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Let’s hope Putin can control his trigger finger when it comes to nuclear weapons

Let’s hope Putin can control his trigger finger when it comes to nuclear weapons
Illustrative image | Sources: Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Konstantin Zavrazhin / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool) | iStock

The use of even one tactical nuclear weapon by Russia could trigger a devastating series of unknown, even unknowable, consequences. Does history offer any guidance?

… But we can be tranquil, and thankful, and proud,
For man’s been endowed with a mushroom-shaped cloud.
And we know for certain that some lovely day
Someone will set the spark off, and we will all be blown away…
From The Kingston Trio’s The Merry Minuet.

The shelves that hold the literature (in books and movies) of disaster and dystopia — and most specifically stories of humanity’s destruction through an avoidable nuclear disaster — have, since 1945, purveyed one of our greatest fears. Or, as the movie and book title put it, The Sum of All Fears

More recently, this fear has come to be rivalled by the growing realisation that humans seem destined to be the primary culprits for an incoming climatic and ecological disaster. But nuclear armageddon remains the big one for many of us, for no other reason than if it does occur, we will be blown to radioactive dust in a matter of days, if not minutes, rather than over the decades it will take for the Anthropocene to do its dirty work.

This fear of a looming nuclear disaster also comes to us through those minute-by-minute dissections of the real, but more limited disasters of Chernobyl or Fukushima Dai-ichi that, in turn, trigger forebodings of something so much worse that could have been or may yet come about. 

Think about the nuclear reactors at Zaporizhzhia and the missiles slamming into and around it. But then it is on through a whole catalogue of tales of nuclear annihilation in novels and films (or both), including Dr Strangelove, On the Beach, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, and so many more.

What those latter suppositions are based upon, however, is the idea that once any form of nuclear exchange takes place between the great powers, a runaway atomic apocalypse becomes virtually impossible to stop. Or, at the very minimum, as in the story of Failsafe, great cities like Moscow and New York City will be destroyed in order to prevent the rest of humanity from suffering the same fate through a much larger war.

The organising principle virtually all of these tales are built upon is the idea of an unstoppable, headlong rush to runaway nuclear warfare, rather than smaller scale, yet still horrific battlefield disasters, and the Herculean efforts and sacrifices that would be needed in order to forestall such a universal catastrophe. 

Some of these stories about the nuclear apocalypse are presumed to take place years after an atomic-powered devastation, while others are taking place at the moment of nuclear exchanges, but the theme remains similar: Nuclear disaster inevitably looms once great powers come to blows, even if it is only by accident.

Nuclear deterrence theories

Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Andrew Krepinevich Jr set out the dilemmas and terrible possibilities underlying such calculations in a recent Foreign Affairs article. The Hudson Institute has been one of the premier locations for nuclear strategy thinking, and in his article he noted,  “Simply maintaining the ability to obliterate the adversary’s population centers and industrial infrastructure in retaliation for any nuclear attack did not, however, guarantee that deterrence would hold in every situation. 

“Under what conditions would a rational leader opt to use nuclear weapons in a conflict? The game theorist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling pointed out that under certain circumstances, initiating a nuclear war could be seen as a rational act.

“As Schelling saw it, the two great nuclear powers, instead of resembling scorpions in a bottle, might confront each other as two gunfighters on the dusty streets of a lawless Old West town, where whoever is quicker to draw enjoys an advantage. This situation would obtain when one of the two powers sensed what Schelling called ‘the feat of being a poor second for not going first’.”

In fact, there has been a large body of thinking about this question since the early 1950s by mathematicians and physicists such as Thomas Schelling, who became nuclear strategists devoted to the mechanisms of the way nuclear exchanges would take place.

Under the pressure of the real possibility of nuclear conflict, they worked out the theoretical underpinnings of the doctrine of mutual assured destruction and deterrence, or MADD (or, fittingly, just MAD, without that final D).

