Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he will station tactical nukes in Belarus has revived concerns that Russia could use nuclear weapons in the ongoing Russo-Ukraine War.
Putin made the announcement last weekend, saying that “the move was triggered by Britain’s decision this past week to provide Ukraine with armor-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium,” the Associated Press reported.
The deployment of tactical nukes to nearby Belarus is an escalation, which lends credence to the idea that western aid to Ukraine has the potential to antagonize Russia and exacerbate the conflict. The use of a tactical nuclear weapon would of course be roughly the most significant exacerbation possible.
“Tactical nuclear weapons are intended for use on the battlefield and have a short range and a low yield compared with much more powerful nuclear warheads fitted to long-range missiles,” the AP reported. “Russia plans to maintain control over those it sends to Belarus, and construction of storage facilities for them will be completed by July 1, Putin said.”
So, the real question is: would Russia use nuclear weapons in Ukraine?
Will Putin use nuclear weapons in Ukraine?
Here’s the thing: as long as Russia has nuclear weapons, the possibility exists that Russia can use nuclear weapons. And since Russia has nearly 6,000 nuclear weapons, the possibility most certainly exists that Russia can use nuclear weapons.
Will Russia use a nuke now? No one has detonated a nuclear weapon in an act of war since World War II, when the Americans dropped two A-bombs on Japan. At no point since more than just one nation (the U.S.) has had nuclear power (the Soviets developed their own nuclear weapons just a few years after the Americans), has a nuclear weapon been deployed other than in testing – presumably because a world with multiple nuclear powers has caused plausible fear of reciprocal retaliation, hence deterring the use of nuclear weapons, hence causing nuclear stability.
In the nearly 80 years since a nuclear weapon was deployed, something like complacency has developed. Few people contemplate nuclear deployment as a likely outcome to a conflict, even when one of the belligerents is a nuclear power – probably because few people (and roughly no one in the pundit-, political-, or policy class) have a living memory of a nuclear weapons deployment. But someone somewhere is going to use a nuclear weapon again. Don’t you think?
I have trouble believing that Nagasaki, 1945 is going to be the last time in human history that a nuclear weapon is deployed. Nuclear watchdog groups rate the likelihood of a nuclear exchange as being higher than at any point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. That doesn’t necessarily mean the likelihood is high – but it’s not zero. And it’s higher than it was before Britain gave Ukraine armor-piercing shells. So, the question the West should be asking is whether it’s worth it. Is a one-point-five percent, or whatever uptick, in the likelihood of a nuclear exchange worth it so that Ukraine can have armor-piercing shells? I would argue that no it is not.
So, will Russia use nuclear weapons in Ukraine? Statistically, it’s not the most likely outcome. But it’s possible and more likely this week than last week – and that’s a calculation that should be at the heart of every single policy decision that goes into the defense of Ukraine, not just some afterthought.
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Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.