As the war in Ukraine continues to escalate, disarmament advocates and other observers expressed horror Tuesday over growing concerns that Russian or NATO forces would go so far as to deploy so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons—smaller warheads that are supposedly less destructive than the bombs the U.S. dropped on Japan in World War II.
The new flurry of reaction was prompted by a New York Times story examining the potentially catastrophic implications of an exchange of smaller nuclear weapons, which both the U.S. and Russia possess in terrifying quantities.
“The prospect of a massive nuclear exchange has once again become thinkable as a spin-off from the conflict in Ukraine.”
“The case against these arms is that they undermine the nuclear taboo and make crisis situations even more dangerous,” the Times notes. “Their less destructive nature, critics say, can feed the illusion of atomic control when in fact their use can suddenly flare into a full-blown nuclear war.”
“A simulation devised by experts at Princeton University,” the Times added, “starts with Moscow firing a nuclear warning shot; NATO responds with a small strike, and the ensuing war yields more than 90 million casualties in its first few hours.”
In January, the U.S., Russia, China, and other nuclear-armed countries signed a joint statement declaring that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
But Russia’s deadly assault on Ukraine—launched just a few weeks after the statement was released—quickly revived and intensified fears of an all-out nuclear war.
Particularly alarming to non-proliferation campaigners was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent reference to his country’s nuclear arsenal and threat to inflict consequences “never seen” in history on any nation that attempts to impede Russia’s invasion of its neighbor.
On February 27, Putin placed Russia’s nuclear forces on “special alert,” a move that peace advocates characterized as a dangerous escalation.
Francesca Giovannini, director of the Project on Managing the Atom, said in response to the Times story that “only three months ago, discussions over nuclear weapons use in Europe would have been unimaginable.”
“Nuclear weapons are back on the top of the policy agenda,” Giovannini added. “Let’s make this moment count to design a new generation of sensible nuclear risk-reduction strategies.”
Warren Gunnels, staff director for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), offered a decidedly more blunt reaction to the Times‘ reporting:
This is absolutely, 1 million percent, bat-shit fucking insane. https://t.co/RuPfdanHBA— Warren Gunnels (@GunnelsWarren) March 22, 2022
Speculation over whether Putin could decide to use nuclear weapons if conventional Russian forces and arms fail to break Ukrainian resistance has been rife since the invasion began last month.
“If Putin chose to use such weapons, they would not materialize out of thin air,” journalist Jordan Michael Smith wrote in The New Republic earlier this month. “Russia is estimated to have somewhere between 1,600 and 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, which have a shorter range and smaller impact and are designed to be used on battlefields.”
“If Putin decided to use nuclear weapons, they would almost surely be tactical weapons, wielded as part of an at least theoretically limited nuclear deployment,” Smith added. “Perhaps Russia might detonate a nuclear weapon over the Black Sea, a kind of intermediary step that doesn’t kill lots of people but would shock the world.”
In recent years, under the direction of both Democratic and Republican presidents, the U.S. has also moved to “modernize” its nuclear arsenal to include smaller warheads—a step critics fear could actually make nuclear conflict more likely.
James Cartwright, a retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and one of former President Barack Obama’s top nuclear strategists, cautioned in 2016 that “what going smaller does is to make the weapon more thinkable.”
“If I can drive down the yield, drive down, therefore, the likelihood of fallout, et cetera, does that make it more usable in the eyes of some—some president or national security decision-making process? And the answer is, it likely could be more usable,” Cartwright said in a PBS interview a year earlier.
According to the Times, the U.S. currently has around 100 “tactical” nukes positioned in Europe, a number that the newspaper notes is “limited by domestic policy disputes and the political complexities of basing them among NATO allies, whose populations often resist and protest the weapons’ presence.”
Sharon Squassoni, co-director of the Science and Security Board at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, voiced concern last week that “the prospect of a massive nuclear exchange has once again become thinkable as a spin-off from the conflict in Ukraine,” which has been raging for nearly a month with no diplomatic resolution in sight.
“Several scenarios are not impossible or crazy—accidental or inadvertent use leads to escalation, or a conventional rout backs Putin into a corner of desperation in which he plays the only card that still makes Russia a superpower, its nuclear weapons,” Squassoni wrote in a blog post. “Putin seems determined to carry out his military objectives, at a higher cost to his military, his country, and himself than anyone could have guessed.”
“If escalation led to a massive exchange of nuclear weapons, the world would experience a catastrophe of immeasurable proportions,” Squassoni added. “This would prompt, undoubtedly, a change in our modes of thinking about nuclear weapons. It would happen automatically, as the living envied the dead.”
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