Concurrently, other studies and military doctrines by Herman Kahn and others have focused on how the deployment of just one tactical nuclear weapon in an already existing combat situation could spiral out of control and thrust the combatants up the escalatory ladder, from the use of that one tactical nuclear weapon, on to a full-on launch of a massive first strike of strategic weapons, even as a nuclear counterforce in reserve has been constructed (in hardened silos or in silent nuclear powered subs) in order to restrain such an attack by still being able to carry out vast damage to the initial attacker.

Ukrainian war and tactical nuclear weapons

This whole frightening business is rising ever closer to the top of the pile of concerns about the Ukrainian war. Vladimir Putin and his acolytes have begun issuing barely veiled public threats to use nuclear weaponry — even as (or because) their Ukrainian misadventure takes further wrong turns on the battlefield, and as they face the real threat of losing the entire contest. 

Along the way, the growing number of cautions to the Russian leader from the West about even thinking about escalating the conflict through the use of nuclear weaponry seems only to have provoked further threats by Russian leaders of using Russia’s nuclear arsenal to reestablish the chance for a battlefield victory.

Consider it as, in American football parlance, a potential nuclear “Hail Mary pass” — when their team is down six points and there are only seconds left on the game clock to execute a winning play.

The tangible difference between what is happening with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and those imagined scenarios is that what the Russians are threatening is not a nuclear confrontation with the US — at least, not yet. Instead, their threat seems like the idea of using what are somewhat misleadingly termed tactical battlefield nuclear weapons to bring the Ukrainian military into disarray and — potentially — civilian resistance to a halt.

Such tactical nuclear weapons are more powerful than most conventional weapons, but they generally carry significantly less destructive power than the two nuclear devices dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring World War 2 to an end.

Looking back at the development of such tactical nuclear weapons for the battlefield, as David Sanger and William Broad described the history of tactical nuclear weapons in the New York Times the other day, “… as the Cold War progressed, both the United States and the Soviets developed hundreds of variants [of tactical nuclear weapons].

“There were nuclear depth charges to take out submarines and rumours of ‘suitcase nukes’. At one point in the 1970s, Nato had upward of 7,400 tactical nuclear weapons, nearly four times the current estimated Russian stockpile.

“By that time, they were also part of popular culture. In 1964, James Bond defused a small nuclear weapon in Goldfinger, seconds before it was supposed to go off. In 2002, in The Sum of All Fears, based on a Tom Clancy novel, a terrorist wipes out Baltimore with a tactical weapon that arrives on a cargo ship.

“The reality, though, was that while the blast might be smaller than a conventional weapon would produce, the radioactivity would be long-lasting. On land, the radiation effects ‘would be very persistent,’ said Michael G Vickers, the Pentagon’s former top civilian official for counterinsurgency strategy. In the 1970s, Mr Vickers was trained to infiltrate Soviet lines with a backpack-sized nuclear bomb.

“Russia’s tactical arms ‘would most likely be used against enemy force concentrations to stave off a conventional defeat’, Mr. Vickers added. But he said his experience suggests ‘their strategic utility would be highly questionable, given the consequences Russia would almost assuredly face after their use’…”

The two authors went on to note, “The detonation of a tactical weapon would be a choice — and likely an act of desperation. While Mr Putin’s repeated atomic threats may come as a shock to Americans who have barely thought about nuclear arms in recent decades, they have a long history…”

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Karoun Demirjian, writing in the Washington Post on 5 October, noted, “Getting a handle on the exact number of tactical nuclear weapons in Russia’s arsenal is tricky. While strategic nuclear weapons are countable and governed by current US-Russia agreements, the same is not the case with tactical nuclear weapons. 

“The United States has a good count of Russia’s strategic weapons, because Washington and Moscow are required to disclose this under the terms of New START, the last remaining arms control treaty. That count of strategic weapons is split among those deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and those launched from bombers.

