The likelihood of a ‘limited nuclear war’ between Russia and NATO

Olga Bozheva

After President Putin announced partial mobilization and readiness to use all available means to protect the country’s territorial integrity, politicians and experts in the West immediately started talking about the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia.
What is this weapon that worries the West so much? Which of our documents justifies its use? Where is the “red line” beyond which the use of tactical nuclear weapons can become possible and justified for us? About all this, “MK” talks with military experts. To begin with, it is worth understanding what is the difference between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.
Strategic offensive weapons (START, as the United States and Russia have long agreed to call strategic nuclear forces) are distinguished by their intercontinental range and high destructive power. These include land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear bombs and missiles.
The number of strategic carriers and nuclear charges in the US and the Russian Federation is determined by the START-3 Treaty. They undertake to have no more than 850 deployed and non-deployed launchers and no more than 1,550 nuclear warheads. It is clear why the number of nuclear charges is greater than the number of carriers. For example, one Russian RS-20 missile, nicknamed “Satan” in the West, can carry up to 10 megaton-class nuclear charges.
The range of strategic missiles, such as the Russian Bulava or Yars missiles, is over 10,000 km.
The destructive power of modern megaton nuclear charges can be judged at least by the fact that the power of the bombs dropped by the Americans on Japan in 1945 was only 10-20 kilotons.
What is a tactical nuclear weapon? The USSR and the USA acquired them at one time when they were preparing their armies for the third world war. Troops on the battlefield are equipped with these weapons. Artillery guns and tactical missiles were created capable of delivering a nuclear charge of relatively low power to the accumulation of enemy forces at a distance of several tens or hundreds of kilometers from the front line. If the power of such charges is small, then the number, according to unofficial data, can be many thousands, if not tens of thousands of pieces.
Why did Western experts suddenly start talking so actively and unanimously about the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons by Russia? The president, speaking of “all available means,” could also have in mind strategic nuclear weapons – intercontinental missiles.
However, the West, apparently, is not yet ready to believe in the use of such weapons by Russia. At least the Pentagon said that at the moment they see no reason to change the level of readiness of their nuclear forces because of the words of the Russian president.
On the other hand, the mutual use of tactical nuclear weapons in NATO has long been discussed with ease, assuring the population of their own countries that there is nothing particularly terrible in tactical nuclear weapons if they are used taking into account the wind rose. But Vladimir Putin remarked to this: the wind rose can, after all, turn around …
Here is what one of the active military experts in the field of nuclear weapons told MK about such a possible “turn” on condition of anonymity:

  • There are no such documents in our country that would separately indicate when strategic and when tactical nuclear weapons are used. There is a general concept of “use of nuclear weapons”. The conditions for its application are set out in the Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence. They are approved by Presidential Decree and published in 2021. These conditions are just mentioned there.
    This document says that nuclear weapons can be used only if the very existence of the Russian state is threatened.
    That’s right. However, in Vladimir Putin’s address, which was announced on September 21, the president somewhat expanded these conditions. More precisely, I would say – I introduced some specifics when I said that all the means available in the arsenal can be used to protect the country’s territorial integrity.
    But I want to make a special note: Putin did not say that in this case it would be nuclear weapons, let alone tactical weapons. He said: all available means will be used.
    If we are talking about all means, then nuclear weapons are also implied? This means that the West is justifiably worried. Although our arsenal also has high-precision hypersonic weapons against which the enemy has no countermeasures.
    Yes. But now the West is more concerned about nuclear. Although in this case it is rather difficult to isolate what type of nuclear weapon will be used. The president didn’t talk about it. Those who try to somehow interpret his words are engaged in speculation. Everything will be determined by the decision of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, based on the current situation, depending on which enemy will be on the opposite side.
    Does this mean that we will use nuclear weapons – specifically tactical ones – only as a response? By no means the first.
    The last interpretation that sounded in Putin’s speech – and it is necessary to proceed from it – implies the use of such weapons in case there is a threat to the territorial integrity of Russia. That is, if the enemy starts to attack and seize our territories.
