Nuclear war in Eurograd?

A Neokohn főmunkatársa, Izraelben élő biztonságpolitikai szakértő.

Since the outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine, and especially in recent days, there has been a lot of talk about the possibility of the Russians using nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Analysis by Robert C. Castel.

It makes one wonder that the insinuations, allusions and opinions on this subject cannot be written off as merely war propaganda by one side. On the contrary, a specific consensus on the possibility of nuclear weapons has emerged, involving the warring parties, the allied regimes supporting them and independent analysts. If the wisdom of the masses is to be believed, it is very likely that, after 77 years, nuclear weapons will once again become a tool of applied warfare.

During the three decades of the geopolitical spring that began in 1991, the public had little reason to concern itself with the theory of the use of nuclear weapons. The public strategic discourse of the Cold War had withered away and disappeared without a trace. The only thing that remains in the public consciousness is a vague memory of some kind of doomsday machine whose big red button, if pressed, will destroy us all.

For the first time in 30 years, we are in a position where the political decisions we try to force through by waving cardboard signs, Facebooking and Tweeting have a decisive influence on the ticking of the doomsday clock. Contrary to our cherished doomsday theories that give us comfort and hope, this is a very concrete and very tangible threat. It is therefore worth taking a good hard look at the precipice before us and trying to understand what we are facing.

Unfortunately, most of the material we come across on this subject is, if not in scope then in depth, mostly comprised of 140 letters. I would like to fill this gap with this article by answering a series of very simple questions that we all have on our minds when we hear the news of the war in Ukraine:

  • How do Russian decision-makers view the role of nuclear weapons?
  • What tools have been developed to fight a nuclear war?
  • What are the considerations behind their decision to use nuclear weapons?
  • How will it look in practice?
  • What can the Ukrainians, or NATO, do to deter Russia from using nuclear weapons?

When we pompously use the term „doctrine,” we are actually referring to the systemized doctrines and positions of a discipline. From the moment they appeared, nuclear weapons were so revolutionary that all but a few highly experienced generals understood that they were not just a quantitative leap, but a qualitative one. The shiny new invention was a magnet for the brainwashed officers and bored intellectuals. The novelty of the weapon has ruthlessly rendered irrelevant all the experiential advantages of the previous group in this field. This professional humiliation was made memorable when RAND economist Alain Enthoven quipped to an Air Force general:

“General, I’ve fought just as many nuclear wars as you have.” 

Since the latter group had disproportionately more free time than the uniformed managers, huge intellectual haystacks of nuclear weapons application theory piled up in a short time. This intellectual sport enjoyed a renaissance during the Cold War, but by the late 1990s it had run its course, and the development of a new Russian nuclear doctrine became just one of the vital but mundane tasks. The period from 1993 to 2020 saw the publication of a series of new documents in which the Russian political and military leadership defined the objectives and conditions for the use of nuclear weapons. As Amy F. Woolf’s 2021 report points out, the most fundamental determinant of the evolution of Russian nuclear thinking has been continuity.

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If there have been changes over the years, they have been mainly at the margins of the process, with very little change in substance.

To briefly summarize the Russian system of thought in this area, the following principles are worth highlighting:

  • Since Russia cannot compete with its potential adversaries in terms of conventional forces, nuclear weapons are not only a deterrent to them but also an applied tool.
  • Russia today, unlike the former Soviet Union with its decisive conventional superiority, has not committed itself to not being the first to deploy nuclear weapons.
  • The Russian nuclear arsenal will be deployed if Russia feels its vital interests are threatened.
  • „Escalation, for subsequent de-escalation” — Russia can temporarily escalate an unconventional war by deploying nuclear weapons to create an opportunity for later de-escalation of the conflict.
  • „Principle of tailored impact” — deployed nuclear weapons must achieve a well-defined politico-military effect.

To implement these principles, Russia has built up a nuclear arsenal that differs substantially from the nuclear arsenals of other major powers.


Metaphorically speaking, an armament system is little more than a 3D printer copy of doctrine. Russia’s nuclear arsenal is a faithful reflection of the principles that went into building it. It is a well-known fact that

Russia’s nuclear arsenal is the largest in the world, with 6,000 warheads.

What is less well known is that, in addition to its military philosophy, it is also a unique business model. During the Second World War, it was proven that it takes tens of thousands of conventional bombs to neutralize a city (e.g., Coventry or Dresden). Meanwhile, the same task could be done much more cheaply with a single atomic bomb (Hiroshima).

It is also a little known fact that

Russia has almost 10 times as many tactical nuclear warheads as the United States.

Why? It is because the U.S. sees nuclear weapons mainly as a deterrent, while Russia sees them as an extension of its artillery, which has a long and proud history.

