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How to Deal with Russia’s Nuclear Threat over Ukraine

Putin’s nuclear posturing is largely empty, says Paul Niland, but that doesn’t mean the risks are non-existent

The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine. Photo: REUTERS / Alamy

How to Deal with Russia’s Nuclear Threat over Ukraine

Putin’s nuclear posturing is largely empty, says Paul Niland, but that doesn’t mean the risks are non-existent

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Is the threat of nuclear war real? Yes. As long as nuclear weapons exist there is always the theoretical threat that someone may actually use them. Indeed, irrational actors around the world seem to be intent on acquiring them. However, when we look from a realistic rather than a theoretical point of view, the actual chances of any kind of nuclear weapons use are decidedly slim. 

The least likely scenario is one of a nuclear Armageddon obliterating the planet, though some who have fallen prey to Russian narrative control are genuinely terrified of this outcome. In constantly rattling the nuclear sabre, what Vladimir Putin is seeking to accomplish is called reflexive control. The very idea of a global nuclear holocaust is enough, in and of itself, to bring about fears of this outcome and with it, then, calls for Ukraine to compromise with Russia. As I have argued in the past, Ukraine will not – and cannot – compromise with Russia. Fears of the unimaginable and the impossible will not change that.

What is possible, according to some military analysts I have spoken to, is that Russia would resort to using some kind of tactical nuclear weapon on Ukraine, either to strike against a large grouping of the Ukrainian military or one of the country’s major urban centres. While either scenario would cause a massive loss of life, neither would change the course of this war.

In the military setting, deploying a tactical nuclear weapon could make strategic sense in wiping out a large number of Ukrainian troops, thus leaving a hole in Ukrainian defensive lines that Russia could surge troops through. However, this scenario cannot unfold for two reasons. Firstly, Russia lacks the manpower for any such surge and, secondly, it lacks the strength to hold any territorial gains.

An additional problem with this scenario is that much of the fighting in Ukraine is being conducted at close quarters, meaning that there would be no way to target a section of Ukraine’s military without there also being significant losses on the Russian side, too. Not that Putin gives a damn about his troops, but maybe one or two of his generals might.

If Russia decided to attack a civilian target – as it is currently doing with conventional weapons – Putin would be breaking every rule of war, surely triggering an immediate and debilitating response against Russia’s armed forces.

A tactical nuclear weapon is a low-yield warhead and the blast radius would in fact be contained to a relatively small area. As shown on the below map, the fireball from a 100 kiloton tactical weapon would be 380 metres; within that radius everything would be destroyed.

My apartment is located in the third circle, within 3.26 kilometres of the epicentre, if the detonation occurred in Kyiv’s Independence Square. Within this area, many residential buildings would collapse and mass casualties would result.

Photo: Euan MacDonald

To be clear – in either scenario, more Ukrainians would take up arms and continue the fight against Russia’s occupation forces. The consequences to Russia would be untold, and neither would give Putin any tactical advantage.


Putin’s Mindset

We should also examine what kind of triggers could, theoretically, lead to Putin ordering such a strike. In the minds of some, he may go down this route if he is either cornered or facing a military defeat. Neither argument stands up to examination. Putin is not cornered in Ukraine; he always has the option to pull his troops back beyond the internationally-recognised border between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. 

As for resorting to a nuclear weapon in case of military defeat? Putin has already been defeated on various fronts in Ukraine. Very symbolically, but belatedly, he realised that his bid to take the capital was doomed to failure. Similarly, his troops were routed from the entirety of the Kharkiv Oblast. None of these battlefield reversals have caused him to lash out with nuclear weapons.

As I write, Putin’s forces are facing ejection from the city of Kherson, the only regional capital that has fallen to the Russian army during the 2022 phase of this war. If Putin did not use a nuclear weapon after the strike on the Kerch Bridge 10 days ago, and does not after his defeat in Kherson, what would lead anyone to believe that, logically, he would use one in the future?

Of course, logic may play little part in his decision making – indeed, it has not to date. But, Putin is surrounded by others who may better understand the ramifications of nuclear war. So, the likelihood of going nuclear is not only tiny, but the window for doing so is also vanishing.

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There is, however, a very real nuclear threat emanating from Russia. It is nuclear terrorism of another nature, and it involves a potential catastrophe at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. This facility, the largest nuclear plant in Europe, is located in the areas of southern Ukraine that were seized in the blitzkrieg that began on 24 February. It is clear that one of Putin’s main war aims was to take a stretch of land allowing him to physically connect the occupied Crimean peninsula to Russia itself. This nuclear plant lies on that territory.

The worry is that the Kremlin does not care if the land has been depopulated as a result of irradiation from the destruction of the power station, as it will have this supply route come what may.

The threat is real enough this it has been expressly voiced by a senior Russian officer. Back in August, Major General Valerii Vasyliev, who is in charge of Russian forces at the power plant, was quoted as saying: “this will be either Russian land or scorched desert. We have mined all the important facilities at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. The enemy knows that the station will be either Russian or no-one’s. And if the toughest order comes – we must fulfil it with honour.”

To put this in context, while the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl facility today extends to an uninhabitable 30 kilometres, the radiation from that catastrophe extended far across Europe.

Photo: Vivid Maps

If Russia causes a similar event in Zaporizhzhia, the cloud of radioactive dust would similarly spread far and wide, endangering lives and ecosystems not just in Ukraine.

The threat of Russian nuclear terrorism caused by the destruction of this facility is by far the biggest nuclear threat in this war.


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