Last week, in announcing the mobilization of 50 a thousand reservists to fight in Ukraine, the president Russia’s Vladimir Putin has again threatened to use nuclear weapons in the conflict that began in February.
The Russian leader said that these weapons could be used to “defend” the country’s territory, already anticipating the annexations that are being voted on in referendums in the east and south of Ukraine that end this Tuesday () . Ukraine and the West have already stated that they will not recognize the results of these consultations, marked by allegations of irregularities and coercion.
This Kremlin threat raises some questions main points: is this a real risk or is it a bluff by Putin? If Russia were to use nuclear weapons, where and how would these attacks be? And how would the world react?
In an article for the New York Times, Jonathan Stevenson, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and Steven Simon of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Center for International Studies highlighted that Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons, which have exponentially less power, but which can still produce an explosion of up to 50 kilotons of TNT (the yield of the Hiroshima bomb was about kilotons), would open a new chapter of military history, with unpredictable consequences.
“Tactical nuclear weapons are upsetting the delicate balance of deterrence. They reduce barriers to nuclear use and blur the line between conventional and nuclear warfare,” they explained.
For military analyst Alessandro Visacro, there are real chances of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons in the coming months, given the fact that Moscow “needs to reap a victory” in a conflict that the expert points out as a “proxy” war with the West, and also because of the increase in tensions, in which neither side seeks a de-escalation.
“Progressively, the stakes are being increased, and these stakes, in an even irresponsible and inconsequential diplomacy, have already exceeded several limits . Just the fact that you have an armed conflict today in Eastern Europe is something that is completely unnecessary. This denotes the disaster of a diplomacy that over the last few decades has made serious mistakes”, he pointed out.
The military analyst Paulo Filho also agrees that the risk it’s real. “The use of nuclear weapons is a taboo, it was only used twice, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by the United States, in 1945, and then never again. But it is an action that cannot be ruled out. If Putin feels completely helpless, it is possible that he will use them, which would escalate the conflict to an unimaginable level”, warned the expert.
If there is some consensus among military analysts that Putin may indeed use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the same cannot be said when the question is what the reaction would be if such an attack happened.
Over the weekend, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in an interview with CBS News that the United States has warned Russia about this issue. “We communicated directly, in private, at very high levels of the Kremlin, that any use of nuclear weapons will have catastrophic consequences for Russia, which the United States and our allies will respond decisively to,” he said.
Richard K. Betts, a professor at Columbia University and an adjunct senior member of the American think tank Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out in an article for Foreign Affairs that the United States could respond in three ways: condemn the nuclear attack but do nothing militarily; also use nuclear weapons; or enter the war directly with large-scale conventional air strikes and mobilization of ground forces, without resorting to nuclear weapons.
“All these alternatives are bad because there are no low-risk options for dealing with the end of the nuclear taboo. A conventional war response would be the least bad of the three because it would avoid the greater risks of the weaker and stronger options,” he argued, citing the “green light” that would be given to the Kremlin by the first choice and the unimaginable nuclear escalation that could result from second.
In the case of an equally nuclear response from NATO, the Western military alliance, Betts wrote that the prevailing notion is that there would be an “eyeball” attack. for an eye”, that is, to provide Russia with damage proportionate to that of the first Kremlin attack. The other would be to respond on a larger scale. In this case, the risks would be the consequences for the Ukrainian population, if the attack against Russian troops was inside the invaded country, or generate an “unlimited war” if the response was on Russian territory.
Away from China and India?
Paulo Filho, however, does not believe that NATO would enter directly into the Ukraine war even after a Russian attack with tactical nuclear weapons.
“I think they would [países da OTAN] increase support in conventional weapons by providing some that have not yet been offered. For example, Patriot, anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapons systems, missiles with a range greater than 70 km for the Himars multiple rocket launcher system, then more advanced conventional weapons for better support the Ukrainian war effort. And NATO would also increase the rhetoric against Russia, the supply of money and material [à Ucrânia], but getting directly involved in the war, no”, he explained, citing the fact that Ukraine is not part of the military alliance.
The military analyst pointed out that the use of nuclear weapons could lead even allies to distance themselves from Putin.
“If Russia uses a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, they [Kremlin] can, for example, use it in a remote, sparsely inhabited spot that would cause relatively few casualties and little nuclear contamination, only as a form of warning, that they would be willing to use this weapon”, argued Paulo Filho.
“Now, if such a weapon were used in Kyiv, for example, by trying to eliminate President [Volodymyr] Zelensky and his government, this would cause a huge international commotion and the Russians would be completely isolated. They would have no support from anyone, neither China nor India. And that would be a clearly offensive posture, which would contradict all Russian rhetoric that it would only use nuclear weapons to defend itself”, added the specialist.
Paulo Filho also mentioned that an attack on Russian territory, both nuclear and conventional, “would be the Third World War”, so he believes that this possibility will not be considered by the West. However, this does not mean that Kyiv will not continue trying to recover the occupied regions in the oblasts where Russian annexation referendums are being held.
“When Putin does these annexation referendums in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, is creating a rhetoric to its own population that it has become Russian territory. But it is clearly a trick, so the West will not feel obliged to consider that Russian territory and the Ukrainians will continue to attack”, explained Paulo Filho.