The Consequences of a Potential Russian Tactical Nuclear Weapon Strike in Ukraine

What are tactical nuclear weapons, and why would their use have global repercussions.
2S7M Malka Army-2018

Russia is increasingly deploying more powerful weapons such as thermobaric bombs and hypersonic missiles in Ukraine… But they also have deadly tactical nuclear weapons in their arsenal.

Given the casualties they have, it’s conceivable that they may resort to drastic measures to recover control in Ukraine.

So, what are tactical nuclear weapons? Would the use of this kind of weapon be feasible from a tactical standpoint? Is Russia willing to use them?

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Tactical nuclear weapons

Tactical nuclear weapons are short-range nuclear weapons usually smaller in explosive power and designed to use in close proximity to friendly forces and controversially even on friendly territory.

They vary greatly in size and power. The smallest can be one kiloton or less (equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT)… And the largest ones can reach 100 kilotons, which is greater than the atomic bombs used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

tactical nuclear weapon
One of the smallest nuclear warheads ever developed

But, they’re small compared to the most potent nuclear weapons of all time, the Tzar Bomba, which has a massive nuclear explosion of 58 megatons – 3,300 times more powerful than the Little Boy, the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

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So, the explosion of tactical nuclear weapons might not be as destructive as a full-blown nuclear war, but it would nevertheless instill a tremendous fear worldwide.

Russia has thousands of tactical nuclear weapons

Although Russian troops have advanced on Ukraine in the past month, they have also encountered fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces.

As a result, the use of tactical nuclear weapons is still one of the innumerable potential war scenarios, especially since the Russian military is facing unprecedented opposition from the Ukrainian forces.

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Russia is believed to have around 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, and they can be placed on various types of missiles that are normally used to deliver conventional bombs such as the Iskander missiles or the Kalibr.

They can even be fired as artillery shells on a battlefield using the Malka system.

Russian bombing has been restrained…

tactical nuclear weapon
ArtilleryExercise2020-22 by the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation. Licensed under CC by 4.0

Russian bombing could potentially wreak havoc on Ukraine. Still, currently, the Russian Armed Forces are restraining themselves because they are inflicting less damage and casualties than they could if they started using “carpet bombing.”  A devastating bombing attack that seeks to destroy every target in a wide area.

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Even if a portion of those strikes have damaged and destroyed civilian structures, the level of destruction is relatively small compared to Russia’s capabilities.

If Russia were deliberately destructive the casualties would be much higher. When compared to major bombing raids in history such as the bombing of Tokyo that killed around 100,000 people in a single night, the limited bombing of Ukrainian cities shows that the attacks are still somewhat carefully planned.

So, in the current conditions is not likely that Russia would use tactical nuclear weapons.

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If Russia used nuclear weapons, it could lose the support of other powers, such as China, which would strongly oppose the use of nuclear weapons – and Russia would lose its only option to replace western economic alliances.

However, war is unpredictable, and a lot can change… And since these weapons are not as powerful as conventional nuclear warheads, their use is feasible in a desperate situation or human error.

The use of tactical nuclear weapons would set a bad precedent

Army2016demo 075
Army2016demo-075 by Vitaly Kuzmin. Licensed under CC by 4.0

Russia has referred to its nuclear power several times, apparently to instill a sense of fear in NATO members and thus prevent them from entering the conflict in Ukraine.

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But suppose Russia uses one of its tactical nuclear weapons. In that case, other nuclear military powers could begin to imitate and trivialize the deployment of these kinds of weapons, too – and if the use of nuclear weaponry of any size gets normalized, modern warfare will change forever.

Russia must avoid nuclear weapons at all costs

Russia has a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the entire world, and no one can prevent Russia from using its tactical nuclear weapons.

However, Russia has to keep its nuclear arsenal at the bay level because a first nuclear attack since World War 2 would surely cost them the political and economic alliance they have with China, which is currently one of few allies they still have in the world.

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Featured image credit: 2S7M Malka Army-2018 by Boevaya Mashina, Licensed under CC by 4.0