Opinion: The most likely nuclear scenario


With his forces in Ukraine withdrawing, international allies voicing concerns, and citizens at home fleeing partial mobilization, Russian President Vladimir Putin has grasped the threat of nuclear weapons — and Western fears of one Apocalypse revived.

“The territorial integrity of our homeland, our independence and freedom will be guaranteed, I will reiterate that, with all the means at our disposal,” Putin said in a speech last week. He added that “those trying to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction”.

So how concerned should we be? Here, former British Army officer and former Commander of the UK & NATO Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Forces, Hamish de Bretton Gordonexplains the key differences between “tactical” and “strategic” weapons and why full-scale nuclear war is unlikely anytime soon.

The views expressed in this comment are his own.

CNN: What is the difference between a “strategic” and a “tactical” nuclear weapon?

De Bretton Gordon: It’s all a matter of scale – strategic nuclear weapons are essentially Armageddon. Russia and the West (including the United States, Britain, and France) each have nearly 6,000 warheads, according to the Federation of Nuclear Scientists, which is pretty much enough to change the planet as we know it. It’s called Mutually Assured Destruction, with the rather ironic acronym MAD.

Hamish de Bretton Gordon

These warheads are attached to Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that can travel thousands of kilometers and target key locations and cities in the US, UK, France and Russia.

Tactical nuclear weapons are now much smaller warheads with a yield or yield of up to 100 kilotons of dynamite – instead of about 1,000 kilotons for strategic warheads.

However, tactical nuclear weapons could still cause a lot of damage, and if fired at a nuclear power plant — say, Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine — they could set off a chain reaction and contamination on a nuclear-strike scale.

CNN: What form are Russia’s nuclear weapons in?

De Bretton Gordon: It’s hard to say for sure, but my guess is that Russia’s strategic weapons and ICBMs are likely in good working order and always ready. It’s just Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons that now put it on par militarily with the US and NATO, so I expect they’ll be well looked after.

However, this probably does not apply to the tactical weapons. The warheads and missiles are probably in reasonable condition, but the vehicles they are mounted on are in poor condition, I believe and from a good source. Judging by the state of the rest of the Russian army equipment issued in Ukraine, this is a reasonable assumption.

It is likely that these launchers would have to travel hundreds of kilometers to get into a position where they could attack Ukraine, as they only have a range of up to 500 kilometers (310 miles). But from a mechanical point of view, I think it’s unlikely they would get that far.

Also, these weapons likely rely on microprocessors and other high-tech components, which are in very short supply in Russia, given international sanctions and Russia’s heavy use of precision-guided missiles, which also uses these parts.

CNN: What about strikes at nuclear power plants?

De Bretton Gordon: As Putin’s conventional warfare struggles in Ukraine, I expect the Russians will increasingly turn to unconventional warfare.

This move focuses on attacks on civilians rather than opposition forces. This manifests itself in attacks on hospitals, schools and “dangerous” infrastructure such as chemical plants and nuclear power plants. When attacked, these can become improvised chemical or nuclear weapons.

The Russians hope that if the Ukrainian people give up, the military will quickly follow suit, which I think is a highly flawed assumption – both showing far more courage than the Russians.

We have seen several cases in Ukraine where Russian forces apparently intentionally bombed chemical plants to cause toxic contamination.

Although blowing up these power plants would not produce a nuclear explosion similar to a weapons detonation, it could spread radioactive debris and contaminate local water supplies.

The meteorological conditions at the moment indicate that all these contaminations would also move west through Europe. This could be seen as an attack on NATO and trigger Article 5 – where an attack on one ally counts as an attack on all allies – which would allow NATO to retaliate directly against Russia.

Hopefully, the Russian high command fully recognizes this possibility.

CNN: How likely are these nuclear scenarios?

De Bretton Gordon: I consider the use of strategic nuclear weapons to be extremely unlikely. This is a war no one can win, and at the moment it doesn’t seem likely that this regional conflict in Europe would lead to a global nuclear war that could destroy the planet for many generations to come.

I am sure that in the Kremlin, as in the White House and 10 Downing Street, controls are in place to ensure that we are not thrown into a global nuclear conflict on a whim.

I believe Putin’s tactical nuclear weapons are useless. Even if their vehicles work, the moment they turn on their engines to move, they are picked up by US and NATO intelligence agencies.

I hope the private discussions that the Biden and Putin administrations seem to have been having are along the lines of, “You move your tactical nuclear weapons, and NATO will take them out with long-range, precise missiles.” It appears that is the case, Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Advisor at the White House, announced over the weekend.

The most likely nuclear scenario, in my opinion, is a Russian attack on a nuclear power plant in Ukraine. That could have an effect similar to that of a tactical nuclear blast, but would be easier to deny to the Russians, who accuse Ukraine of targeting their own power plants.

It is only Russia that has tactical nuclear weapons in this conflict, so it would be undeniable that Russia would be responsible if they were used, thus triggering NATO action. Russian conventional forces are so degraded that if it came to that, they would likely be quickly overwhelmed by NATO forces, as Putin himself is likely aware of other failures.

CNN: What can we learn from Russia’s gun playbook in Syria?

De Bretton Gordon: I believe the Russians developed their unconventional war tactics in Syria. (Russian forces entered Syria’s long civil war in 2015 and bolstered the regime of allied President Bashar al-Assad). I don’t think Assad would still be in power if he hadn’t used chemical weapons.

The massive nerve agent attack on Ghouta on August 21, 2013 stopped the rebels from overrunning Damascus. The four-year conventional siege of Aleppo was ended by multiple chlorine attacks.

And it doesn’t seem that Putin has any morals or scruples. Russia attacked hospitals and schools in Syria, which it is repeating in Ukraine. Unconventional warfare is aimed at breaking the will of the civilian population to resist, and Putin seems ready to use any means and weapons to achieve this.

CNN: How much does that depend on Putin’s call?

De Bretton Gordon: These weapons are doctrinally controlled at the highest level and would require Putin to make the decision to launch a strategic strike.

Soviet doctrine, which the Russians seem to still follow, allows local commanders to use tactical nuclear weapons to stave off defeat or loss of Russian territory.

The attempted annexation of four districts by the current mock referenda makes the likelihood of a tactical deployment very high if these locations are attacked. Although one would still expect local commanders to give in to Putin first before pressing their own equivalent of a red button.

Western military sources say that Putin is interfering in the hand-to-hand combat and appears to be giving orders to fairly low-level commanders. That’s extraordinary — it seems Putin has only now lost faith in his generals after Ukraine retook much of the northeast earlier this year — and suggests a broken command and control system and a president who doesn’t trust his generals trusted.

(While Russian military command on the ground appears to be failing, there is no indication that Putin’s control of the Kremlin is wavering).

Even an attack on a power plant is believed to involve Putin, since the West would likely perceive it as an improvised nuclear weapon and act accordingly.

CNN: How should the West react now – and in the event of a nuclear strike?

De Bretton Gordon: The West must make it absolutely clear to Putin that any use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons is a real problem. However, I don’t think a total nuclear war is at all likely.

NATO must direct that it will eliminate Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons if they move from their current locations to a position where they could threaten Ukraine, and must also make it clear that any deliberate attack on nuclear power plants will require an equal and stronger response NATO will require them.

This is the time to expose Putin’s bluff. He’s holding onto his fingertips and we mustn’t give him a chance to regain his grip. Russia’s armed forces are now so degraded that they are no match for NATO, and with that in mind we should now be negotiating from that position of strength.

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