Now that we have brought the subject up, we should explain the difference between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. To put it simply, it is said that tactical nuclear weapons have a low yield and short range, while strategic nuclear weapons have a much higher yield and a range that is orders of magnitude greater. This is true, but not entirely true. The real difference lies not in the technical parameters of the weapons but in the way they are used. Throughout military history, there have been numerous examples of strategic weapons being used against tactical targets and tactical weapons against strategic targets. The classic example of the first is the launch of V2 ballistic missiles against the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen in March 1945. The second is the use of Bf 109 fighter jets as fighter-bombers against London in the final stages of the Battle of Britain.

This is a fact worth bearing in mind in the context of the war in Ukraine. The idea that even if nuclear weapons are deployed, they will necessarily be of limited range is not well founded.

In practice, any of the components of the Russian nuclear triad — launched on the ground, in the air, or at sea — could be deployed on the basis of the principles of Russia’s doctrine of “tailored impact.” 

There are several ways to achieve this. In addition to the above-mentioned impact, there are also significant qualitative differences between different atomic charges. Shockwaves, broad spectrum electromagnetic pulses, and radioactive radiation are present in all atomic explosions. However, different types of weapons „mix” these three components in different proportions. For example, in the case of a neutron bomb, the aim is to create a shockwave that is as „weak” as possible and neutron radiation that is as strong as possible and instantaneous. A so-called cobalt bomb, on the other hand, is designed to cover an area with radioactive contaminants and thus render it unusable for a long time.

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Another method of tailoring an impact comes from the location of the nuclear explosion. The same atomic charge has a completely different effect when exploded in the stratosphere than when exploded at sea. The electromagnetic pulse of the former mainly targets our electrical appliances and the electrical circuits of our weapons, while the latter can destroy a port or a coastal town with a radioactive tsunami.

Now that both the doctrine and the technology are in place, it is worth reflecting on the considerations that make up the decision-making process for a specific tactical nuclear strike.


As we do not have public, reliable information on the exact decision-making processes, it is pointless to speculate on this. Let us be satisfied with the statement that the defensive use of nuclear weapons, i.e., the response to a nuclear attack, must be decentralized to a certain extent. Why? Because it is not certain that the political leadership will survive the first strike of an adversary. If the response is not decentralized, there is no effective deterrence.

But as far as the offensive, proactive use of Russian nuclear weapons is concerned, the decision will certainly be taken at the highest level.

What are the considerations that precede such a decision?

The first and most important question is: What is at stake in an unconventional war in which the Russian decision-makers want to use nuclear weapons? If the stakes are secondary, the question probably does not arise. But if the stakes are existential, then the use of nuclear weapons is well within the bounds of rationality. In the context of the Ukrainian war, this means that

if we make the conflict existential for the Russians, we should not be surprised if they act accordingly.

A really smart Western policy would have found a way to give maximum help to the Ukrainians, rather than maximum rhetoric and minimum support, with a much more calm and measured rhetoric.

The second question deals with the conventional balance of power: Is it possible to avert a catastrophic military defeat by conventional means? If the answer to this question in a war perceived as existential is no, then the case for nuclear weapons is very strong. It probably makes no difference whether the defeat comes in the form of a sudden military collapse or a long and unwinnable war of materiel. The former greatly increases the chances of a hasty decision.

Paradoxically, over-effective support for the Ukrainians can have such unintended effects.

The third question is: What is the price of escalation?

If neither Ukraine nor its Western backers can or will respond to the threat of a nuclear weapon with a similar threat, it means that there is no price for escalation. Consequently, the first nuclear strike could be followed by others. The catch-22 of the classic de Gaulle question is

how likely is it that Western Europeans would sacrifice Paris to defend Dnepropetrovsk?

Last but not least: How far can Russia control the dynamics of escalation?

If there is a chance that a tactical nuclear strike against Ukrainian military targets could set in motion a process whereby the Russians find themselves in an all-out nuclear war with the West, this uncertainty could deter the Russians from taking the first step on this slippery slope. In this respect, the interests of NATO and Ukraine are at odds.

A deliberately vague NATO policy could discourage the Russians and thus protect Ukraine from a nuclear strike. The danger is that if we fail to deter our adversary, we will have taken a giant step forward on the aforementioned downward slope. On the other hand, if NATO’s policy is clear nuclear non-intervention, then Ukraine becomes fair game, but NATO keeps itself away from the precipice.

Having reached a decision in principle on the Russian nuclear option on the basis of the four criteria, the next question arises:

How will it look in practice?