    True, these words of his also contain some uncertainty. For example, at what point in the enemy offensive will such a weapon be used? With the beginning of the attack or if part of the territory is already lost?
    In this case, you mean, among other things, our new territories, which will join as a result of a referendum?
    The President did not specifically mention this. There can also be different interpretations here, which, in fact, is now being done in the West. But I think it was said there precisely as a warning, in case someone there is planning something similar. But, again, one can only speculate here, since in this case it was more of a political statement. When concrete decisions are already being made on the use of nuclear weapons, the specific conditions and consequences of the decisions taken are taken into account more seriously.
    If tactical nuclear weapons are nevertheless used, then the next step is the escalation of the conflict into a large-scale nuclear war?
    Not necessary. Although the risk of such a development of events increases sharply.
    Of course, there may be such an option: we used tactical weapons, they also used their tactical weapons in response. It can be assumed that this will be, first of all, American tactical nuclear bombs, which are now located in five European countries in the warehouses of US military bases. In any case, all this necessarily leads to an escalation in the development of hostilities, which in the future will lead to an exchange of massive nuclear strikes, and, consequently, a large-scale war. And if it is not stopped, then what Putin said earlier will happen: they will go to hell, and we will go to heaven. There will be no more life on earth.
    Thank God, so far there is no talk of such a development of events. There are only warnings. But are we really that far from making concrete decisions on the use of tactical nuclear weapons? And who can give the command to use it?
    As for strategic nuclear weapons, we know that the command to launch strategic missiles is given by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief – the owner of the “nuclear briefcase” – a special device with codes for launching strategic missiles. And who has the right to give the command to use tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield? Can, say, the commander of some unit order to destroy the enemy command post with the help of tactical nuclear weapons? Well, to be sure. And what specific weapon to use for this? What is a tactical nuclear weapon anyway?
    We are talking about all this with a military expert, analyst, editor of the Arsenal of the Fatherland magazine Alexei Leonkov.
    In general, tactical nuclear weapons, – says the expert, – include everything that has kiloton-capacity charges. For example, 152 mm, 203 mm, 240 mm shells. Tools such as “Tulip” or “Peony”.
    It is clear that such charges are stored in special warehouses and are issued only when a decision is already made on its use.
    At what point does it apply? When can it be justified from our side? Only if the enemy himself began hostilities using tactical nuclear weapons, or can we use them first?
    We do not have the concept of a limited nuclear war, which, for example, the United States has. Rand Corporation (a non-profit organization – an American strategic research center commissioned by the US government. – “MK”) substantiated the theory of future wars, which will have four phases. The first phase is hybrid warfare, the second phase is conventional warfare with conventional weapons, then there is a limited nuclear warfare with tactical nuclear weapons, and then full-scale and full-scale total nuclear war.
    How are these stages divided?
    We first call the hybrid war, and they began to talk about it recently. Next comes a conventional war, and then a total nuclear war, that is, the third world war.
    That is, we do not have the concept of “limited nuclear war.” Does this mean that we plan to use tactical nuclear weapons only in response?
    Of course, only in response. And by the way, when the president, announcing partial mobilization, spoke about the use of all the weapons we have, he, of course, had in mind the entire arsenal of nuclear weapons.
    Including strategic?
    And yet, the use of strategic nuclear weapons is already an extreme option, from which there is practically no peaceful way out. But perhaps it is different with tactical nuclear weapons? Do Americans allow its use without any apocalyptic consequences?
    In 1999, during the bombing of Yugoslavia, NATO aircraft used bombs filled with depleted uranium, which is used in various ammunition to enhance their penetrating effect. Then the Americans had no one to answer this.
    Today the situation is fundamentally different. And Russia is not Yugoslavia. What weapons with tactical nuclear charges are currently in service with the Russian army? What tasks can she perform with it?
