue facing setbacks on the battlefield and Putin is backed into a corner, the consensus is he may decide to launch a nuclear strike to stave off defeat and save himself from being thrown out of office.

“I think Putin is Russia, right? And Russia is Putin. And that’s the way he wants it to be,” White said. “In political science, we have this sort of term ‘gambling for resurrection.’ What happens when all the chips are down, and you need a big move to try to change your situation?”

“And so, you know, if he’s looking at what could be a resounding defeat, does he use nuclear weapons as a way of trying to gamble for resurrection, right? To try to turn the tide in a really, really important way? Particularly if he feels his own personal future is at stake, right? And I think, to him, that’s way more important than what happens to Russia,” White said.

Most experts agree the odds of Putin using nukes in Ukraine are low, but they aren’t zero. It’s why the U.S and other Western allies have been so cautious in arming Ukraine, and why they’ll continue to be.

So, what would happen if Putin were to authorize a nuclear strike in Ukraine or elsewhere? Well, it’s likely the United States, as the military leader of NATO, already has several responses ready to go. However, the response would be dependent on how and where Russia attacked.

Access the next report in our series on nuclear weapons and the Ukraine War below:

Tags: , , , , , ,

FROM THE START OF THE INVASION IN UKRAINE, THE THREAT OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS HAS LOOMED LARGE ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN REGULARLY SAYS THE USE OF TACTICAL NUKES IS VERY MUCH ON THE TABLE. PRESIDENT BIDEN SAYS THOSE THREATS ARE VERY REAL, BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

LET’S START HERE:

NINE COUNTRIES AROUND THE WORLD HAVE NUCLEAR WEAPONS AT THEIR DISPOSAL, AND THE EXACT NUMBERS ARE A CLOSELY GUARDED SECRET.

WE DO KNOW THE UNITED STATES AND RUSSIA HAVE THE MOST, WITH RUSSIA BEATING OUT THE U.S. BY ABOUT 500 WARHEADS.

OF COURSE, JUST LIKE THE U.S., NOT EVERY NUCLEAR BOMB IN RUSSIA’S ARSENAL IS READY TO USE. MOST ARE IN STORAGE AND SOME ARE BEING DECOMMISSIONED. THE RUSSIANS HAVE ABOUT 1600 DEPLOYED WARHEADS OF VARIOUS SIZES, AGAIN, VERY SIMILAR TO THE U.S.

AND THOSE WARHEADS HAVE COME A LONG WAY IN THEIR POTENTIAL FOR DEVASTATION SINCE THE U.S. DROPPED BOMBS ON HIROSHIMA AND NAGASAKI.

IT’S IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND THE IMPACT OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS IS MEASURED IN TERMS OF KILOTONS OR MEGATONS. A ONE KILOTON BOMB HAS THE SAME DESTRUCTIVE POWER AS 1000 TONS OF TNT. 1000 KILOTONS IS ONE MEGATON.

THE BOMBS USED IN WORLD WAR II HAD A STRENGTH OF ABOUT 15 KILOTONS.
THE LARGEST NUCLEAR BOMB EVER DETONATED, TSAR BOMBA IN THE 1960S, HAD A 50 MEGATON YIELD.

TODAY, MOST U.S. NUKES HAVE AN EXPLOSIVE YIELD AROUND 300 KILOTONS WHILE RUSSIAN NUKES TYPICALLY RANGE FROM 50-100 KILOTONS ON THE LOW END AND 500-800 KILOTONS ON THE HIGH END. BUT THERE ARE LARGER WEAPONS IN BOTH COUNTRIES’ STOCKPILES.

Doctor Tyler White: Nuclear weapons are actually used every day, right? So, every single day, we have a nuclear deterrent that we use, and we use that to assure our allies that we will take care of them and defend them. And we assure our adversaries that if they do something, we will, we will, you know, respond in kind.

TYLER WHITE, THE DIRECTOR OF THE NATIONAL SECURITY PROGRAM AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA, SAYS NUKES CAN BE USED TO DETER OR COMPEL ADVERSARIES.