This type of Russian roulette can be played in two ways. One is a gradual escalation, the other is a sudden nuclear strike. If Russia chooses the former, it is possible to gauge the next moves in this chess game to some extent. If, on the other hand, the Russians choose the latter option, then any of the scenarios listed here could materialize, without any prior warning.

In the following, we will look at the ways of gradual escalation:

The good news is that even a decision in principle does not necessarily mean an immediate nuclear strike against Ukrainian targets. If circumstances permit, the Russians will try to achieve the desired effect by the mere threat of nuclear strikes.

Threat escalation

There are different degrees of nuclear threat. The simplest form of threat is a statement by the Russian leadership. We have seen many examples of this, both before the war and since the outbreak of the war. Another form of threat is the deployment and/or exercise of strategic nuclear forces. We saw this live in the weeks before the war. A third form of threat is the aggressive advance of strategic strike capabilities. We saw such troop movements when Sweden and Finland spoke of joining NATO.

The fourth level is the preparation of strike assets for a “live” action under the watchful eye of U.S. satellites. This was the tactic Israel used to deter Iraq from using chemical weapons during the 1991 war.

The fifth level is the missile test used by North Korea.

And the sixth is the testing of a new type of nuclear weapon in a spectacular breach of the relevant passages of international conventions.

The bad news is that Russia started climbing this ladder before the war and is now in the middle of it. If it wants to achieve results with a gradually escalating nuclear threat, it has already used up half of the tools at its disposal. Every new step that is not crowned with success brings us one step closer to nuclear war.

Power escalation

If Russia opts for gradual escalation, it is possible that the first nuclear strike could take the form of a nuclear electromagnetic pulse. As already mentioned, this would be

a high-altitude nuclear explosion targeting various civilian and military electrical devices, and not aimed at the direct destruction of human life.

Deployed as a tactical weapon over Ukrainian defense positions, such a strike could cause massive damage to the electrical circuits of various weapon systems, rendering them virtually unusable.

Whether the Russians have the right technology to achieve a „tailored effect” remains to be seen. Deployed as a strategic weapon over a large city or an industrial zone, such an electromagnetic pulse could cause untold material damage.

The next stage in the escalation of the force would probably be a neutron bomb. These weapons would generate a moderate shockwave but at the same time intense neutron radiation. Their purpose is to spare buildings and production facilities and to destroy the enemy’s life force. Deployed as a tactical weapon, this type of nuclear strike could make a painful dent in the well-established defenses of the Eastern Front, allowing a Russian breakthrough. Used as a strategic weapon against, for example, the dams and hydroelectric power stations of the Dnieper River dams, the same weapon could cause enormous damage, similar to the attacks on the Möhne and Edersee dams in 1943.

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There is nothing linear, no predictable proportionality in a real war. There are no miracle weapons.

The next stage in the escalation of force would be the use of a strategic nuclear weapon against tactical or strategic targets. As for the former, it is not easy to find a tactical target against which the use of a multi-megaton thermonuclear weapon would be justified. However, an enemy corps scattered in a wooded area and occupying defensive positions could be a useful target.

In this case, the strategic high-yield nuclear weapon is merely a means to launch a so-called „super conflagration”.

Research by Theodore A. Postol in 1986 suggests that

the shockwave and radiation effects of the weapon are dwarfed by the devastation of the fires caused by a nuclear explosion.

As for the selection of appropriate strategic targets, this is much less of a headache, since this class of nuclear weapons was developed specifically for such targets. One possibility is a nuclear strike on a major Ukrainian city or industrial zone.

The other is the aforementioned underwater nuclear explosion with a nuclear charge from a Poseidon/Status-6 robotic submarine near a target coastal city.

The resulting tsunami, which some analysts estimate could reach a height of 100 meters, would be enough to sweep away the city and port of Odessa, which is on average 40 meters above sea level.

Target escalation

As with the gradual escalation of force, an escalation ladder can be set up for targets. If the aim is purely to achieve a psychological effect, it is best to target the impact on sparsely populated areas of Ukraine, on terrain where the rugged topography can dampen the force of the shockwave.

The next stage is a nuclear strike against the Ukrainian armed forces. In this case, the objective is not only psychological but also tactical/operational. The most obvious such target is the Ukrainian defense system in the Dombas region.

The third stage in the escalation of targets is critical infrastructure that will have a decisive impact on the Ukrainian state’s ability to continue the war. Such critical infrastructure includes the country’s thermal and hydroelectric power plants, railway bridges on the Dnieper River, etc.

The fourth set of targets are Ukrainian cities. As these cities are not only housing developments, but also important industrial bases and transport hubs, these strikes serve to destroy critical infrastructure in addition to delivering terror bombs.

