I have been reading quite a lot of speculation that the longer the Russo-Ukraine war continues with little prospect of any sort of a Russian victory the more likely that Putin will resort of tactical nuclear weapons. Indeed, a recent article in the Daily Telegraph has suggested that “Britain should prepare for a nuclear war”. So, is Europe looking into the abyss on nuclear Armageddon?
The answer is probably not. But first of all, let’s make the distinction between strategic nuclear weapons and tactical ones clear. Strategic nukes have a huge explosive potential, many times that of those dropped by the US on Japan at the end of the Second World War. Tactical nukes have a much lower yield, although still powerful, and are designed to have effect on the battlefield when conventional weaponry has not achieved the desired results.
Tactical nuclear weapons, on the other hand, are designed to be used as part of a battlefield plan in conjunction with all the other weaponry available to modern armies. That doesn’t mean that their effects are not devastating. Some types have a variable yield, which allows their destructive power can be calibrated for a specific attack and avoid some aspects of the inevitable collateral damage axiomatic in such attacks.
The main problem is that any use of nuclear weapons whether strategic or tactical will inevitably lead to an escalation of the conflict. In the case of Russian operations in Ukraine their use would lead almost certainly to intervention by NATO and a direct confrontation between the USA and Russia, and there is little doubt that Russia would lose and lose badly. Putin knows this and will want to avoid that scenario at all costs.
The only circumstances that I can see in which Putin might authorise the use of tactical nukes is in the face of an existential threat to the very existence of Russia. The present conflict does not represent that as long as it is generally confined within the borders of Ukraine. No Ukrainian politician is calling for a general attack on Russian territory, and demands are restricted to the handing back on Russian occupied territory including the Donbas and Crimea.
There is no current existential threat to the Russian state and that is why I think it unlikely in the extreme that they will employ tactical nuclear weapons in the current confrontation. Others have commented that it is just sabre-rattling by the Russians.
I think this is absolutely correct. At the present time and in the current circumstances the probability of the Russians using nuclear weapons in Ukraine are close to zero. Those predicting it are scaremongering and need to stop.