    A tactical nuclear warhead, – Alexey Leonkov explains, – is such a thing that solves a certain task on a certain sector of the front, causing quite significant damage to the enemy’s specific infrastructure. For example, a powerful fortified area, or some node where a large amount of military equipment has accumulated. These warheads are used to solve the most difficult military tasks. Because they are much more powerful than conventional missiles and shells?
    -Yes. Take, for example, 152-mm ammunition. If in a conventional charge of 40 kilograms of explosive in TNT equivalent, then the same one with a tactical nuclear charge has about 400 kg, or even more. That is, one such 152-mm projectile is dozens of times more powerful than usual. In addition, it has an additional effect in the form of radiation, infection, and similar complications that are unpleasant for the enemy. Such charges are used in complex battles with a technically advanced enemy. What specific weapons of ours can use such warheads?
    We have 152 mm ammunition, we have 203 mm ammunition, we have 240 mm Tulip mines with tactical nuclear warheads, and we also have special warheads for some types of missiles.
    That is, almost all of our operational-tactical systems can use a nuclear combat arsenal?
    Yes, special charges. There were even reports that some air defense systems could also receive such a special warhead. These are the S-400, S-300V-4 and S-500 complexes. For landmen, this is, for example, the Iskander-M complex, and, well, artillery.
    Artillery can also work with nuclear warheads?
    152-mm nuclear munitions are just designed for artillery. And the 203 mm caliber ammunition with a special nuclear part is used by the Malka gun. The 240-mm nuclear-powered ammunition is capable of using the Tulip self-propelled machine gun.
    Does aviation have tactical nuclear weapons?
    In aviation, these are Kh-555 and Kh-102 missiles.
    But after all, all these weapons – our politicians and military have said this more than once – cannot be used against Ukraine?
    Of course not. Only crazy bloggers write about it. Mostly speaking under anonymous nicknames.
    Once again I want to clarify: if we talk about a tactical nuclear strike on our part, then in any case is it only a retaliatory strike?
    Definitely. Reply only.
    And the targets for such a strike can only be NATO facilities? Provided that NATO enters the war directly against us?
    Yes. These are strikes, as mentioned earlier, on decision-making centers. But keep in mind that tactical nuclear weapons still have range limits. If we are talking about artillery shells, then this is from 20 to 40 km. In the same range lies a tactical nuclear charge for a mortar. Well, missiles have a range, of course, more. For operational-tactical missiles, this is 500 km.
    Can a nuclear war be stopped with the use of tactical nuclear weapons? Or is the probability of such a war escalating into a world war too high?
    If the West tries to test its concept of a limited nuclear war on us, in which, as they say, they would like to inflict minimal damage on themselves and maximum damage on us with the help of tactical nuclear weapons, then they are greatly mistaken here. It’s impossible. Such a war will almost immediately develop into a third world war. And no one on the islands or overseas will be able to sit out.
    After that, is there a high probability of the use of our strategic nuclear weapons?
    Exactly. Total nuclear capability. In our Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence, it is said that this can be done after the use of nuclear weapons on our territory.
    It does not say a word about how many missiles, how many warheads should reach us, it does not say what size they can be. Nobody cares anymore. Those who hit us with nuclear weapons will be hit in return with our entire nuclear arsenal.
    Did President Putin speak about this in his speech on September 21?
    Yes, and he reminded that the wind rose can be directed in their direction. After all, their concept of a limited nuclear war suggests that the moment of using a tactical nuclear weapon should be calculated taking into account where air masses with contaminated substances can move after that. That is, where the wind blows. It is important for the Americans that during the use of such tactical nuclear weapons, their troops who use these weapons do not suffer.
    But in response we can send them our “east wind”, which has many names. For example: “Hurricane” or “Shkval” (long-range multiple launch rocket system “Hurricane”, high-speed underwater missile “Shkval”. – “MK”). And if there are not enough of them, then there is also the latest intercontinental ballistic missile “Sarmat” and the Russian unmanned underwater vehicle with a nuclear power plant “Poseidon”. Both of them have no analogues in the world.