Ever since it became apparent that Putin’s “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine was only ‘special’ in the sarcastic sense, there have been articles assessing whether Putin might reach for the nuclear button. Very broadly, these have come from two distinct camps: the military analysts, who’ve focused more on the practical limitations of tactical or low-yield nukes and who tend to think that Putin would have to be mad to use them, and political science types (what we used to call “Kremlinologists”) who’ve wondered whether he is that mad, and have tended to the view that he isn’t.
What’s slightly unusual about retired Brigadier General Kevin Ryan’s recent article in UnHerd – in which he argues that Putin will use “a tactical nuclear weapon” – is that he’s a former high-ranking military man who, instead of addressing any of the practical military issues of battlefield nukes, looks for signs and portents about their possible use in Putin’s public statements and the like. However, his interesting and varied military biography might suggest why – I think it’s fair to say he’s more of a politics/intelligence and Kremlinology guy. I had to go to his biography because I was rather startled by his assumptions about tactical nukes:
Today, a single nuclear strike in Ukraine could thwart a Ukrainian counterattack with little loss of Russian lives. […] Tens of thousands of Ukrainians will be dead, suffering or dealing with the effects of the explosion.
I find this startling, because he does seem to be saying that Putin will use, and will only need to use, just one tactical nuclear weapon – grossly overstating the effectiveness of a tactical nuclear weapon (which would have to be dropped on a population centre to kill so many people, for one thing). This is an important error, because the false assumption of the supreme effectiveness of tactical nukes undermines the entire argument. To illustrate my point, Freeman Dyson and the Pentagon’s ‘wise men’ undertook a study during the Vietnam War in which it was estimated that to be effective in conducting a bombing campaign like Operation Rolling Thunder, but using nukes, would require dropping 3,000 per year, and would only be effective in “stopping the enemy from moving large masses of men in concentrated formations”. With these and other political considerations, the analysts succeeded in discouraging anyone in the military from bringing it up again.
Of course, the Vietnam War is not directly comparable to the war in Ukraine, and this also ignores the other important reasons as to why tactical nukes are a very silly idea (which I addressed previously). But the point remains – with greater force, given Ukraine’s improved air defences – that tactical nukes are no wonder-weapon for Putin.
Why does the myth persist? I think it can partly be explained by psychology: we’ve been trained to fear not just nuclear war but also radioactivity itself for decades, and we thus exaggerate the effects of the weapons. Exploiting highly questionable or outright false ideas, themes and stories like ‘nuclear winter’ and the dystopic Lord of the Flies, the post-apocalyptic genre (whether it’s a nuclear or biological apocalypse) has been an ever-present facet of our shared cultural life for decades, and the Cold War is still very resonant for those of us who lived through it, or even a part of it.
Don’t get me wrong – a full-scale nuclear exchange would be so bad that it might be better to be killed in one of the blasts rather than survive. But we’ve become so, well, frit in recent years. Based mainly on the widely-debunked ‘linear no-threshold model’ of radiation exposure risk, the accident at Fukushima, instead of demonstrating how safe nuclear power is even when the power station is hit by an effing tsunami, had precisely the opposite effect, with people panicking just like during Covid. And, of course, Germany has now closed its nuclear power stations – presumably fearing some kind of wild scenario of the sort so falsely portrayed in the historical drama Chernobyl. It’s ’elf ‘n’ safety, innit – and part of the new millenarianism expressed through such public acts of penance and mortification as Net Zero and mask-wearing.
But it turns out that Russians are quite susceptible to nuclear fearmongering, too. There was apparently a comical example of this recently in Ukraine. Following the U.K.’s agreement to supply Ukraine with depleted uranium (DU) anti-tank rounds, Putin came up with some nonsense about DU being a “nuclear component”, which was followed by reports of Russian soldiers surrendering in larger-than-usual numbers (maybe only a couple of hundred at most, but still significant) rather than face these terrifying “nuclear” weapons – presumably forcing commanders to explain that Putin was once again talking rot. Unfortunately, I can’t verify these reports, so take them with a pinch of salt, but they seem somewhat credible. Of course, DU is not fissile and not a radiological hazard – the uranium having been depleted of its fissile isotope U-235 – but even by-products of anything ‘nuclear’ are scary to some people, so of course there had to be articles in the Western media explaining to us why DU isn’t dangerous.
