The Daily Telegraph

‘Tactical’ nuclear strike could take out a carrier but risks all for Putin

Russian leader’s speech increases fear of atomic bomb attack, but West is ready to stand up to him

- By James Rothwell

VLADIMIR PUTIN’S renewed threat of nuclear war in a bitter and rambling speech, has revived fears that he could drop an atomic bomb on Ukraine or a Nato ally in a so-called “tactical” strike.

“I want to remind you that our country has various means of destructio­n,” the Russian president said yesterday. “If the territoria­l integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.”

“This is not a bluff,” he added.

What would “tactical” nuclear strikes look like?

Nuclear weapons are generally classified as either strategic or tactical, with the former deployed to win a war and the latter to win an individual battle.

According to the British security think tank RUSI, Russia’s tactical arsenal is limited in range to around 300 miles – compared with a 3,000 mile strategic nuclear missile.

Tactical weapons are also lower in explosive yield, such as the 10-kiloton SSC-8. However, they still wield immense destructiv­e power. The atomic bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of around 15kts.

A low-yield tactical nuclear missile, such as one carrying 1kt worth of explosives, would destroy the equivalent of a company of tanks.

If one were dropped on Parliament, for example, it would also wipe out Westminste­r Abbey, Westminste­r Bridge and parts of Whitehall. And it would spew deadly radiation over 10 Downing Street and the London Eye.

A bigger missile such as the Iskander

M could carry about 50kts, enough to take out an aircraft carrier group.

An interconti­nental ballistic version, designed to travel thousands of miles, could carry around 500kts and would flatten a small city such as Oxford.

The Russian Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever created, had a yield of 50,000kts.

Russia has never used nuclear weapons in conflicts, so it is difficult to predict how such an attack might unfold.

Lawrence Freedman, a war studies expert at King’s College London, has said that “the potential targets for limited nuclear strikes [in Ukraine] are those already identified for convention­al strikes – critical infrastruc­ture more than cities”.

He also pointed out that Snake Island, which is uninhabite­d, could be nuked as a demonstrat­ion of Russia’s power to sow fear in Ukraine and the West.

Even a low-yield nuclear strike would cause immense destructio­n to a major

‘If the territoria­l integrity of our country is threatened, we will use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia. This is not a bluff ’

population centre like Birmingham or London. Nuclear weapons analysts say a bomb dropped on Washington would kill up to 300,000 people, not including those harmed by nuclear radiation in the wider area.

Would Putin really do it?

There are some concerns that the Russian leader may have lost his grip on reality and could resort to such a nightmaris­h step if he continues to be humiliated by the war in Ukraine.

Boris Johnson, the former prime minister, once called Mr Putin an “irrational” actor who was “possibly thinking logically” about his military goals.

In terms of logistics, Mr Putin has the power under Russian law to launch nuclear weapons in the event of an existentia­l threat. He is said to always have at hand a “cheget”, or nuclear briefcase, which connects him to the command and control of Russia’s nuclear programme. But the cheget does not contain a nuclear “red button”; instead it transmits the order to the Russian General Staff, or central military command.

This central command can either send codes to weapons commanders or use a backup system that bypasses all chains of command to launch landbased nuclear weapons.

If Mr Putin opened his cheget and gave the order, one can only speculate on whether the Russian central command would follow it. There have been rumours that the Russian leader is facing fierce internal criticism for the failures in the invasion of Ukraine so far.

Perhaps an order to launch nuclear weapons on Ukraine or a Nato ally would be a step too far for even his closest generals.

So it could be a bluff?

Western leaders have largely dismissed Mr Putin’s words as a bluff – despite his explicit insistence to the contrary.

Just a few days after the invasion, he put Russia’s nuclear deterrent on high alert. And Russian propaganda netrate works have also made repeated threats of nuclear annihilati­on against the West since the invasion began.

In perhaps the most alarming example, Russian state TV host Olga Skabeeva said that Moscow should have nuked Britain on the day of the Queen’s funeral to cause maximum chaos.

However, nuclear analysts pointed out a subtle shift in Mr Putin’s address yesterday.

Andrey Baklitskiy, an expert at the UN institute for disarmamen­t research, noted that Mr Putin threatened nuclear war “if the territoria­l integrity of our country is threatened”.

He added: “Those statements go beyond the Russian nuclear doctrine, which only suggests Russian first use in convention­al war when the very existence of the state is threatened.”

“Putin adds ‘territoria­l integrity’ and [the] very abstract protection of people, independen­ce and freedom. Coming from the person who has sole decisionma­king power on nuclear weapons this will have to be taken seriously,” he said.

In other words, Mr Putin could be laying a trap: if Ukraine continues its counter-offensive on occupied territory that Moscow declares “Russian” after sham referendum­s, then it could grant him a pretext for a nuclear strike.

How would the West respond?

Western leaders do not seem overly concerned about the prospect of nuclear armageddon.

But if the unthinkabl­e happened, and Russian nuclear weapons were launched at the West, then it would presumably respond in kind.

Liz Truss, the Prime Minister, said she was “ready” to push the nuclear button during the Tory leadership contest – even if, as her interviewe­r put it, this led to “global annihilati­on”.

But the response to a smaller scale nuclear strike on Ukraine is less clear. It would most likely be led by Joe Biden, the US President, who refused to elaboin detail on his response to a potential chemical or “tactical” nuclear strike in an interview last week.

“They’ll become more of a pariah in the world than they ever have been and the extent of what they do will determine what response would occur.”

What about Russia’s allies?

Recent remarks from China and India, two allies who initially stayed neutral on Mr Putin’s war, suggest the countries are now distancing themselves from the conflict.

Beijing on Wednesday issued a statement urging a “ceasefire through dialogue” suggesting that Beijing is opposed to Moscow taking any drastic steps, such as nuclear war.

“Any move towards tactical nuclear or WMD [weapons of mass destructio­n] – then Russia immediatel­y loses China, their most valuable ally,” said Dr Paul Dorfman, a nuclear safety expert who has advised the UK Government, on Twitter. “In fact, Putin loses everything.”

 ?? ??
 ?? ?? Liz Truss holds her first face-to-face talks as Prime Minister with Joe Biden, the US President, below. Russia’s war in Ukraine was a major topic of conversati­on at the meeting at the UN in New York
Liz Truss holds her first face-to-face talks as Prime Minister with Joe Biden, the US President, below. Russia’s war in Ukraine was a major topic of conversati­on at the meeting at the UN in New York
 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom