Russian soldiers stand near a Topol-M ICBM while participating in a rehearsal for the nation's Victory Day parade outside Moscow
Russian soldiers stand near a Topol-M ICBM while participating in a rehearsal for the nation's Victory Day parade outside Moscow.ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images
  • Since the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has made a number of nuclear threats.

  • Russia's fate on the battlefield is tied to the use of a nuclear weapon.

  • About a dozen tanks could be destroyed by a Russian nuke.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a lot of frightening nuclear threats since the start of the war in Ukraine, and as his forces lose ground, he could resort to the unthinkable and order the use of weapons of mass destruction.

In September, Putin made a veiled reference to nuclear weapons while promising to defend Russia'sterritorial integrity. In the time since, Putin has made threats about Russia's nuclear arsenal.

The use of a tactical nuke would be a deliberate act that would require a multi-step process that US spy agencies could detect; so far, US officials have said they have not seen any signs of it.

Russia has the world's largest arsenal of tactical nukes, weapons whose battlefield impact may be limited to destroying a dozen armored vehicles but could still kill tens of thousands. Arms control experts said that tactical nukes are not ready to be fired at a moment's notice because they are aging weapons that must be taken out of storage and shipped.

The use of a single tactical nuke could cause a chain reaction of events. The US has privately communicated to Russia that there would be "catastrophic consequences" if nuclear weapons are used.

John Erath, senior policy director, said that Putin hasn't said "we're going to launch nuclear weapons, but he wants the dialogue in the US and Europe to be, 'The longer this war goes on, the greater the threat of nuclear weapons might be used,'

Nuclear experts say that Putin's threats should be taken seriously regardless of whether or not they are bluffs.

Russia's tactical and strategic nuclear weapons

A Russian Iskander-E missile launcher on display at the International Military Technical Forum 'Army 2022' on August 17, 2022 in Patriot Park, outside of Moscow, Russia.Getty Images

Putin has not said whether or not he would use a nuclear weapon. Military and nuclear weapons experts say that a tactical nuclear weapon is more likely to be used in Ukraine than a strategic nuclear weapon.

Tactical or non-strategic nuclear weapons are meant for more limited strikes or use on the battlefield over a shorter period of time while strategic nuclear weapons are meant to be used against targets farther from the front lines.

According to the Federation of American Scientists, Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world with 5,997 warheads, but not all of them are deployed.

Russia has 1,912 tactical nuclear weapons in its arsenal and is able to deliver them to their intended targets by land, air and sea.

Russia has low-yield nukes that fall below one kiloton, which is less than the bomb's maximum yield of 100 kiloton.

These weapons are still very strong. The US dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki during World War II, killing 74,000 people. Tactical nuclear weapons are four times more powerful than ordinary nuclear weapons.

According to the executive director of the Arms Control Association, tactical nuclear weapons are indiscriminate and devastating.

A Russian Yars RS-24 intercontinental-ballistic-missile system drives during a rehearsal for the Victory Day parade in Red Square in central Moscow, Russia, May 7, 2015.REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

Demonstrating resolve by going nuclear

Despite Putin's rhetoric, a senior researcher at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research doesn't believe that Russia is close to breaking the atomic taboo.

There is a consensus among people who have been looking at this that the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield is out of the question. This isn't a war like that.

There probably wouldn't be a chance to take out thousands of soldiers in a strike. About a dozen tanks could be destroyed by a single tactical nuclear weapon. It would be a logistical nightmare for a military that early on was struggling to feed its own troops.

You need to work together. He said that you need to deal with all the contaminated material. It's hard.

Even if the intent of such a strike were to simply demonstrate Russia's resolve and willingness to escalate, Podvig doesn't think that would happen with a battlefield nuke. It would have to be shocking if the Kremlin wanted an effective demonstration.

An explosion over the Black Sea will not suffice to deliver the shock. He said it would take a lot of people to kill him. You would have to do that a lot.

The destruction caused by a nuke could undermine Putin at home. He sold this conflict to his population on the basis of shared history with Ukraine, creating a potential backlash were he to oversee the destruction of cities or the mass killing of Ukrainians. Sentiments have not prevented other atrocities.

It's Putin's call whether to use a nuke

Russian President Vladimir Putin and top officials during a meeting with former members of the Cabinet at the Kremlin on January 29, 2020 in Moscow, Russia.Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

The Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence was released in 2020. According to the document, the Russian president decided to use nuclear weapons.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the Russian President has the power to use nuclear weapons.

It's Putin's call if Russia uses a nuke, but it's not easy to let one go.

It is1-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-65561-6556 There is no way of knowing if anyone would stand up against the Russian leader, who has a history of killing his opponents.

The whole process starts with a decision by Putin. The military in the United States has to cooperate.

It would likely take longer to use a tactical nuclear weapon than a strategic one given that these weapons are not.

Russia's non-strategic nukes are in central storage and would have to be brought out of their Bunker first and transported to the Launch Units that would fire them. According to recent reports, there is no indication that Putin is about to use a nuclear weapon.

Given their age and time in storage, some of these nukes could be unreliable.

According to a military researcher, most of the warheads stored there are very old. It's difficult to say how suitable they are without testing, because many of them are past their expiration date.

Putin's nuclear calculus

Russian President Vladimir PutinContributor/Getty Images

The document released by Russia in 2020 lays out four scenarios that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons: the use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies, conventional aggression that threatens Russia's existence, and missiles that are already in flight and heading for Russia.

The risk of Putin ignoring Russia's official nuclear doctrine and using a weapon of mass destruction remains low, but his recent threats suggest that he may.

There is an evolving debate over whether Putin would use a nuclear weapon, but there is widespread agreement that the risk of a nuclear crisis has risen to a level not seen in decades.

According to him, it's unlikely that Russia has nuclear weapons inUkraine. He said that it would have to be a direct clash between NATO and Russia.

"That said, they've certainly rattled the sword and threatened something that looks like a scenario going beyond what Russia's declaratory policy is," he said, adding that if Russia chose to use a nuclear weapon it would likely turn to a nuclear-armed Iskander short-

The risks of Putin using a nuclear weapon in the short-term are still low, according to a former senior intelligence officer. The decision of Putin to annex four Ukrainian territories increased those risks.

She said that the risk of Putin using a tactical nuke on the battlefield in Ukraine has gone up because he is so invested in the situation.

According to an assessment from the Institute for the Study of War, if Putin decided to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, it would be in hopes of shocking Ukraine into surrender or the West into cutting off aid to the country. "These attacks would be very unlikely to force Ukraine or the West to surrender, however, and would be tremendous gambles of the sort that Putin has traditionally refused to take," I SW said.

Responding to the unthinkable

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland.Mikhail Metzel/Getty Images

One of the most pressing questions surrounding the potential use of a nuclear weapon by Russia is how the west would respond.

Ukranian is not a nuclear power. The US is a member of NATO and has nuclear weapons of its own.

Most of the world's nuclear weapons are held by the US and Russia. During the Cold War, the two countries came dangerously close to nuclear war, but were able to avoid it.

There would be serious consequences if Russia used nuclear weapons, but it has not been stated. Not going nuclear in response is advised by experts.

I don't think the United States and its allies should put a nuclear response on the table. Rose Gottemoeller, a former senior State Department official for arms control and non proliferation issues and a former deputy secretary general of NATO, said during a conference call that we need to stay on the side of a military response. The response could target where Russia's nuclear attack began, but the US could also use offensive cyber capabilities.

"Any such attack would be designed to be proportional and to be responsive to what would be an egregious attack on a Ukrainian target using a nuclear weapon," she said.

Business Insider has an article on it.