Risking Special Ranks
What can prevent Russia from a nuclear strike
by Kai Stubel
05/04/2022 06:36 PM
The Ukraine war seems to be going differently from what Russia planned. There are fears that Moscow might use tactical nuclear weapons to force victory. But in addition to the political consequences, there is another factor that makes the use of such weapons risky.
Since Russia attacked Ukraine, fears of a nuclear war have subsided. The Russian leadership has repeatedly put forward its nuclear strike capability. Russian state television also shows regular interest in the use of nuclear weapons against Western countries. Experts estimate that the probability of using nuclear weapons is low. However, there are also concerns that Russia may use smaller nuclear bombs to avoid defeat in Ukraine – or to force Kyiv to surrender.
We are talking about the so-called tactical nuclear weapons. Unlike strategic nuclear weapons, which can be used over long distances and can wipe out huge cities with their high explosive power, tactical nuclear weapons usually have lower explosive power and are designed for use on the battlefield. They are supposed to eliminate opposing units in order to give their forces an advantage. Russia has a huge arsenal of these low-powered and variable-power warheads, of which it has about 2,000 warheads.
But even these “small” atomic bombs are devastating in their effect. Russian tactical nuclear weapons have an explosive capacity of 10 to 100 kilotons. A kiloton is the equivalent amount of TNT explosive – 10,000 to 100,000 tons of it. For comparison, the massive 2020 blast of ammonium nitrate in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, was equivalent to about 1,100 tons of TNT. The Hiroshima bomb had an explosive power of about 13,000 tons – the result was about 146,000 dead.
vast infested area
So the use of a tactical nuclear bomb could cause serious damage to the Ukrainian side. But it also poses a danger to Russia – regardless of the political consequences. There will be an effect immediately felt: the repercussions are intended.
When a nuclear weapon is detonated near the ground, ash and dust are sucked up into the atmosphere where they mix with the radioactive fission products from the bomb in a mushroom cloud. It produces radioactive dust, which falls to the ground from the stem and top of the mushroom cloud, this is called local fallout. Winds can spread over an area of several 1,000 square kilometers near the actual blast – the area affected depends on the direction and strength of the winds. Nukemap on the website of science historian Alex Wellerstein can simulate the effects of nuclear bombs of various sizes anywhere in the world, including the fallout affected area.
Because of the high radiation intensity, precipitation can be fatal. According to Nukemap, the fallout from a 50 kiloton tactical nuclear weapon more than seven kilometers from the blast site, even in moderate winds, would be fatal to anyone outdoors. And even at 50 kilometers, a sick dose threatens. The radiation dose is strong, especially in the beginning, but it decreases rapidly in the following hours. Buildings provide good protection against fallout – in the basement of a multi-storey house the danger is relatively minimal. However, soldiers camping in the open would be relatively unprotected.
In the worst case, Russia could use tactical nuclear weapons to endanger its forces or its civilian population — or the population of eastern Ukraine, which it says it wants to “liberate”. Explains Anne Balzer of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) ntv.de. “It can be assumed that Russia will not use any nuclear weapons in such a way that its population will be directly affected.” However, this risk will exist if it is deployed in the Donbass or the southern part of Ukraine.
‘Repercussions that could transcend borders’
But a nuclear strike in other regions of Ukraine also carries risks: if a 100-kiloton bomb is used over Kyiv, the radioactive fallout will not reach the Russian borders, but depending on the wind and weather conditions will have an effect on the courtship of Belarus . It is possible that the use of the same bomb over Kharkiv would have repercussions on the Russian territory and the population there. “The repercussions can cross borders,” warned Patricia Lewis, director of international security programs at think tank Chatham House, the BBC.
Could the risk of spillover deter Russia from using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine? It’s hard to say. “It is clear that every use of a nuclear weapon violates international humanitarian law and will pollute the environment for generations,” Balzer asserts. “During the development of the nuclear arsenal, the Soviet Union conducted tests on the territory of the then state around Semipalatinsk in today’s Kazakhstan, among other places, and the population continues to suffer from the consequences of the experiments even today.”
Then there are the political risks of using nuclear weapons. Balzer warns that “if the Russian government actually uses a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, such a move is likely to lead to a nuclear war, the consequences of which are unimaginable.” We hope that the United States will not respond to the use of a single nuclear weapon with a nuclear counterattack. But simulations in the past would have shown that there is first exchange most of the time, followed by the use of all strategic nuclear weapons.