“But when it comes to the tactical weapons, the US intelligence community can only offer its best guess, and different agencies have differing estimates. The ballpark figure they have settled on is between 1,000 and 2,000 tactical weapons (which, it should be noted, can be launched from ground launchers, ships and bombers but are not pre-deployed). After careful study, the Federation of American Scientists put its estimate at 1,912 — although it cautions that this could include weapons being retired or taken offline.

“… Modern tactical weapons usually have a capacity of 10 to 100 kilotons, which still makes the average tactical weapon potentially more destructive than the bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Russia and the United States also have ‘low-yield’ nuclear weapons that pack a ‘light’ punch, even dipping below 1 kiloton. But even the least-powerful nuclear bomb — with a yield of about 0.3 kilotons — has about the same explosive power as the 2020 Beirut port explosion.

Growing fear

At this point in the fighting in Ukraine, the growing fear among experts is that the use of one or more of these weapons is what is being contemplated by Vladimir Putin against troop concentrations or logistic and transportation centres, rather than against Ukraine’s major cities, and as a clear demonstration of what might be the next step, if the Ukrainians continue their battlefield advances.

Of course, the use of any nuclear weapon on the battlefield would kill or injure many people and inevitably a large number would be civilians. Moreover, beyond the immediate death and destruction, the drift of radiation would affect people well beyond Ukraine to the west, and the prevailing winds would also carry radiation eastward into Russia, as happened after the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor nearly 40 years ago. 

What the precise military or economic reaction would be by the West in the event Russia uses one or more tactical nuclear weapons is obviously hard to define in advance, although this question is now occupying the time and work of strategic planners in the Pentagon and elsewhere. 

The international opprobrium for such a use of tactical nuclear weapons would undoubtedly be severe. In a pre-emptive response to the possibility, according to the Guardian, Poland is reported to be urging the stationing of American tactical nuclear weapons on its territory.

Debate before use of the first atomic weapons

At this point, some historical perspective may be useful. In late 1944 and early 1945, there was an intense debate among the upper reaches of the American government and military to figure out how to use this new atomic weapon and what effect it might have on the war. The debate was intense partly because no one knew the power of the new weapon as it was still to be tested, and there was uncertainty as to how to make use of the two or three bombs that would likely be available. (The bomb had originally been planned for use against Nazi Germany, but by the time it was ready, Germany had surrendered.)

A small group of Japanese cities had been kept off target rosters, including Kyoto, the repository of much the nation’s religious, cultural and historical heritage. Among suggestions were to use one of the bombs in a demonstration in Tokyo Bay, on a small outlying island, on the top of Mt Fuji, and Kyoto, among several other cities. Secretary of War Henry Stimson strenuously objected to attacking Kyoto, arguing it would generate a lasting enmity against Americans among the Japanese. 

Ultimately, the other alternatives were all put aside as there was no way to know in advance if the bomb would actually work. Announcing a demonstration but having a dud might even encourage Japanese resistance. Instead, dropping it on a city without warning — but not Kyoto — meant it could have enormous psychological impact, leading to a rapid Japanese surrender, if it worked. 

The impact of this weapon triggered a thorough re-examination of military strategy and, so far, since 1945, there has been no further use of such weapons — the norm against their usage has been too strong.

Close call

But there have been some extremely close calls, even with all the pressures against using them. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, there very nearly was the launch of a tactical nuclear device by a Soviet submarine against an American sub patrolling off the coast of Cuba. The National Security Archive — an NGO dedicated to freedom of information efforts — released a report on that incident at the beginning of October.

It reads, in part, that a Soviet submarine commander, Valentin Savitsky, in his own submarine, “…did indeed think that they were under attack and that the war with the United States had already started. Caught off guard by the aggressive U.S. actions, Savitsky panicked, calling for an ‘urgent dive’ and the preparation of torpedo #1 (with the nuclear warhead), but he was unable to quickly descend the narrow stairway of the conning tower, which was temporarily blocked by the signaling officer and his equipment. [Sub flotilla chief of staff Vasily] Arkhipov, who was still on the tower and saw that the Americans were actually signaling, not attacking, called the commander back and calmed him down [italics added].

“Savitsky’s command was never transmitted to the officer in charge of the torpedo, and the Soviet submarine signaled back to the Americans to cease all provocative actions. The situation was defused, and the next day, the B-59, with fully charged batteries, was able to submerge without warning and evade its pursuers.” Had that nuclear torpedo been launched, the Cuban Missile Crisis would quite likely have had a very different conclusion.

In contrast to that first use of an atomic weapon in 1945, years before the “rules of engagement” had been structured by the theoreticians and strategists, the events in the Caribbean Sea in 1962 could easily have demonstrated the cascading consequences of the use of even one tactical nuclear weapon.

Looking at where we are now, as the Russians continue to contemplate (and threaten) the use of even one tactical nuclear weapon — on both the larger global picture as well as their Ukrainian battlefield — one hopes the West and Nato are thinking through all of the implications of what responses are possible, appropriate, or effective to the deployment of even one tactical nuclear weapon against Ukraine. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Malcolm McManus says:

    Elon Musks idea is feasible and could de escalate all of this with willing participants. Most of the ordinary people in the street of all countries would most likely agree. The problem is with the egos of those in power. The Madman Putin. The senile Biden and the power hungry Velensky. In this case, the advocates of democracy, don’t like the idea of a democratic solution as it may in all likelihood lead to a free and fair democratic outcome in Eastern Ukraine that the West is not in favor of. It may be that the Eastern Ukranians are in favor of being part of Russia. They have endured much persecution under Ukranian rule for many years before this war. Basically these three individuals hold the fate of humanity in their incompetent hands. A dire situation indeed.

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      1/ Madman Putin. – I agree with the terminology.
      2/ Senile Biden? – No, not as quick as he used to be but are you saying that all men his age are “senile”? This gets a thumbs down.
      3/ Power Hungry Velensky? – No. He was most definitely less “power hungry” than his election adversary. I am curious, why did you use that term?

      My suggestion for Ukraine is to form a democratic federation of each province, I am not sure just what they call those areas. The biggest gripe the Russian speakers have is over the language use. I have personal experience of this problem. It is real but not worth 20 000 ++ lives!

      The DA has a democratic federal policy for SA provinces. Very practical and it would relive some pressures.

      • Roelf Pretorius says:

        For each “oblast” (province in Ukraine) to act on its’ own will only make the situation worse, because Putin will try to exploit that so he can take the provinces one by one. He is already doing it by these sham referendums and the so-called “annexation” of those four “oblasts”. No, the only way to solve this is through stopping what he is doing, and that is by a unified response. There is a place for federalism, but that is when the country is safe from exploitation from outside. It has to be kept in mind that even in a federation such as what the DA believes in, the federal (central) government still has the responsibility for seeing that the citizens are safe and that the borders are respected and maintained. So in case of an attack on a federation, it is still the central government that will defend the country. just as happens in Ukraine.

    • Roelf Pretorius says:

      You obviously don’t have the foggiest clue what you are speaking of. Even in the Donbas area the majority of people never wanted the Russians there. That is why the Russian seperatists could never succeed in taking control of these two provinces, even though Russia supported them. That is also why the Ukrainian forces are able to launch such an effective counter-offensive; military doctrine estimates that military conquest is actually only 20% military and 80% political (in the sense that you must have some support). Now it is clear that Putin thought he had overwhelming support, but I don’t believe for one moment that he is still so deluded. So now his quest is to stay in power, and for that he has to create a delusion that the war is a success. But my point is that the Ukrainians, even the Russian-speaking ones, clearly support the Ukrainian government. And all these democratic governments, contrary to your cynical ideas, have an obligation to keep their citizens safe, even from Russia. And the only persecution that Ukrainians faced was from Russia (same with all the other USSR republics; that is why so many of them actually want to join NATO). Fact is that real democracy works; even here in SA, where the ANC government clearly does not have the safety of even its own supporters in mind, those same supporters are now making themselves ready to kick the ANC out.

      • Malcolm McManus says:

        The test whether or not I have the foggiest clue what I am talking about or Elon Musk for that matter, would be to simply have a referendum. What I think, is simply my opinion. Its not a fact. But its certainly once again in my opinion a better option than people bombing and killing the crap out of each other. Also better than pushing Putin the madman against the wall and tempting nuclear strikes. Biden is certainly not a well man mentally. It is blatantly obvious and whatever power he personally has in decision making is rather concerning if it came to a response to a tactical localized nuclear threat to Ukraine. I really believe the leaders of this world somehow need to urgently find non violent ways to deescalate this potentially globally catastrophic event.
        On the point of democracy we disagree. If you think in South Africa the ANC supporters are getting ready to kick out the ANC which should happen in a healthy democracy, i think you are going to be sadly disappointed. Lack of education and propaganda through various means stifle true democracy.

      • Melanie Arabsky Ledger says:

        I agree with what you have written; further, it’s illustrative to understand WHY there are so many Russian speaking people in Eastern Ukraine… aka the Holodomor under which Stalin starved to death millions of Ukrainians in an artificial famine – making space for Russian settlers to take their place. Even still, popular support lies with Kyiv and not Moscow – even more so than before the war.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    When dealing with a murderous, psychopathic and evil madman who only respects strength, it has to be made VERY clear that he will be wiped out the minute he uses a nuclear option. Let there be no grey area about this! It is time to engage the Chinese as they can exert the necessary pressure and force if necessary on this diabolical Putin. They too are very unhappy with how Putin is proceeding and threatening the world and it is not in their interest at all to destroy world peace. At the end of the day, the vile KGB thug that is Putin is nothing but a coward and a bully, and you have to stand up to him. Anything less is perceived as weakness and a green light to do as he pleases.

    • Dennis Bailey says:

      Hear you but Putin’s strength is diminished by the Ukrainian response.

      • Roelf Pretorius says:

        It is true, but he still has the nuclear weapons and he is trying to use that to keep at least the illusion of strength going. Let us hope that he is still rational enough to realise that to really use these weapons will only lead to his own destruction, as I am sure will happen, if not by his own administration, then by the world community including China, India, and Iran.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    Very informative. One thing stands out for me. There is continuous mention of Russia (or the Soviet Union) and The West (or NATO). What about all the other nations, large and small? East and West, North and South?

    What does South Africa’s ANC have to say? Ramaphosa must advise The Nation of their plans. Assuming that they have even thought of “A Plan”.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    With respect Glyn – whatever SA has to say is absolutely meaningless. No one takes us seriously, not even in Africa with the arrogance and xenophobia that we display. We carry no weight nor respect in international affairs due to our highly hypocritical, immoral and wayward position that we knowingly and willingly adopt ie we support and close ranks with the most murderous and human rights abusers on this earth. With such great promise in 1994 and riding on the back of such great international goodwill, this abominable ANC has all but destroyed and betrayed it – like everything else that they have touched. We have consigned ourselves to a pathetic, whingeing and irrelevant player (non-player) on the world stage instead of being a respected and valued partner.

  • Manfred Hasewinkel says:

    Today the West & NATO simply cannot respond with any nuclear strike, that is even if there is a Russian nuclear attack on Poland or Germany. I’m convinced that they know that very, very well. Although there will be no military consequences for Russia, even a limited tactical strike will take Russia back to the dark ages due to the resulting isolation.

