The tactical nuclear arsenal, an option for Moscow?

The question has come up regularly since the start of the invasion of Ukraine. Can Russia use its tactical nuclear weapons, in a very limited area? The precedent would be extremely dangerous and would break a taboo that has held since 1945.

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The hypothesis returned to the carpet shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, when Vladimir Putin indicated that he had ordered his generals to “put the deterrent forces of the Russian army on special combat alert”.

And it remains in the list of the innumerable scenarios of this war, in particular in the possibilities of an exit from the top for the Russian army, which needs gains to negotiate, but which remains struggling on the ground in the face of tenacious resistance. Ukrainian forces for a month.

A tactical nuclear weapon, smaller in explosive charge than a strategic nuclear weapon, is in theory intended for the battlefield and transported by a vector having a range of less than 5500 km.


“At the vertical level, there is a real risk. They desperately need to win military victories to turn them into political leverage,” Mathieu Boulègue, of the British think tank Chatham House, told AFP.

“Chemical weapons would not change the face of war. A tactical nuclear weapon that would level a Ukrainian city, yes. It’s unlikely, but not impossible. And that would be 70 years of nuclear deterrence theory collapsing.

From risk to reality, the step remains immense.

The Russian doctrine is subject to debate. Some pundits and military officials, particularly in Washington, say Moscow has abandoned the Soviet doctrine of not using the ultimate weapon first. Moscow would now have in its options the theory of “escalation for de-escalation”: to use the weapon in limited proportions to force NATO to retreat.

But recent Russian statements have cast doubt on this interpretation. Moscow will only use nuclear weapons in Ukraine in the event of an “existential threat” against Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov assured CNN on Tuesday, citing one of the points of official Russian doctrine.

“We have seen nothing that leads us to conclude that we must change our strategic posture of deterrence,” reacted his Pentagon counterpart, John Kirby.

Technically, Moscow is equipped. According to the highly respected Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “1,588 Russian nuclear warheads are deployed,” including 812 on land-based missiles, 576 on submarines and 200 on bombers.

A little less than 1000 other heads are stored.


For Pavel Luzin, an analyst at the Moscow-based think tank Riddle, Russia could use a tactical nuclear weapon “to demoralize an adversary, to prevent the enemy from continuing to fight”.

The objective is first of all “demonstrative”, he adds to AFP. “But if the opponent still wants to fight next, it can be used in a more direct way.”

In fact, the threats may well be relativized in high places, they have their effect: the risk cannot be completely eliminated.

“In the event of getting bogged down or humiliated, one can imagine a vertical escalation. It is part of the Russian strategic culture to go into intimidation and escalation to obtain de-escalation, ”recalls a senior French officer on condition of anonymity. “Putin did not enter this war to lose it.”

But others want to believe that the absolute taboo remains. If Vladimir Putin decides to wipe out even one Ukrainian village to show his resolve, the area would potentially be barred from human life for decades.

“The political cost would be monstrous. He would lose what little support he has left. The Indians would retreat, the Chinese too, ”assures AFP William Alberque, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). “I don’t think Putin will.”

The fact remains that even apart from the Ukrainian dossier, Russia would not enjoy such stature today without nuclear weapons.

It would not constitute a threat of such magnitude with its conventional forces alone, which have shown for a month an immense capacity for destruction, but also real tactical, operational and logistical weaknesses.

In Western chancelleries, certainties are no longer valid.

“We have no reason to believe that Putin does not intend to go all the way and that he is not going to use all means to achieve it (…), possibly by the use of prohibited weapons,” said a Western diplomat, referring to chemical weapons.

“The initial rubicon was crossed” during the invasion of Ukraine, “there are really no limits anymore,” he admits. But he hopes that this “taboo which has lasted since August 9, 1945” and the bomb on Nagasaki will hold.

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