People keep bringing up the “what if Putin uses a tactical nuke?” as if that would change the situation in Ukraine. It wouldn’t shift the military balance. It would drastically shift the political entirely against Putin’s own interests. Threatening to use a nuke is one thing. Actually using one would be a total disaster for Putin and for Russia.
Militarily, a tactical nuke doesn’t do anything that you can’t do with conventional weapons. Hence the term “tactical.” It could be useful IF there was some major supply or military choke point that Russia could hit (like the Kerch bridge to Crimea, but that is Russia’s choke point not Ukraine’s). But there isn’t any such choke point. So a big boom would go off and destroy a lot of local assets and people. But where do you go from there? Putin no longer has enough trained troops to even exploit the gap in the lines.
So a nuke is largely a “branding” exercise. Its power lies in the name and nature of the weapon, not the force of the blast. Using it, Putin would irrevocably cross a line to become most-hated-guy-on-earth.
What do you think happens in the hours days that would follow a Russian nuclear strike. Will the whole world bow down in humble submission to acknowledge Putin’s steely determination? No. A massive howl of shock, anger, and blind hatred explode from pretty much every corner of the planet? Will we be bowing down to our new overlord Russians in the street? Or will Russians be strung up from lamp-posts in retribution unleashing this terror on the world? I’d guess (sadly) lamp posts…
Absolutely no-one is going to do anything but stand up and condemn that act. Especially because it this is seen as a war of Russian aggression. There isn’t even a “self-defense” angle.
- Anyone on the sidelines (China, India, Iran, Global South) will have to move forcibly against Russia.
- Anyone in the fight (the West) will have a blank check to do whatever they want against Russia.
- Russians themselves – elites and ordinary folks – will have to decide if they really want to go down with the madman in the bunker. Or join him in the Hague for what might the Criminal Court’s first and only sentence of capital punishment…
So if Russia goes nuclear
- any and every military unit outside their borders (including everything in Crimea which is legally Ukraine under international law – so the Black Sea Fleet) is probably vaporized by the US shortly thereafter. ALL the troops they have in Ukraine and Syria are open game. We will do it to send a message to anyone else dumb enough to try it. Russian assets on the high seas is a little more tricky but…
- China and India will have to impose sanctions at minimum. There will be no more market for Russia’s oil at any price. There will be no more goods sold to Russia at any price.
- Most important, EVERYONE in Moscow will realize they are either staying on the side of the “single most hated man in the world” or getting on the side of “the rest of humanity.” If Putin tries to subsequently order more nuclear strikes, he can have ZERO confidence people will carry out the orders. Hitler in the bunker couldn’t be sure his orders were going to be carried out. And Putin doesn’t even have anyone knocking at the gates of Moscow to stiffen their spines….
Putin ends up with even less military power, the choice to retaliate/escalate against NATO (not gonna happen and he lacks the weapons), no tactical advantage (there is no strategic choke point in Ukraine) and potentially a nuclear cloud rolling towards Moscow. If he orders one or more nuclear strikes, he risks precipitating a coup. With no place on earth (literally) than could offer him shelter. His next stop is the Hague or the grave.
In short “tactical nukes” are a branding exercise. The most toxic brand you can imagine.