    • Malcolm McManus says:

      Whatever the outcome, the world order as we know it today, is changing dramatically before our eyes. The West has miscalculated. NATO allies have miscalculated. We are going to see a lot of alliances change. I think the makeup of NATO is going to change over time. As for Russia being taken back to the dark ages, the tragedy in this is that millions of innocent civilians who secretly don’t support the war will suffer. Perhaps there will be an internal uprising that will change Russia for the better.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    Putin as a thug thinks he has a monopoly to tactical nuclear weapons and their use. Europe alone besides Russia has two nuclear powers, the UK and France with such capabilities. The US has stationed some of its capabilities in Germany and other countries to be able to respond. The development of hypersonic weapons by Russia has been done with fanfare whilst the development of these weapons in Europe has not been done with the noise that Moscow makes. One does not want quote Jane’s Defence Weekly on military capabilities of each country. What is clear following the Minsk II agreement when Ukraine was weak, the European countries and NATO concentrated on build the Ukraine military capacity that is rewriting military strategy and tactics of modern warfare and have Russians on the run and Putin is facing a humiliating defeat in Ukraine. His forces are poorly trained and low on morale hence empty threats.
    The world must not cow either to thug in Moscow or in Pyongyang but show them that their thuggery will not work and barbarism in the 21st century does not get rewarded. Putin thought that the Ukrainians will cut and run and will be a cake walk. He has realised now that he is alone in his stupidity and China that has more economic interests in Ukraine than in Russia, is very careful not to help him lest they lose their investments running into trillions of dollars in western investment instruments. India has told that it is not time for any war. Pretoria must sober up.

  • Marthinus Wolhuter says:

    The mad man thug Putin does not even have to pull a trigger. He is holding the world at ransom by breaching all international rules and safeguards at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP)! The backup power supply was once again cut/disconnected by the Russian invaders. Refer the IAEA Director’s report of 8 October 2022 regarding this issue. Although the current state of the 6 ZNPP reactors is “cold shutdown”, this creates a false sense of safety. The reactor cores need to be cooled to prevent the reactor from going critical. When the core coolant flow is lost, so-called loss of coolant (LOC) accidents occur and the reactor goes critical in an uncontrolled manner leading to reactor core melt down. This could lead to six simultaneous Chernobyl accidents in the centre of Europe! All forms of life in Europe, Russia and most of Asia will be wiped out by the radiation plumes and radioactive outfall, making it all uninhabitable for thousands of years!
    If poepol Putin does pull the trigger of some strategic thermo-nuclear weapons, the detonations of the primary strike and initial counterstrikes by Nuclear Powers will make matters much worse, eliminating all forms of life on earth. The automated secondary strikes (e.g. from nuclear submarines) will just make sure everyone and everything is toast!
    So let us all support Ukraine and the UN to stop Putin, and the IAEA to safeguard ZNPP and all the other nuclear power plants at risk. Also pray that no-one presses the launch buttons of those strategic thermo-nuclear weapons!

    • Richard Coetzee says:

      I utterly reject the Putin madman theory. Every time there is a leader that doesn’t do the wests’ bidding we are told he’s a madman, an authoritarian or whatever. I’m not saying Putin is a nice guy, but this is lazy rubbish journalism. Once you have established the other party as crazy it justifies any action as rational, because hey.. we must save democracy and human rights and all those things.
      Why are the actions of western leaders never described as evil, or tin pot dictators that want to rule the world? The targeting of civilian infrastructure (shock and awe), the civilian death toll and just plain level of destruction in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Serbia was atrocious, yet was never described as barbaric or evil. Yet we constantly hear how barbaric the Russians are.
      Liz Truss when asked by an interviewer how she would feel to have to launch nuclear weapons responded “I’m ready to do it!”, “I asked how would you feel”. To which she immediately responded “I’m ready to do it!”
      During the horrific bombing of Serbia by NATO in 1999, senator Biden at the time said “Let’s get something straight, it seems to me at the outset here. There’s been no talk about the U.S. interest here. We talk about humanitarian interests — it far exceeds the humanitarian interest”.
      These are the supposed good guys.
      We live in a multipolar world now and it is the unwillingness of western powers to accept this fact that is pushing us to global conflict. Not the madman in the Kremlin.

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