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Russian Military Considered Use of Nuclear Weapons

Russian military nuclear weapons
This Russian short-range cruise missile, the Iskander-K, can carry nuclear warheads for several hundred miles. Credit: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service

Multiple senior American officials have issued a warning concerning conversations held by senior Russian military leaders over the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine, increasing concerns in Washington and allied capitals.

An official report by The New York Times said that Putin, who has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear arms against Ukraine and is the sole decision-maker in charge of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, was not part of the conversations.

The fact that senior Russian military leaders were having the discussions in the first place  is what alarmed the Biden administration. Russian generals seem to be frustrated about their failures on the ground, and these discussions suggest that Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons might not just be empty words.

What is not clear is precisely when the conversations took place. According to a report by The Times, the intelligence was circulated inside the U.S. government in mid-October.

The American officials also stated that they hadn’t seen evidence that the Russians were moving nuclear weapons into place or even preparing for a nuclear strike.

However, William J. Burns, C.I.A. director, has previously said that Putin’s “potential desperation” to win the war in Ukraine could lead Russia to the use of nuclear weapons.

Pentagon estimates that Russia has 2,000 nuclear weapons

John F. Kirby, a National Security Council official, said the U.S. has been “clear from the outset that Russia’s comments about the potential use of nuclear weapons are deeply concerning” and that officials are taking them seriously.

“We continue to monitor this as best we can, and we see no indications that Russia is making preparations for such use.”

Estimates by The Pentagon indicate that Russia owns as many as 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons. These are designed to be used on battlefields to overwhelm conventional forces. No tactical nuclear weapon has ever been used in combat. These weapons carry lower yields and are meant to be used at short ranges.

Military experts warn that the use of nuclear weapons would fundamentally change the course of the Russia-Ukraine war. Although the results would depend on many factors, including the weapon’s size and the winds, even a small nuclear explosion could cause thousands of deaths and turn parts of Ukraine into uninhabitable dead zones.

Moscow claims Ukraine will use a ”dirty bomb”

The new report surfaced while Moscow was also promoting the idea that Ukraine was planning to use a ”dirty bomb,” conventional explosive laced with radioactive material, which are spread during the explosion.

Ukraine has denied the allegations, calling them a distraction and attempt by Russia to justify its own potential use of nuclear weapons.

The UN’s nuclear watchdog said it had launched an independent investigation into Russia’s claims this week. Still, previous inspections of Ukrainian facilities have not revealed any undeclared nuclear weapons.

Putin sparks concerns over use of nuclear weapons

The discussion of nuclear weapons has dominated the conflict in Ukraine from the very beginning of the war.

Within days of the invasion in Ukraine, Russian troops seized Chernobyl, a highly-contaminated site of the 1986 nuclear accident.

nuclear weapons
Chernobyl was the site of the disastrous nuclear accident of 1986. Russian troops seized control of the power plant during the first days of the invasion in Ukraine. Credit: Wendelin Jacober / Wikimedia Commons / CC-Zero

Additionally, Russia was at the center of international outrage for seizing control or fighting in some of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, including Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

The threat of a nuclear disaster escalated in late September when Putin and other officials repeatedly threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons to defend Russia’s interests.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration officials and U.S. allies said that phone calls between Western and Russian counterparts late last month had helped ease some of the nuclear tensions. A speech by Putin last Thursday in which he denied that Moscow was preparing to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine further did so.

“We see no need for that,” Putin said in his speech. “There is no point in that, neither political, nor military.”

Russia recently tested nuclear-capable missiles

Russia conducted an annual military exercise last week testing nuclear-capable missiles.

U.S. administration officials say they do not think Putin has made plans to use a tactical nuclear weapon or even a ”dirty bomb.” They also do not believe that the military exercise is an indicator of a potential nuclear attack.

“We have not seen anything to indicate that Putin has made a decision to use a dirty bomb,”  Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III told reporters at The Pentagon last Thursday. He said that even talks of the use of nuclear weapons was “dangerous.”

Still, he said that the administration was “certainly concerned about escalation,” as it has been since the war started.

“It would be the first time a nuclear weapon has been used in over 70 years,” he said. “If this happened, we have been clear from the very beginning that you would see a very significant response from the international community.”

Use of nuclear weapons a ”world-ending event”

Many foreign policy experts believe a strike could be more than likely as pressure on the Russian leader escalates due to more and more battlefield losses.

Yet what would be the result of a nuclear strike?

It would most probably mark significant intensification in hostilities and would be the only use of a nuclear weapon in conflict since the two atomic bombs used by the U.S. in Japan during Second World War.

In the final days of World War II, the U.S detonated two catastrophic atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than 200,000 people instantly or within a few months of the attacks. The cities attacked were also left in absolute ruin, as they would in the Ukraine following such an explosion.

Nuclear weapons
The ruins of the Japanese city of Hiroshima after a U.S. denoted an atomic bomb during World War II. Credit: Sailor on the USS Tuscaloosa / Public Domain / Wikipedia

Furthermore, the consequences of a nuclear attack would invoke a complete change the calculus of modern warfare and would most certainly provoke global outrage. It is unclear how military powers like the U.S. and NATO would respond. NATO leaders have warned Moscow that they would face “severe consequences” if Russia uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine, while President Joe Biden himself has also forewarned that even a limited strike would escalate into a ”world-ending event.”

Apart from changing the face of present day combat, the use of nuclear weapons would also cause the biggest humanitarian disaster of the 21st century. In addition to killing thousands of unarmed civilians, nuclear weapons, particularly explosions, produce air-blast effects similar to those produced by conventional explosives. The shock wave can directly injure humans by rupturing eardrums or lungs or by hurling people at high speed. Consequently, many would suffer or die at a later stage in their lives from the diseases developed as a consequence.

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