By Hon. Richard Holwill, JHCGA's Ambassador in Residence. Holwill was counselor for Arms Control and Disarmament during the negotiations toward the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty known as Start II. Below follows thoughts about Vladimir Putin’s recent threat to use nuclear weapons.
Vladimir Putin is threatening to use “nuclear weapons” and insists that it is not a bluff. In considering this threat, it is important to distinguish between strategic and tactical weapons. Strategic nuclear weapons, such as the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, can devastate a large area, with both the blast and the nuclear fallout. The blast area would be devastated, and the fallout would increase the lethality and carry it a significant distance downwind.
The use of a strategic weapon, which would be to destroy Ukrainian cities with a Hiroshima-type weapon, has several weaknesses. The winds in Ukraine are variable but generally blow from west to east, which is to say toward Russia. Voronezh, a strategic Russian city in western Russia would be very vulnerable. And Moscow itself is only 300 miles from the Ukraine border.
A second risk would be the Western response. The United States, the United Kingdom and France all possess strategic nuclear weapons. Any of them might take a Russian strike on Ukraine as a potential threat to themselves, triggering an exchange. This may be farfetched and none of the three might imagine it, but in a command center, fears are magnified.
The third risk would be the world-wide response. China’s Xi Jinping is already showing signs of frustration with Putin. India’s Narendra Modi has openly chastised him. Were Putin to use a strategic nuclear weapon, each of them would very likely condemn the Russian president. Indeed, China, India, and the entire world would very likely impose sanctions and align themselves against Russia.
I suspect that Putin knows this and may be considering a tactical rather than a strategic weapon. The power of tactical nuclear weapons is less than one percent of the Hiroshima blast. It would not make the land unlivable. The nuclear fallout is insignificant. Tactical nukes, however, do produce a significant electronic magnetic pulse (EMP). A low-altitude blast (say at 7500 feet) would produce enough EMP to wreak havoc on communication systems, smart weapons, and any device with a computer chip within a hundred miles of the blast.
Putin may believe that the NATO response to such an attack would not be worse than he now faces. Given India’s concerns about Pakistani nuclear weapons, Modi would very likely condemn Putin and join in sanctions against Russia. Putin may believe that Xi would stand by him. However, given the emotional aversion to the use of any nuclear weapon, that would be a dangerous gamble.
Given the potential disaster of strategic nukes and the somewhat limited utility of tactical nuclear weapons, Russian’s nuclear threats make for an excellent bluff, notwithstanding Putin’s claim to the contrary.
Even then, the use of or even the threat of nuclear weapons cannot solve Russia’s military problem, which consists of four parts.
1. The first is that the Russians are deployed in Ukraine as they began the war, on salients that are therefore are vulnerable to flanking attacks as happened in the Northeast. A retreat into more defensible formations would make sense but would also have serious political consequences, as it would indicate yet another failure.
2. A second problem appears to be insufficient, poorly trained and unmotivated force that is exhausted and unable to mount a counterattack sufficient to force a major Ukrainian retreat. Putin has announced the mobilization of reserve forces. While they might give those on the front lines some rest, they are not likely to be any more effective than the regular troops who broke and ran in the face of a Ukrainian assault.
3. A third problem is the long-standing Russian/Soviet problem: logistics. In order to mount a counterattack, the Russians must have not only initial supplies but also massive additional supplies arriving reliably where they are needed.
4. This leads to their fourth problem. U.S. satellites are providing instantaneous and accurate intelligence on Russian movement, including logistical movements. U.S. artillery of various sorts is capable of cutting the Russian supply lines, leaving an offensive paralyzed. And finally, Ukrainian forces are sufficiently dispersed that a tactical nuclear strike against ground forces would provide limited support to the Russian offensive.
The Russians must obviously change the dynamic of the war if they are not going to be forced into a political settlement. Russia has few options in this regard. Their best option will be to use reserve forces to try to maintain a stalemate while amassing and training a very large force in the east while building a stockpile of arms, ammunition and material near the border with Ukraine. Assuming that this will take six to nine months, accepting a stalemate through the winter and launching an all-out attack once those troops are ready, is probably in the cards.