In terms of what an actual nuclear bomb might do psychologically, I previously outlined the likely reaction of Russian troops to witnessing a low-yield blast, which I think would probably not be good at all – especially with their already very weak leadership, training, morale and unit cohesion, all of which are known to be important factors in these scenarios. And there is some evidence to suggest ‘[neuropsychiatric] casualty rates will be very high’ in a tactical nuclear war, although it’s important to note that such studies have focused on both sides possessing and using them. Nevertheless, while highly unpredictable, Russian use of tactical nukes would undoubtedly degrade their own combat effectiveness – perhaps very significantly. Because we’re all scared of nukes, and of radiation.
The reaction of the Russian population would likely be quite bad, too, because “[i]f there’s one thing Russians fear more than Putin, it’s nuclear war – and now he’s the one bringing it closer”. Putin has been playing the nuclear card in the hopes of bringing about Western capitulation, but Russians hear him too, and even the use of a single nuclear weapon could be the catalyst for his removal from office – one way or another.
With this in mind, it’s also worth noting that Russian nuclear doctrine would not allow Putin to use tactical nukes against Ukraine (even if they think parts of Ukraine are actually parts of Russia), since however you slice it, the ‘very existence’ of Russia is not at stake. The nuclear doctrine in its current form was written in 2010, having been made stricter than before – raising the bar to nuclear use – with Putin’s key ally and possible successor Nikolai Patrushev arguing for that change. The relevant wording was left unchanged in 2014, and because having a published doctrine that’s stricter than a country’s actual intentions would make no sense from a deterrence perspective, it’s therefore quite unlikely that the reality differs from the stated doctrine. Furthermore, the nuclear threats coming from Russia have focused not on Ukraine, but rather the West – and aimed, it seems, at stopping weapons deliveries.
Additionally, other steps would almost certainly be taken by Putin before the use of nuclear weapons could ever be contemplated: changing the law to allow conscripts to fight in Ukraine, ordering a full mobilisation, deploying many more military aviation assets to the war, ending the grain deal, and perhaps other things like attempting to breach the Montreux Convention to bring in more naval assets to the Black Sea, and probably also a demonstrative nuclear test in the Black Sea or Novaya Zemlya. General Ryan’s notion that Putin’s supposed deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus demonstrates an intent to use them – rather than an opportunistic ploy to bring Belarus into Russia’s orbit for good, and to threaten the West – makes little sense from an operational standpoint, but perfect sense from a political standpoint.
To be fair to General Ryan, he’s not arguing that we in the West should succumb to nuclear blackmail, but rather that we should plan a response. I take a very different view about the likelihood of ever needing such a plan, but of course it’s much better to have one and not need it than vice versa – and such planning will, presumably, already have taken place. Nevertheless, despite General Ryan’s stoic attitude, I can’t help but feel that raising fears of the nuclear genie being out of the bottle, as he puts it, tends to provoke a kind of anxiety that’s useful to Putin.
In much the same way that climate alarmists seem to care about people who might die in 100 years time from a slight change in climate, but who don’t give a damn about the people who die every year in the U.K. from fuel poverty because of their crazy policies, many people who talk about their fear of nuclear war (although not General Ryan) aren’t considering the people dying right now due to a collective fear of ‘escalation’, which has meant we didn’t supply Ukraine with the kinds of weapons they needed in a timely fashion. So Putin’s nukes have already been deployed, in a sense, because nuclear weapons are very good at deterring action – but never good to use.
Stop Press: The Sunday Times says the West should give Zelenskyy the weapons he needs to defeat Putin.