June 21. 2024. 3:13

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The Brief – A nuclear blast that would kill nobody?


During the Russian invasion of Ukraine, several senior Russian politicians, including President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and former president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, have made several statements widely seen as threatening to use nuclear weapons.

This frequent warning of nuclear conflict is, of course, a matter of concern.

Moscow’s defence doctrine envisages a nuclear response even to an attack with conventional weapons that “threatens the very existence of the Russian state.” That wording is deliberately vague to force the West to take the warnings more seriously.

On 6 May, Putin announced he had authorised a military exercise involving the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in southern Russia.

He claimed there was “nothing unusual” about such a planned training exercise, but its location indicates it is linked to Ukraine.

A tactical nuclear weapon or non-strategic nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon designed to be used on a battlefield in military situations, mostly with friendly forces in proximity and perhaps even on contested friendly territory.

However, tactical and strategic nuclear weapons are similar. Nuclear weapons have not been used since the United States unleashed the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the two deadly blasts qualifying for the category “tactical”.

The explosive yield of tactical nuclear weapons can range from under one kiloton to about 100 kilotons, whereas strategic nuclear weapons can have a yield of up to one thousand kilotons. The bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “only” between 12 and 21 kilotons.

Russia likes to distinguish between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons as if it could play with its tactical nuclear arsenals, achieve its goals, and call a truce.

Conversely, for the West, once the nuclear threshold is reached, global Armageddon can hardly be avoided.

The West assumes that Russia seeks to frighten the population in the NATO countries and possibly engineer anti-nuclear and anti-war movements similar to those that existed during the Cold War.

But there may be a simpler reason why Russian officials frequently use the nuclear threat.

Putin may want to reassure himself that he cannot lose the Ukraine war he made the mistake of starting.

After 27 months of war, Russia is in short supply of conventional armament, even if the country has increased their production and also imports such weaponry from North Korea or Iran.

Each time a Russian official warns that Moscow may use its nuclear arsenal, the message to the West is “don’t push your luck by arming Ukraine, this is not a war you can win”.

Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorsky recently shed light on the West’s nuclear strategies vis-à-vis Russia.

“The Americans have told the Russians that if you explode a nuke, even if it doesn’t kill anybody, we will hit all your targets [positions] in Ukraine with conventional weapons, we’ll destroy all of them.”

This is reminiscent of a quote from October 2022 by former CIA director David Petraeus, who said that in the hypothesis of a Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine, the US would lead a “collective NATO effort” that would “take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea”.

Since then, there are few Russian warships left: Ukraine has no navy but was highly successful in using sea drones to sink most of the Russian Black Sea fleet.

Answering a question on Putin’s possible use of nuclear or chemical weapons in Ukraine, US President Joe Biden said in September 2022: “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.”

It’s interesting to explore the phrase by Sikorsky about “a nuke” that might not kill anybody, as nukes are designed to kill an awful lot of people.

However, experts have said that an option for Putin would be to detonate a tactical nuclear weapon over a remote and unpopulated area or a body of water, like the Black Sea, as a chilling demonstration of intent.

The radioactive fallout from a small Russian tactical weapon detonated — say on Ukraine’s Snake Island in the Black Sea — would kill nobody except a few snakes. It would be limited to around a kilometre (half a mile), but the psychological and geopolitical impact would reverberate worldwide.

If the reports that Putin wants an end to the war on the current frontlines are true, he may think such “fireworks” would prompt the West to beg him to stop – and achieve a truce on his terms.

We assume the US and Russia still find discrete ways to talk and don’t rely on press articles to read their adversary’s mind.

But we are not sure that the messages go through. To start with, a nuclear blast that kills nobody is a very deceitful concept. The very first nuclear blast would probably trigger nuclear holocaust.


The Roundup

EU foreign ministers meeting on Monday vented their anger with Hungary’s “pattern of behaviour” which increasingly often blocks EU foreign policy decisions and prevents progress on crucial military aid for Ukraine.

In an interview with Euractiv, the Ukrainian deputy minister of digital transformation on IT industry development, Oleksandr Bornyakov, laid out his vision for how the country can use defence tech innovation to boost its economy and change modern warfare.

Europe’s car-producing regions know that decarbonisation will hit the traditional car industry hard and result in thousands of job losses. For them, the name of the game now is how to limit the damage, and how the EU can help.

Ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections, Europe was rocked by massive climate marches. But as the 2024 elections approach, the streets remain silent.

Arnaud Rousseau, the head of France’s largest farmers’ union, is delighted to see food sovereignty taking centre stage in the political debate and is calling for the appointment of a Commissioner for Agriculture who would also be Vice-President of the Commission.

Look out for…

  • Foreign Affairs Council (Defence) on Tuesday.
  • European Economic Area Council on Tuesday.
  • Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni receives Andriy Pyshnyy, Ukraine’s central bank governor, on Tuesday.