Is a tactical nuclear arsenal an option for Moscow? The hypothesis was raised shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, when Vladimir Putin indicated that he had ordered his generals to put the deterrent forces of the Russian army on special combat alert.
And the head of the CIA, William Burns, has just brandished it again, referring to Moscow’s potential use of tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons. It is possible that President Putin and the Russian leadership are falling into despair, given the setbacks they have suffered so far from a military point of view, he argued, while admitting that he had not really seen any concrete signs… that could aggravate Western concerns on the issue. A tactical nuclear weapon, smaller in explosive charge than the strategic nuclear weapon, is theoretically intended for the battlefield and carried by a delivery vehicle with a range of less than 5,500 km. The chemical weapon would not change the face of war. A tactical nuclear weapon that would level a Ukrainian city would. It is unlikely but not impossible.
And then it would be 70 years of nuclear deterrence theory that would collapse, Mathieu Boulègue, from the British think tank Chatham House, told AFP at the end of March. From risk to reality, the step remains immense. Moscow will only use nuclear weapons in Ukraine if there is an existential threat to Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov recently told CNN. For Pavel Luzin, an analyst with the Moscow-based think tank Riddle, Russia could use a tactical nuclear weapon to demoralize an adversary, to prevent the enemy from continuing to fight. The goal is primarily demonstrative, he adds to AFP. But if the opponent still wants to fight afterwards, it can be used in a more direct way. In case of stalemate or humiliation, one can imagine a vertical escalation.
It is part of the Russian strategic culture to intimidate and escalate in order to obtain de-escalation, recalls a senior French officer speaking on condition of anonymity. Putin did not enter this war to lose it . But others want to believe that the absolute taboo remains. If Vladimir Putin decides to wipe out even one Ukrainian village to show his determination, the area would be potentially barred from human life for decades. The political cost would be monstrous.
He would lose the little support he has left: India, China…, assures William Alberque, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The fact remains that Russia would not constitute a threat of such magnitude with its conventional forces alone, which in Ukraine have shown an immense capacity for destruction but also real tactical, operational and logistical weaknesses. In Western chancelleries, certainties no longer prevail. The initial Rubicon has been crossed during the invasion of Ukraine, there are no longer any limits, admits a Western diplomat. But he hopes that this taboo that has lasted since August 9, 1945 and the bomb on Nagasaki will hold. In a sign that the pit is growing, Slovak Defence Minister Jaroslav Nad compared Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler. He is on a par with Hitler, the 41-year-old minister said, according to a New York Times article carried by Slovak media. Jaroslav Nad believes Vladimir Putin must be stopped before he advances further westward. Ukraine is literally fighting for our future.