Vladimir Putin’s renewed threat of nuclear war in a bitter and rambling speech has reignited fears that he could drop a nuclear bomb on Ukraine or a NATO ally in a so-called “tactical” strike.
I would like to remind you that our country has various means of destruction at its disposal,” the Russian President said yesterday. “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.”
“It’s not a bluff,” he said.
What would “tactical” nuclear strikes look like?
Nuclear weapons are generally classified as either strategic or tactical, with the former being used to win a war and the latter being used to win a battle.
According to British security think tank RUSI, Russia’s tactical arsenal is limited in range to around 500 km – compared to a 5,000 km strategic nuclear missile.
Tactical weapons also have lower yields, such as the 10-kiloton SSC-8. They still wield immense destructive power. The atomic bomb that the US dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of around 15 knots.
A low-yield tactical nuclear missile, say one with 1 kt worth of explosives, would destroy the equivalent of a tank company.
For example, if one were dropped on the Houses of Parliament in London, it would also obliterate Westminster Abbey, Westminster Bridge and parts of Whitehall. And it would spew deadly radiation across the city.
A larger missile like the Iskander M could carry around 50 knots, enough to take out a carrier group.
An intercontinental ballistic version rated for thousands of kilometers could sustain about 500 knots and would level a small town like Oxford.
The Russian Tsar Bomb, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever built, had a yield of 50,000 knots.
Russia has never used nuclear weapons in conflicts, so it is difficult to predict how such an attack might develop.
Lawrence Freedman, war studies expert at King’s College London, said that “the potential targets for limited nuclear strikes [in Ukraine] are those already identified for conventional strikes – critical infrastructure more than cities”.
He also pointed out that Snake Island, which is uninhabited, could be bombed to demonstrate Russia’s power to sow fear in Ukraine and the West.
Even a low-yield nuclear strike would devastate large population centers like Birmingham or London. Nuclear weapons analysts say a bomb dropped on Washington DC would kill up to 300,000 people, not including those harmed by nuclear radiation in the wider area.
There are some concerns that the Russian leader may have lost touch with reality and resort to such a nightmarish move if he continues to be humiliated by the war in Ukraine.
In terms of logistics, under Russian law Mr Putin has the authority to launch nuclear weapons in the event of an existential threat. He is said to always have on hand a “cheget,” or nuclear briefcase, linking him to leadership and control of Russia’s nuclear program. But the Cheget does not contain a nuclear “red button”; Instead, it relays the order to the Russian General Staff or central military command.
This central command can either send codes to weapons commanders or use a backup system that bypasses all chains of command to launch land-based nuclear weapons.
When Mr. Putin opens his cheget and gives the order, one can only speculate whether the Russian Central Command would follow him. There have been rumors that the Russian head of state is facing fierce internal criticism over the country’s failure to invade Ukraine.
Perhaps an order to launch nuclear weapons on Ukraine or a NATO ally would be a step too far for his closest generals.
Western leaders have largely dismissed Putin’s words as a bluff – despite his explicit claims to the contrary.
Just days after the invasion, he put Russia’s nuclear deterrent on high alert. And since the beginning of the invasion, Russian propaganda networks have repeatedly threatened the West with nuclear annihilation.
In perhaps the most alarming example, Russian state TV presenter Olga Skabeeva said Moscow should have “destroyed” Britain on the day of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.
However, nuclear analysts pointed out a subtle change in Mr Putin’s address yesterday.
Andrey Baklitskiy of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research noted that Putin has threatened nuclear war “if the territorial integrity of our country is threatened”.
Mr Baklitskiy said: “Putin adds ‘territorial integrity’ and [the] very abstract protection of people, independence and freedom. Coming from the person who has sole decision-making authority over nuclear weapons, this must be taken seriously.”
(© Telegraph Media Group Limited 2022)
Telegraph Media Group Limited 
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/would-putin-really-risk-losing-everything-for-a-tactical-nuclear-strike-as-west-ready-to-call-bluff-42008371.html Would Putin really risk losing everything for a tactical nuclear strike if West is willing to bluff?