The escalation of the war in Ukraine reached new levels on September 30th as Putin declared Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya oblasts of Ukraine Russian territory, while Russian forces de-facto control about 80% of the declared land (we believe no one is fooled by the fake “referendums” there). As the Ukrainian army is making advances in liberating the occupied territories, proclaiming them “Russian” has only one goal – creating an excuse for enacting Russia’s military doctrine that allows the use of nuclear weapons in case of an attack on Russian territory. Of course, this excuse will not fool anyone either. The key question is whether Russia will use nuclear weapons or whether the world can effectively deter it?
Today Russia owns approximately 1900 tactical nuclear warheads of up to 100 kilotons. Russia has different types of artillery that can carry nuclear warheads of different sizes and shoot at different distances. Technically, they can deliver it as far as 2500 km from the launching point with the help of 3M14 Kalibr cruise missile, Iskander-M, or right on the battlefield via “Malka” self-propelled gun.
Even the smallest 1 kiloton tactical nuclear warhead could affect up to 13 square kilometers of land while depositing a fatal radiation blast that will cover up to 2 square kilometers. A nuclear weapon even as small as 1 kiloton can create a catastrophe greater than any other type of weapon. These weapons would produce fireballs, shock waves, and deadly radioactive debris. The radiation left can contaminate air, water, and soil. Thus, Ukraine still spends about 5-7 percent of its budget on managing the effects of the Chornobyl nuclear catastrophe, 36 years afterwards. For more perspective, the Hiroshima explosion was 15 kilotons of nuclear warheads, which is still considered as a very small nuclear bomb. The immediate damage (as of August 1945) was estimated at 884 million yen, which in today’s dollars would be about $290 million. The bomb destroyed 70% of buildings in Hiroshima and killed about 140 thousand people by the end of 1945. Many of the survivors died later of cancer, leukemia, or other radiation side effects. Despite the huge tragedy of Hiroshima, the restoration of the city took only around two years, mostly due to the fact that the explosion happened in the sky over Hiroshima which saved most of the water and sanitation infrastructure from a blast of radiation.
If nuclear weapons are used in one of the southern regions (or if Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant is severely damaged), the consequences will be felt by the entire world since these are the main grain-producing regions of Ukraine.
For example, in 2018 Kherson region alone traded with over 120 countries, and about ⅔ of its territory (20 thousand square kilometers) is agricultural land that could be permanently destroyed by nuclear weapons. This will leave the world with a reduced supply and increased food prices for decades. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) concluded that the usage of even 1% of the world’s nuclear weapons would disrupt the global climate and threaten nearly two billion people with starvation. It would be followed by a refugee crisis larger than we have ever seen, which would be a huge threat to the global economy.
If Russia decides to use nuclear weapons, they would most likely use a warhead much over 1 kiloton. This step might totally change the ongoing war. But more importantly, it will have devastating consequences for global security. The first tactical nuclear shot, if it is not equally counter-reacted by Ukraine or its allies, will show the governments with terroristic or territorial claims on other countries that they can use tactical nuclear weapons too. It has the potential to provoke a chain reaction that could possibly involve larger strategic nuclear warheads up to 1,000 kilotons. The possible outcomes of these events are scary to imagine. Today, we are at the closest point to nuclear war since the Cold War. And while some NATO leaders still think in the paradigm of the Russia-Ukraine war, the war is already global and requires a global approach.
Yet, the UN and NATO are not proactive about planning for the danger. While Putin makes claims that since the United States used a nuclear weapon against Japan in 1945 he can use it in Ukraine, NATO does not reveal any plans of action in the case of nuclear weapon usage. Perhaps NATO is not making its response public because it does not involve the use of nuclear weapons. The leaders of NATO countries may believe that the potential outcome of a heavy response might add up to the nuclear destruction of their own countries and even the world. However, if Russia uses a nuclear weapon and NATO doesn’t respond equally, global leaders who claimed there would be an equal response would lose all their credibility.
With this being the case, the only feasible solution to the current situation is being pursued by the Ukrainian government. First, NATO must secure Ukraine as an official member of the alliance or provide security guarantees until the formal accession process is completed. Second, Ukraine’s allies should expand its military arsenal, including the provision of nuclear weapons from NATO to Ukraine. Potentially, Ukraine could be able to have a minimal nuclear arsenal on its own. The smallest nuclear bomb currently owned by the US Army “B-61” could carry up to 400 kilotons. The cost of the newest version “B-61 mod 12” is estimated to be at least $28 million per unit, excluding the price of a carrier.
However, while Ukraine does not have its own warheads, NATO nuclear weapons in Ukraine is the only solution. Ukraine’s ability to protect itself with nuclear weapons will create a credible threat of retaliation to Russia and will deter Russia from using a nuclear weapon in the first place. The non-zero probability of a nuclear response from Ukraine will not only reduce the risk of a nuclear war (recall the concept of mutually assured destruction that kept the Cold War cold), but also increase the chances of a regime change in Russia. But more importantly, it will show to other authoritarian states that democracies are capable of protecting themselves and enforcing international law.
The author doesn`t work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations