The question is on everyone’s mind- will he or won’t he? Will the taboo against nuclear use in war hold? What would be the impact of the use of a nuclear weapon? We provide answers to your questions about Putin and nuclear weapons.
Will Putin use nuclear weapons?
Since the invasion of Ukraine in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly violated international law. No one wants to believe that nuclear weapons will be used, but as long as nuclear weapons exist, they can be used. That is what nuclear deterrence is based on- credibly threatening to mass murder civilians with nuclear weapons..
The terrifying but true reality is that we cannot know for certain if Putin - or any leader of a nuclear-armed state - will use nuclear weapons at any time. What we do know is that nuclear weapons pose unacceptable humanitarian consequences - and that there is no response capacity to help survivors in the aftermath.
What nuclear weapons could be used in the war in Ukraine?
Russia has just under 6,000 nuclear weapons - the world’s largest nuclear arsenal - and can launch its nuclear weapons from land-based missiles, from submarines or from planes.
Russian nuclear weapons range widely in destructive yield - from weapons equivalent to hundreds of kilotons of TNT to so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons that mostly range from about 10-100 kilotons.
But the use of even one of these “smaller” nuclear weapons would have devastating humanitarian consequences. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and killed around 140’000 people by the end of 1945 with a yield of 15 kilotons is the size of one of the smallest weapons in the Russian arsenal.
What is a tactical nuclear weapon?
Technically, a tactical nuclear weapon is any weapon that’s not been classified as “strategic” under US- Russian arms control agreements (SALT, SORT, START). Deployed tactical weapons in Europe can have explosive yields up to 300 kilotons, or 20 times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Sometimes these weapons are also referred to as ‘sub-strategic’ or ‘non-strategic’.
Most frequently, ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons imply the weapons that were designed to be used on the battlefields of Europe during the Cold War. In the last century, they were deployed across the continent in case a 'hot' conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact were to escalate. At the end of the 1980s there were around 7,500 of these weapons deployed throughout Europe, but the mutual unilateral reductions that took place in the early 1990s brought the numbers down significantly. The Federation of American Scientists currently estimates Russian non-strategic nuclear warheads at 1,912, and approximately 100 U.S. non-strategic warheads deployed in five European countries.
What would happen immediately after the use of a nuclear weapon?
A nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon — no matter its size, yield, or range. Its use anywhere, at any time, would have profound humanitarian consequences.
After the detonation of a “small” nuclear weapon in Hiroshima, around 140,000 people died and generations later, people are still suffering from diseases caused by the radiation.
It takes around 10 seconds for the fireball from a nuclear explosion to reach its maximum size. A nuclear explosion releases vast amounts of energy in the form of blast, heat and radiation. An enormous shockwave reaches speeds of many hundreds of kilometres an hour. The blast kills people close to ground zero, and causes lung injuries, ear damage and internal bleeding further away. People sustain injuries from collapsing buildings and flying objects. Thermal radiation is so intense that almost everything close to ground zero is vaporised. The extreme heat causes severe burns and ignites fires over a large area, which coalesce into a giant firestorm. Even people in underground shelters face likely death due to a lack of oxygen and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Then, the world will race to provide help to victims. But, they will have to wait. As has been shown in numerous reports and by the ICRC, emergency services will not be able to get close enough to save some of those who survived the initial blast.
Medical services, already under severe wartime strain, will not be able to cope. Doctors and nurses will try to do what they can, but they will not be able to provide the relief needed for the massive number of casualties and injuries in place.
Specialised treatment including for radiation exposure or for burns caused by the fireball, will be impossible to provide for the unknown number of casualties. No health care system in the world is capable of an adequate response to a nuclear attack, and certainly not one in a country at war.
What other consequences could result?
There is little precedent to anticipate what might occur in worldwide equity, currency and fixed income markets in the aftermath of nuclear weapons use. Lessons from the 9/11 attacks showed a short term shock and some multiple day market closures, resulting in $1.4 trillion in losses. However, compound impacts, including to already struggling fertiliser, fuel and grain supplies could lead to broader economic consequences across markets. There are additional negative economic and developmental consequences, including on capacity to rebuild public infrastructure, and restore disrupted supply chains.
How can we prevent nuclear weapons use?
The international community must consistently and categorically condemn any and all threats to use nuclear weapons, like states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons did in the Vienna Declaration in June. Consistent and unequivocal condemnation from the international community can stigmatise and delegitimize nuclear threats, help restore and strengthen the norm against the use of nuclear weapons, and reinforce disarmament and non-proliferation efforts.
Condemnation of threats is not just empty rhetoric: delegitimization works. It has been shown to influence the behaviour of nuclear-armed states. International criticism of Russia’s most recent nuclear threats has already prompted the Russian government to clarify its position and stress that it has not changed its nuclear doctrine.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is the only international treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons use and threat of use. It makes nuclear weapons illegal. Every country should join this instrument to delegitmize nuclear weapons.