Has Russia Upped the Likelihood of Nukes?

November 4, 2022

Nukes Photo by Ilja Nedilko on Unsplash

Newly released intel regarding discussions this past month among Russian military generals have raised questions about whether Moscow has increased its likelihood of using nuclear weapons inside Ukraine.

Russian Generals Discussed Nuking Ukraine

This week, U.S. officials told The New York Times that in mid-October Senior Russian military leaders discussed when and how Moscow might use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine. They apparently did so without President Vladimir Putin present as part of those conversations.

“But the fact that senior Russian military leaders were even having the discussions alarmed the Biden administration because it showed how frustrated Russian generals were about their failures on the ground, and suggests that Mr. Putin’s veiled threats to use nuclear weapons might not just be words,” the Times reported.

According to Ernest Moniz, former Secretary of Energy and now CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Russian military leaders discussing nuclear options is not new. “That has been happening for decades,” he said Wednesday. “What is new is doing it in the context of a president who has the sole authority to use those weapons having threatened to use them.”

Rebecca Grant, National Security Analyst with IRIS Independent Research, agrees with this assessment. “I’m not surprised that Russian generals are talking about options in Ukraine,” she tells Political IQ. “Much more interesting to me is that there has been a deliberate U.S. Government release of the information that they know that the Russians talked about nuclear weapons. That, to me, is the U.S. saying, ‘We are watching you so closely that we know what you’re talking about in your meetings, Russian generals.'”

She adds that this lines up with what Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been saying for months. He does not see Russia taking actual steps towards unwrapping the nukes—Austin referred to it as “nuclear saber-rattling” two weeks ago–but that the Pentagon does take the threat seriously and it is watching.

How Much Damage Would a “Tactical Nuke” Do?

For months, though, the world has been hearing Putin hint that he might explode a tactical nuclear bomb inside Ukraine. Such a weapon has never been deployed in history, so what would be the scope of its damage?

Giving a point of reference, Moniz explained that the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was “15,000 tons of TNT equivalent,” while tactical nuclear weapons are “one-third that size or less. It could be a factor of 10 less, it could be even a bit more.”

To give further perspective, he noted that the non-nuclear explosive used in the 1995 Oklahoma City attack was 10,000 times less than Hiroshima. “So it gives you scale. A small nuclear weapon ain’t all that small. I mean, it’s still a pretty bad day,” he said.

And that doesn’t take into account radiation and nuclear blowback.

“A fraught issue for Russia is, how do you protect the Russian forces there?” notes Grant. “It’s a very dispersed battlefield, so the use of a tactical nuclear weapon won’t gain them anything on the battlefield, and then ultimately the people of Russia are endangered when prevailing winds push the radiation back east.”

For further perspective, Kyiv is about 540 miles or a ten-and-a-half-hour drive from Moscow.

U.S. & NATO Would Respond Militarily

The U.S., meanwhile, continuously pounds home the warning that if Russia were to deploy a nuke, there would be “catastrophic consequences.”

“That, to me, says that NATO also has plans for a military response against Russian military targets, should this take place. Not necessarily a nuclear response, but there’s a lot that NATO can do with conventional force,” says Grant.

And when asked recently if the U.S. would differentiate between a Russian nuke dropped on Ukrainian soil versus one exploded in the Black Sea, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan stated, “The use of a nuclear weapon on the battlefield in Ukraine is the use of a nuclear weapon on the battlefield in Ukraine, and we’re not going to slice the salami.”

Putin’s Biggest Deterrent Is Likely China

However, Grant adds, “I think the big issue here that Putin has to keep in mind is China, who is making this war possible.”

First, China is supporting Russia with energy sales. According to Chinese customs data, Russia became China’s top crude supplier this summer, accounting for 19-20% of Chinese imports.

Second, Grant says, “China is a big backer of Iran,” which has been supplying Russia with drones and missiles that have figured prominently in its recent air strikes in Ukraine. That’s happening even as new U.S. intelligence is accusing Iran of helping to bolster Russia’s nuclear weapons program.

“The use of a tactical nuclear weapon risks such worldwide condemnation—we’re not talking just resolutions at the UN–-it really puts China’s support of the Ukraine war in jeopardy,” says Grant.

Moniz also argued that if Russia exploded a nuke, the Chinese could see their own “security environment unravelling.”

“They live in an area where Japan and South Korea and Taiwan, frankly, all have significant nuclear capabilities,” he explained, “and if they decided that they had to move towards nuclear weapons they certainly have the technical capability to do so. So we think China has the self-interest, and President Xi should be talking to his declared friend [Putin]: ‘Don’t cross that line.'”

Meanwhile, Russia Is Committing Energy Warfare

While forecasters are predicting a “mild” winter, relatively speaking, for Ukraine, they still expect some areas to drop to minus 15-20 degrees Celsius—or about five degrees below zero Fahrenheit—on the coldest nights.

Knowing this, Russian missile strikes have knocked out about 40% of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, according to a Tuesday press release from the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“It’s horrible, it’s devastating, it’s very hard on people and it’s inhumane. But we will not surrender,” Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova said Wednesday.

According to Kyiv Governor Oleksiy Kuleba, about 1,000 “heating points” were being set up throughout the city where residents could “warm up, drink tea, recharge phones, get the necessary help,” after this week’s attacks left about 80% of consumers there without water and 350,000 homes without electricity.

“The energy strikes are not going to weaken the will of Ukraine’s people to keep fighting. It’s just going to toughen them up if anything,” says Grant.

However, she adds that it does mean the Ukrainians are going to need more air defenses. “But it’s really hard to keep energy infrastructure offline using Iranian drones. These are bad and brutal attacks, but right now just from a technical perspective Ukraine can boost their defenses and do rapid repair. They’re pretty good at that.”

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