Debate on the Resurgence of Russian Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) or Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapon (NSNW) are short range and low yield nuclear warheads which are fundamentally designed and developed to be employed and utilized in an adverse scenario in the battlefield for limited strikes. However, the security risks associated with the handling of the TNWs are of escalation, proliferation and accidental use, but the major among them is the risk associated with their handling as TNWs may be pre-delegated bolstered with the issue of “use or lose” dilemma. It may be argued that if TNWs are directly controlled by the nuclear weapon states, there are less chances of accident and inadvertence. 

Historically, the inception of TNWs dates back to the late 1950s, during the Cold War era,  when the US introduced these low yield nuclear devices. The notion behind their inception, as their current name implies, was to employ such weapons on the battlefield to counter adversary forces at the tactical level where the intended targets are the operational forces and military Command and Control (C&C) structure.

Before delving into the main debate, it is important to briefly elaborate for layman knowledge that the yield of TNW, which determines the device’s destructiveness, varies from 10 to 50 kilotons.  For example the nuclear bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II by the United States were only 16 and 25 kilotons, respectively. The tale of the destruction of those two big cities of Imperial Japan is evidently visible to the whole world as a case in point.

As the Russia-Ukraine war continues to unfold, the debate on TNWs has resurged on the international political spectrum. On June 13, 2024, a Russian strategic military force battalion stationed at the northern Leningrad district – strategically critical position as the region is bordered with NATO member states such as Norway, Finland, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania which covers almost all of Russia’s European border – took part in drills to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in the evolving hostile scenario.

Though the Russian President Vladimir Putin has frequently asserted that Russia is not intended to introduce nuclear weapons into the current ongoing war theater, the mobilization of the nuclear forces indicates the flagrant contradictions in the Russian leadership’s words and actions. According to Mr. Putin, he himself proudly declared at one of the press conferences that the yield of the Russian TNWs is 70-75 kilotons which in the case of TNWs is massive yield devices that, if used, could have far reaching strategic implications and such an idiotic decision will sink the whole world into the nuclear Armageddon.

Russia, according to the figures quoted in the 2024 Bulletin of Atomic Scientist’s latest report on Russian Nuclear Forces, possesses 1558 non-strategic nuclear warheads as of today. However, in the very same report, experts highlighted that exaggeration is being evident from the US officials, actual figures are still unverifiable due to the secrecy of the Russian nuclear program.

The recent preparatory drills of Russian nuclear force command are not a new phenomenon. The initiation of such military exercises was conducted earlier in May this year, when Russia, for the first time in two years of Ukraine’s invasion incorporated deployment of TNWs. Belarus’s inclusion in such military exercises, as well as the deployment of Russian TNWs on its soil, would play a strategically significant role in a wartime situation. One of the primary reasons for the resurgence of the nuclear weapons debate in the international political arena is the trust deficit at the global level between major state actors. The weakening of strategic restraint regimes, such as the Cold War-era strategic arms control regimes that both the US and Russia have violated, suspended, or de-ratified more frequently in recent times, has resulted in existing trust deficits between major states. 

In a volatile situation like this, introducing nuclear weapons into an active warzone would significantly increase the risk of inadvertent nuclear escalation due to miscalculations or misperceptions. Such a move could have profound strategic consequences for the stability of the arms race. Specifically, it heightens the risk of unintentionally escalating conventional warfare into a full-blown nuclear conflict in the broader European region.

These military exercises involving nuclear weapons are not only jeopardizing the regional peace and security, instead they will also hamper the global strategic stability by initiating the dangerous arms race in the comparatively non-aggressive and non-nuclear Scandinavian buffer zone between mainland Europe and Russia. Therefore, careful consideration and the establishment of credible and acceptable restraint regime are crucial to prevent further escalation and maintain regional stability.

The Western actors, such as the US and the EU, must manifest serious deliberation regarding these Russian actions. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Western policymakers were also not acknowledging the credibility of Russian threat of invading Ukraine. Similarly, in the current scenario, the same Western elites and scholars remain skeptical about the threat posed by Russian nuclear use. Despite being Russia’s final and most comprehensive option, we should not ignore or completely dismiss it from the discussion. 

[Image credit: Mil.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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