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Tactical Nukes: A Primer
Irina Nakhova's art installation in the Russian Pavilion during the 2015 Venice Biennale.

Tactical Nukes: A Primer

Catch up to speed on the role of tactical nuclear weapons in Putin’s war strategy.

Henry Sokolski, Iulia-Sabina Joja

Iulia Joja interviews Henry Sokolski, the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, about how tactical nuclear weapons might play into Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine strategy.

What are tactical nuclear weapons and how many do Russia and NATO have?

Tactical nuclear weapons have yields that range from a fraction of a kiloton upward to 50 kilotons or more. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki had a yield of 20 kilotons. Tactical weapons are designed to be used in regional wars and can have standoff ranges measured in tens to hundreds of kilometers. The United States has about 100 tactical weapons stored in Italy, Germany, Turkey, Belgium, and the Netherlands. All of these are B-61 gravity bombs that fit on fighter bombers stationed within NATO. Russia is believed to have roughly 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, which have a yield from several kilotons to over 100 kilotons. The Russians are most likely to deliver these warheads with a variety of missiles that they currently use to deliver conventional high explosives.

Is fear about tactical nuclear weapons all hype? What is a sober assessment of the current situation and a decent forecast of at least the next weeks?

Fear of Putin using nuclear weapons is not all hype but, in the short run, it mostly is and for the simplest of reasons: Russia stores its theater nuclear warheads separately from its delivery systems at 12 national sites. In anticipation of use, Russia would move these warheads from these national sites to one or more of 34 forward bases that are much closer to operational fronts. Although Russia has moved nuclear-capable bombers closer to the front, so far, Western intelligence have seen no movements from Russia’s nuclear storage sites.

But President Biden compared the current situation to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Is that hype?

It is. The president’s remarks certainly were timely: they were made on the 60th anniversary of the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But that crisis was the result of a deliberate plan by Khrushchev and the Politburo to base Russian nuclear missile systems in Cuba. Once U.S. intelligence confirmed the deployment, a 13-day crisis ensued in which Russian and American naval combatants engaged (in the case of the United States, in massive numbers), an American U-2 was shot down (killing the pilot), and American nuclear forces went on alert. So far, on day 230 of the Ukraine war, nothing like this has yet occurred.

How likely is it that Putin will use nuclear weapons? Why wouldn’t he; when and why might he?

Russia’s use of nuclear weapons risks NATO responding with even more assistance to Ukraine, including selling it the means to fire more deeply into Russia. It might also occasion NATO or American strikes against Russia’s theater nuclear-related bases and assets. If Russian radiation enters Polish or Romanian territories, NATO might well consider a formal NATO response under Article V. This could include attacking Russian forces in Ukraine and in its adjacent waters. Finally, any Russian use of nuclear weapons would make NATO acceptance of Ukrainian membership more likely to occur, and sooner. None of these outcomes are ones Putin wants.

There is a chance, however, that Putin will feel cornered, in which case he might use nuclear weapons to shock NATO, Ukraine, and the United States into pausing combat and negotiating a ceasefire that might advantage Moscow. If Russia did use nuclear weapons, its military is trained to use them against military forces on the ground. In this case, Russia would try to use them against the largest concentration of Ukrainian military forces it could find. Such concentrations, though, are quite rare. Russia might also consider conducting a high-altitude detonation to disable Ukrainian command, control, and communications or a demonstration shot that might not kill anyone.

What are Putin’s non-nuclear options to reverse his battlefield disadvantages?

Putin is sending large numbers of troops into Belarus. He could stage a ground assault from Belarus. He also might try staging air or missile attacks from Belarus. The aim here would be to create a new, northern front of operations to keep Ukrainian forces from advancing further to the east and south. Putin also could continue to attack Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and cities with missiles to force Ukraine to negotiate on terms acceptable to Russia. Putin would likely try these gambits well before using nuclear arms.

The Biden administration has talked tall in terms of response. How do you respond without increasing the chances of escalation?

Washington supports a negotiated settlement but it says it must only be on terms that Ukraine can accept. Certainly, negotiation that gives Moscow a clear “win” could set a bad precedent, one that could encourage Russia (and China) to threaten more nuclear hostage-taking and additional invasions. Still, if Russia were to use nuclear weapons, the United States and NATO would be expected to take “proportionate” military actions of the sort detailed above. In an effort to avoid further escalation, the response would likely be nonnuclear. Whether or not this would prevent the worst—i.e., more Russian nuclear use—is unclear.

Can you speak to us about nuclear anxieties in countries like Germany and Japan? If Russia goes nuclear, how is this likely to change the political debate in Europe and elsewhere on the war?

It is certain that Russian use of nuclear weapons would focus national discussions globally about how useful it is to make nuclear threats and whether or not it’s best to have or acquire a nuclear arsenal of one’s own. What’s unclear is where this discussion might go—toward acquiring and using more nuclear weapons or away. Much depends on whether or not Putin and Russia are seen to have lost more after nuclear use than they have gained.

Henry Sokolski, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future (2d ed., 2019). He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. secretary of defense from 1989 to 1993.

Iulia Joja teaches at Georgetown and George Washington University, runs the Middle East Institute’s Black Sea program in Washington, D.C., and is co-host of the AEI podcast “Eastern Front.”

Image: Grappa Studio