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The Days After: What Would Happen If Putin Opts For A Tactical Nuclear Strike

The risk of the Kremlin launching a tactical nuclear weapon on Ukraine is small but not impossible. The Western response would itself set off a counter-response, which might contain or spiral to the worst-case scenario.

An activist wearing a Putin mask and a nuclear missile toy.

An anti-nuclear activist impersonates Vladimir Putin at a rally in Berlin.

Yves Bourdillon


PARISVladimir Putin could “go nuclear” in Ukraine. Yes, this expression, which metaphorically means “taking the extreme, drastic action,” is now literally considered a possibility as well. Cornered and humiliated by a now plausible military defeat, experts say the Kremlin could launch a tactical nuclear bomb on a Ukrainian site in a desperate attempt to turn the tables.

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In any case, this is what Putin — who put Russia's nuclear forces on alert just after the start of the invasion in late February — is aiming to achieve: to terrorize populations in Western countries to push their leaders to let go of Ukraine.

Even if tactical nuclear bombs are less powerful than Hiroshima (15 kilotons of TNT, a thousand times less powerful than strategic bombs capable of erasing cities), they are still nuclear. Their use would trigger a spiral that could result in the annihilation of humanity.

Pressing the button 

Most believe that the Kremlin is bluffing, but many also thought he would never invade Ukraine either: “A Russian nuclear hit is not very probable but we must prepare ourselves to every possibility,” says Admiral Jean-Louis Lozier, an expert at the French Institute of International Relations.

But the bluff is not working for the moment, as the West is continuing to supply Ukraine with heavy artillery.

And so what would happen if Putin were to press the button? Let’s think the unthinkable, which is not so unthinkable after all, since he was only a hair's breadth away from setting off nuclear fire on at least three occasions already.

The Russian president presses the red button (which does not exist by the way, instead it is in fact the activation of a code with the help of a bag nicknamed "Tcheget"), to launch a bomb of 2 kilotons on Ukraine.

He would then likely obtain the immediate surrender of Kyiv. How can one imagine that soldiers, as brave as they may be, continue to fight against an adversary determined to kill 40,000 fighters and civilians with just one missile? Not to mention the panic caused by the deadly radiation. This is what led Japan to surrender in only a few hours in August 1945.

All Ukrainians fearing execution by the occupier, not to mention all those refusing to live under Russian authorities, would take the road of exile, which would then lead to 10 to 15 million Ukrainian refugees in Europe overnight.

A NATO-Russia war

The war in Ukraine will not be over any time soon. Wherever the Russian army is deployed the war will only change its nature with "behind every window a babushka armed with a Kalash," as the Ukrainians say. Not to mention the thousands of anti-tank and anti-helicopter missiles supplied by the West that have not yet been used.

Years of guerrilla warfare, worst than in Afghanistan, are in perspective.

After the shock wears off, the international community would need incredibly strong nerves. “The West cannot stay arms crossed” in front of such crimes, says the admiral: “new economic or diplomatic sanctions alone seem inadequate and a military response would therefore be necessary, for example by destroying the Russian surface fleet. But without resorting to nuclear weapons or touching Russian nuclear infrastructure, because that would cause an uncontrollable escalation.”

Retaliating, even in a conventional and limited manner, could however push Vladimir Putin, who has just shown that he does not back down from anything, to outbid a NATO country with nuclear weapons.

It would be a disruption of the nuclear 'grammar'.

The ostentatious alerting of the nuclear forces and interception batteries of all the countries of the Alliance would perhaps not be enough to dissuade him. At the very least, conventional hits from NATO would almost inevitably provoke Russian responses of the same order: put simply, a classic NATO-Russia war, a nightmare since the establishment of the Iron Curtain.

A replica of an AN602 hydrogen bomb in Moscow.

A replica of an AN602 hydrogen bomb, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever created and tested, was shown at an exhibition celebrating the Russian nuclear industry in Moscow in 2015.

Krasilnikov Stanislav/TASS/ZUMA

End of Nagasaki taboo 

Retaliating would thus be risky, but not doing so would undoubtedly constitute an equivalent risk, simply postponed. Indeed, if Russia could bring Ukraine to its knees with impunity, it would no longer make tactical missiles a tool of defensive deterrence, but an instrument of offensive coercion.

It would be a disruption of the nuclear “grammar,” explains Peter Rosen, professor in military affairs at Harvard University, “which would give ideas” to China, North Korea, or other “mini Putins”, not to mention those who, in order to avoid the fate of Kyiv, would hurriedly gather up their arsenal: Taiwan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, South Korea and even Vietnam, Algeria, Morocco, and so on. Eventually this would add up to fifty nuclear powers in the world?

Using an atomic bomb at his convenience against a peaceful neighbor, almost as if it were an ordinary weapon, “Russia would be destroying a keystone of the world security order," sums up Malcolm Davis, a member of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute: the Nagasaki taboo that has prevented its use since August 1945.

The ultimate pariah

A universal repulsion would follow this destabilizing planetary action making Russia a pariah state for years, even decades. Even the currently neutral African and Asian countries would be forced to cut ties. China too — furious at seeing the world stability shattered, compromising its prosperity. The last countries, currently less than a dozen, still handling regular air links with Moscow, would likely suspend them.

Russia would be destroying a keystone of the world security order: the Nagasaki taboo that has prevented its use since August 1945.

In addition to seeing a resolution voted against it at the UN by 190 countries over 193, Russia would no longer be able to sell its hydrocarbons because of the reputational risk, or sanctions against its customers, the West, which accounts for 45% of world GDP. As these sales provide the majority of its foreign currency revenue, this would result (in addition to a surge in international prices of black gold) in a vertiginous fall in the standard Russian cost of living and the bankruptcy of their state.

It's all enough to make the Kremlin hesitate, to say the least. One can try to reassure themselves by remembering that the Russian nuclear code is, it seems (a certain secret surrounds the procedure obviously) shared among three people, Vladimir Putin would need the consent of his Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, and Chief of Staff Valery (Vasilyevich) Guerasimov. Insiders consider both, despite close ties to the Kremlin leader, to be "reasonable" men.

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