THAT BRINGS US TO CATEGORIES: STRATEGIC AND TACTICAL.

STRATEGIC WEAPONS ARE USUALLY WHAT WE THINK OF WHEN IT COMES TO NUCLEAR WARHEADS. THEY TEND TO BE LARGER AND ARE DELIVERED BY THINGS LIKE INTERCONTINENTAL BALLISTIC MISSILES, CRUISE MISSILES LAUNCHED FROM SUBMARINES, OR GUIDED BOMBS DROPPED FROM PLANES.

RUSSIA’S NEWEST STRATEGIC WEAPON IS THE POSEIDON TORPEDO. THE LENGTH OF A TENNIS COURT, IT’S MEANT TO BE DETONATED UNDERWATER, PRODUCING RADIOACTIVE TSUNAMIS.

A RUSSIAN PROPAGANDIST CLAIMED THE POSEIDON COULD WIPE OUT THE BRITISH ISLES WITH A 500-METER-TALL RADIOACTIVE WAVE, A CLAIM MOST IN THE WEST DISPUTE AS OUTLANDISH.

TACTICAL NUKES ARE HARDER TO DEFINE. THEY CAN HAVE YIELDS BETWEEN FIVE AND 50 KILOTONS, ENOUGH TO DESTROY CITIES, AND ARE DESIGNED TO BE USED ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

White: When you’re thinking about how these things could be used, you got to think about the strategy. And there might be a couple of different things that Putin could do. Thing number one is he could use it as a signaling device, right? So, he could find a target like Snake Island or something like that and detonate a nuclear weapon there. He’s not going to kill very many people. But he’s going to demonstrate, ‘Hey, I just broke the nuclear taboo and I’m willing to use these weapons. Your move,’ right? He could also use them on the battlefield to destroy formations, right? He could try to wipe out a Ukrainian, you know, offensive or something like that. And that would deal a significant military blow to the Ukrainians, but also again, breaks the nuclear taboo.

SO THAT’S HOW PUTIN MIGHT USE NUKES IN UKRAINE. AS FAR AS THE WHY, WELL, IF RUSSIAN TROOPS CONTINUE FACING SETBACKS ON THE BATTLEFIELD AND PUTIN IS BACKED INTO A CORNER, THE CONSENSUS IS HE MAY DECIDE TO LAUNCH A NUCLEAR STRIKE TO STAVE OFF DEFEAT AND SAVE HIMSELF FROM BEING THROWN OUT OF OFFICE.

White: I think Putin is Russia, Right? And Russia is Putin. And that’s the way he wants it to be. In political science, we have this sort of term ‘gambling for resurrection.’ What happens when all the chips are down, and you need a big move to try to change your situation?

And so, you know, if he’s looking at what could be a resounding defeat, does he use nuclear weapons as a way of trying to gamble for resurrection, right? To try to turn the tide in a really, really important way? Particularly if he feels his own personal future is at stake, right? And I think, to him, that’s way more important than what happens to Russia.

MOST EXPERTS AGREE THE ODDS OF PUTIN USING NUKES IN UKRAINE ARE LOW, BUT THEY AREN’T ZERO. IT’S WHY THE U.S AND OTHER WESTERN ALLIES HAVE BEEN SO CAUTIOUS IN ARMING UKRAINE, AND WHY THEY’LL CONTINUE TO BE.

SO, WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF– GOD FORBID–PUTIN WERE TO AUTHORIZE A NUCLEAR STRIKE IN UKRAINE OR ELSEWHERE? WELL, IT’S LIKELY THE UNITED STATES, AS THE MILITARY LEADER OF NATO, ALREADY HAS SEVERAL RESPONSES READY TO GO. HOWEVER, THE RESPONSE WOULD BE DEPENDENT ON HOW AND WHERE RUSSIA ATTACKED. WE DIVE MORE INTO THOSE TOPICS IN PART TWO OF THIS SERIES. YOU CAN FIND THAT STORY AND MORE UNBIASED, STRAIGHT FACT REPORTING AT SAN DOT COM.