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Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he is ready to use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory, raising fears that he might use small nuclear weapons known as “tactical” nuclear weapons in Russia’s war with Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden warned him against resorting to these weapons and said that this would be the most serious military escalation since World War II.
What are tactical nuclear weapons?
Tactical nuclear weapons are small nuclear warheads and launch systems intended for use on the battlefield, or to deliver a limited strike to the enemy.
It is designed to destroy enemy targets in a specific area without causing widespread radioactive fallout.
The destructive power of the smallest tactical nuclear weapon may reach one kiloton or less (meaning the force of the resulting explosion is equivalent to one thousand tons of TNT explosive) and the largest may reach 100 kilotons.
Strategic nuclear weapons are more destructive (up to 1,000 kilotons) and are launched from long distances.
For comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 had a power of 15 kilotons.
What tactical nuclear weapons does Russia have?
According to US intelligence, Russia has about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons.
Tactical nuclear warheads can be mounted on different types of missiles that usually carry conventional warheads such as winged missiles and artillery shells.
Tactical nuclear weapons can also be launched from aircraft and ships such as anti-ship missiles, torpedoes and depth charges.
The United States says that Russia has recently spent huge sums of money on these weapons in order to improve their range and accuracy.
Have tactical nuclear weapons ever been used?
Tactical nuclear weapons have not been used in conflicts. Nuclear powers such as the United States and Russia have found the destruction of targets on the battlefield with modern conventional munitions equally effective.
In addition, no nuclear-weapon state has yet been willing to risk launching all-out nuclear war with tactical nuclear weapons.
However, Russia may be more willing to use smaller tactical weapons rather than larger strategic missiles.
“Russia may not see that it is crossing a large nuclear threshold when using these weapons, it may consider that as part of its conventional forces,” says Dr. Patricia Lewis, head of the International Security Program at Britain’s Chatham House think-tank.
Do threats cause to worry?
In February 2022, shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, President Putin put Russia’s nuclear forces on “special combat readiness” and held important nuclear maneuvers.
A few days ago, Putin indirectly threatened to use nuclear weapons, “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will undoubtedly use all available means to protect Russia and our people, and this is not just talk.”
Russia plans to annex the regions of southern and eastern Ukraine that it occupied by holding nominal referendums to create separatist “people’s republics” to join Russia. Putin said he was ready to defend “the territorial integrity of Russia by all means.”
US intelligence sees this as a threat to the West intended to dissuade it from helping Ukraine try to reclaim these territories rather than as evidence that it is planning a nuclear war.
But others worry that if Russia faces further setbacks on the battlefield, it may be tempted to use a smaller tactical weapon in Ukraine as a “game changer” aimed at breaking the stalemate on the battlefield or avoiding defeat.
“I’m really concerned that in these circumstances Putin would probably use a nuclear weapon on the ground in Ukraine to terrorize everyone and to get his way,” says James Acton, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. “We’re not there yet.”
How did the United States respond?
US President Joe Biden has warned Russia not to use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine. Speaking during an interview with CBS News, he said such a move would “change the nature of the war in Ukraine in a way not seen since World War II,” adding, “It will have consequences.”
It is difficult to predict how the United States and NATO will respond to Russia’s use of nuclear weapons. They may not want to escalate the situation further and risk all-out nuclear war, but they may also want to set a red line for Russia.
Russia may also be deterred from the use of tactical nuclear weapons by another power, China.
“Russia is very dependent on Chinese support,” says Dr Heather Williams, a nuclear expert at King’s College London.
And China adopts the doctrine of “we will not be the first to use nuclear weapons.” So if Putin uses it, it will be very difficult for China to stand by him. “If he uses it, he will probably lose China’s friendship.”