Over the past six months, Russia has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear force to gain the upper hand in its war in Ukraine.
This week, President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization reservists and made another thinly veiled threat of Moscow’s willingness to use nuclear weapons in the conflict.
His televised speech came days after Ukraine’s military launched a surprise counteroffensive to retake territory around its second-largest city, Kharkiv, to the east.
“I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction…and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” Putin said. .
“It’s not a bluff,” he added.
The comments prompted alarm and indignation in the West, with US President Joe Biden accusing Russia of making “reckless” and “irresponsible” threats.
“A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” Biden told the United Nations General Assembly, reiterating the two countries’ Cold War commitment to abide by the 1968 Treaty on Non- proliferation of nuclear weapons.
So what nuclear weapons does Russia have at its disposal, and how destructive could they be?
Strategic nuclear weapons
Nuclear weapons have not been used in a war since 1945, when the two atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki devastated Japanese cities and instantly killed tens of thousands of people.
“It’s a 76-year tradition of not using nuclear weapons. And that’s the most important feature of the nuclear age, and we really want that to continue,” Nina Tannenwald, senior lecturer in relations international studies at Brown University. in the United States, told Euronews Next.
The horror of the bombings shocked the world in the age of nuclear deterrence, where world powers rushed to develop such weapons, knowing that their use would be catastrophic for humanity – and thus refraining from hold them against each other.
Today, Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world with around 6,257 nuclear warheads, while the United States admits to having 5,550, according to a January fact sheet by the Arms Control Association.
Among these, the so-called “strategic” weapons – those with the greatest yield – are deployed on submarines, bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“Strategic nuclear weapons are the big city breakers,” said Tannenwald, author of a book on nuclear deterrence.
“These are incredibly destructive weapons. If we went into a nuclear war with strategic weapons, it would essentially be the end of civilization in both countries.”
Small Tactical Nuclear Weapons
But some 2,000 Russian nuclear warheads are so-called short-range “tactical” nuclear weapons kept in storage facilities across the country.
They are much smaller nuclear weapons, designed for use on the battlefield against troop formations, tanks, or military installations and bunkers.
These can be launched at the same short-range missiles Russia currently uses to bomb Ukraine, such as its Iskander-M ballistic missile, which has a range of around 500 km.
Tactical weapons were developed during the Cold War in an effort to “enhance” nuclear deterrence, Tannenwald said.
“Because the concern was, well, if all you have is these weapons that are really destroying big cities, people are going to be too scared to use them, they’re just too destructive. And therefore the deterrent threat at any given time is less credible,” she said.
“The argument was this: if you have these smaller, less destructive nuclear weapons, the threat of using them would be more credible because they are less damaging and therefore the deterrent would be stronger.”
The risk today, however, is that “they seem more usable and therefore more likely that leaders can use them in a crisis.”
How destructive would they be?
Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russian nuclear forces and a senior fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), says there are very few battlefield scenarios where the immense power unleashed by the Nuclear weapons might actually have a tactical purpose – for example to destroy hardened underground structures or bunkers.
He argues that the primary purpose of tactical nuclear weapons remains strategic: to terrorize the enemy and gain the upper hand in a conflict.
“This whole notion of mini-nuclears or limited strikes is just a way to find a mission for these weapons and somehow justify their existence,” Podvig told Euronews Next.
“Their primary mission is not to attack military targets. The primary mission of these weapons is to demonstrate your willingness and willingness to attack and kill many, many civilians.”
Variable yield nuclear bombs
Most nuclear weapons today are variable-yield, or “dial-a-yield,” meaning that their amount of explosive energy can be increased or reduced depending on the situation and military objectives.
For example, the latest version of the B61 nuclear bomb developed by the United States can release 0.3, 1.5, 10 or 50 kilotons of explosive energy. By comparison, the Hiroshima bomb had a force of about 15 kilotons.
“We’re talking about weapons that are still incredibly destructive,” Tannenwald said.
“And these are nuclear weapons, so they would produce a mushroom cloud, a ball of fire. They would set everything in sight on fire. They would release massive amounts of radiation. So nobody should think that this are somehow more usable weapons”.