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Behind the headlines

The risk of nuclear war

A Soviet nuclear test in 1951

Vladimir Putin announced two weeks ago that he was putting Russia’s nuclear forces on a “special combat duty regime”. This relatively meaningless gesture nevertheless ratchets up tension with the West, says Jeremy Shapiro in the Financial Times. Joe Biden has taken steps to dampen the nuclear mood, including the cancellation of a long-planned test launch of the Minuteman III ballistic missile. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said this move demonstrated that America was “a responsible nuclear power”.

What’s the immediate danger?
For most people in the West, says Shapiro, the very idea of using nuclear weapons is simply unthinkable, “and so they don’t think about it”. That was the view that prevailed throughout the Cold War, but “for better or for worse, we now live in a different world”. The risk is not so much the world’s nuclear powers flattening each other’s major cities, but a less drastic scenario.

Such as?
More conceivable, says former Nato special advisor Chris Donnelly, is that Russia’s shaky conscript army starts to look seriously underpowered compared to the more experienced and “better looked after” Ukrainians. Kyiv’s soldiers are, on average, older than their Russian opponents: 30-35, as opposed to 20-25. And Ukrainian soldiers usually get the chance to sleep in warm, safe conditions and eat warm food, while the “cold and underfed” Russians have to sit in trenches or in vehicles “without the engines running because they are short of fuel”. Some military analysts believe this imbalance could lead Putin to resort to using “tactical nukes” to level the playing field.

What are “tactical nukes”?
They’re smaller warheads. The “strategic” weapons deployed on US Trident submarines have a yield of 475 kilotons, and the largest are capable of more than 1,000 kilotons. If one of these were ever dropped, a fireball would engulf everything within a mile in 10 seconds, and the super-heated air that followed would start fires and cause severe burns up to 20 miles away. Tactical nuclear weapons, by comparison, are more likely to be in the tens of kilotons, still packing enough punch that the radiation would kill anyone within a mile. The smallest nukes, such as the American W54, can have a yield as low as 0.01 kilotons, and fit into an overnight bag.

How might they be used?
Tactical nuclear weapons are designed to be used at relatively short range to destroy specific targets, most likely on a battlefield. They are powerful enough, says Jason Willick in The Washington Post, to take out the 160 tanks in an armoured division, or to flatten a crucial port or power station. Unlike their larger “strategic” counterparts, which are intended to cross continents on enormous rockets before reaching their target, the smallest tactical nukes could be launched from a vehicle the size of a tank.

How many does Russia have?
A lot more than all its rivals, including the US. Russia has only a small lead in total nukes – an estimated 5,977 to America’s 5,428. But the US has just 230 tactical nukes, little more than a tenth of Russia’s 2,000. And Putin’s arsenal is growing all the time, including new tech like the nuclear-tipped “Poseidon” autonomous torpedo, while America’s nuclear stockpile is shrinking. “This imbalance,” says Willick, “deserves immediate American attention.”

What about Ukraine?
After the fall of the USSR, Ukraine itself held around a third of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, making it the third largest in the world. But in 1994, Ukraine agreed to destroy these warheads and join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Since then, despite Putin’s claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that Ukraine has made any effort to regain nuclear capability.

What do Kremlin watchers think?
There’s serious danger ahead, says top Russia expert Fiona Hill in an interview with Politico. Putin is increasingly operating emotionally and he’s likely to use all the weapons at his disposal, including nuclear ones. “Every time you think, ‘No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, he would,” Hill says. “And he wants us to know that, of course. It’s not that we should be intimidated and scared… We have to prepare for those contingencies and figure out what is it that we’re going to do to head them off.” A lot of people say we’re on the brink of World War III. What does Hill think? “We’re already in it.”

🙅💣🍄 How Kennedy handled the Kremlin
On October 18, 1962, John F Kennedy and his advisers were discussing whether a US invasion of Cuba, to remove the Soviet missiles there, would prompt the Russians to seize West Berlin in response. If that happened, how would the US retaliate? “Go to general war,” suggested General Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. “You mean nuclear exchange?” asked the president. Taylor shrugged: “Guess you have to.”

Taylor’s remark emphasises “the madness that overtook key players on both sides”, says Max Hastings in The Times. An important part of Kennedy’s greatness, “and it was greatness”, derived from his understanding that he must seek a bargain with the Kremlin, rather than Russia’s outright defeat. The real question, said JFK, was how the US could minimise the chances of a nuclear conflagration – what he called the “final failure”.

It is harder to negotiate with Putin because he appears “more remote from reality” than the frightened Nikita Khrushchev was 60 years ago. “There is also less chance that the new tsar will honour any agreement.” But outright “victory” over Putin’s Russia is not within our reach. So, painful as it might be, we are obliged to strike a bargain.