In summarizing Russia’s nuclear options in Ukraine, it is very clear that the doctrine in place and the nuclear weapons available allow the Russians to flexibly and effectively assert their nuclear weapons advantage to achieve “tailored impacts.” The deployment of the first nuclear weapon will also represent the breaking of a psychological barrier.

If the first nuclear strike cannot be prevented or responded to effectively, it is very likely that others will follow.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that this escalation will not only have a decisive impact on the outcome of the war in Ukraine, but will also change the face of warfare forever.

The question is: What can Ukraine or NATO do to deter Russia from using nuclear weapons?

A somewhat similar historical situation to the present one arose after the election of John F. Kennedy as president. It was obvious to the new president that in the event of a possible Soviet attack, NATO could do one of two things. Either heroically lose the conventional war against an opponent with overwhelming superiority, or engage in all-out nuclear war. Since neither option was very attractive, the U.S. under Kennedy embraced a new defense philosophy, commonly known as the doctrine of the flexible response.

The essence of this new approach was a three-stage response:

  • First: Stop the enemy by conventional means
  • Second: Deploy tactical nuclear weapons
  • Third: Pursue the aforementioned all-out nuclear war

However, this 1960s model is not really applicable to the current conflict.

The victim of the aggression is not a NATO member state, and the Alliance is not bound by any treaty to go to war with Russia.

Western public opinion is strongly in favor of aid to Ukraine, but the idea of a war against Russia remains unpopular.

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Since it is clear to both sides that Russia would not be able to defend itself against NATO in a conventional war, escalation to the level of tactical nuclear weapons is inevitable. The expected damage and the slippery slope to all-out nuclear war are also crucial to NATO’s calculations:

The benefits of saving Ukraine are simply not commensurate with the risk of all-out nuclear war.

There is only one country for which it is rational to take the risk of all-out war, and that country is Ukraine. The question is, what means does Ukraine have at its disposal to deter Russia from using nuclear weapons?

Since weapons of mass destruction are a separate qualitative category, asymmetric deterrence remains — inevitably — a very difficult pipe dream. As much as we would like to deter an adversary from using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons by conventional means that are morally easier to digest, in practice it is very difficult to do. In plain English,

Ukraine needs a WMD to deter Russia from using a WMD.

There are two possible sources of these means. One external, the other internal. As far as external sources are concerned, there is very little likelihood that NATO will transfer WMDs to Ukraine. This is particularly true for nuclear weapons. Nor is it very likely that Ukraine will be able to buy such weapons on the free market, as Gaddafi tried to do in the 1970s.

That leaves internal sources.

Any state with a moderately developed industry is capable of producing chemical and biological weapons.

The real difficulty is to weaponize and deploy these assets. If Ukraine started this process after the 2014 conflict, it probably has such assets at its disposal today. If not, it is highly unlikely that it will be able to catch up in a matter of weeks.

For Ukraine, the most readily available weapon of mass destruction is a radiological device, more popularly known as the „dirty bomb.”

To produce such a weapon, all that is needed is the right radioactive isotopes and a conventional explosive charge capable of dispersing these isotopes over a large area.

These radioactive isotopes can come from local sources, such as nuclear power plants, industrial and medical facilities, etc., and can be obtained legally or on the black market. Research from Meyer et al. in 2020 provides insight into the efforts of the two superpowers to develop these types of weapons during the Cold War. In the 1990s, Chechen terrorist organizations twice made unsuccessful attempts to use radiological weapons against Russian civilian targets. The Russians, for their part, have reckoned with this possibility and have accused Ukraine of developing radiological weapons at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

It is important to note that the physical impact of these radiological weapons is very limited, but their psychological impact on the civilian population can be significant. How far the Ukrainian radiological threat can strike a balance of mutual deterrence against Russia remains to be seen.


A tactical nuclear strike in Ukraine is not in itself an automatic escalation towards a doomsday scenario, but the possibility cannot be completely ruled out. The deployment of a nuclear weapon after eight decades of nuclear silence will have a decisive impact not only on the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, but also on the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the nature of the international system.

With the return of the nuclear weapon, we need to rethink the „butter or cannon” questions of our political-economic priorities. It is also worth looking in the mirror and seeking honest answers to the question of

who are the allies for whom we would be willing to expose ourselves to a nuclear attack to protect?

Finally, it is also worth asking ourselves whether the hierarchy of values we represent is sustainable in a world where international conventions and “soft power” are once again dictated by nuclear weapons.

Since fissile material and isotopes do not care much about our feelings, it is better that the answer to these questions is dictated by rationality.

Like it or not, nuclear weapons have been and will remain part of our world. Better to learn to live with them again.

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Robert C. Castel offers up an analysis of the present situation in Israel, and its ties to the war in Ukraine.