Expert: Russia Risks Becoming ‘Isolated Pariah State’ If It Uses Nukes – UVA Today

UVA Today turned to Sechser  for his expert take on the events in Ukraine.

Q. What has Russia threatened to do?

A. It’s worth pointing out that Vladimir Putin has not explicitly stated whether or when Russia will use nuclear weapons. In fact , he hasn’t used the term “nuclear weapons” at all when talking about Russia’s actions. Instead, he has used phrases like “all the forces and means at our disposal” and “consequences that you have never encountered in your history. ”

This is typically how leaders make nuclear threats: They do it obliquely.   This is important because it leaves Putin just a little bit of wiggle room.   If he doesn’t use nuclear weapons, he can save a little bit of face since he did not explicitly say that he would use them.

At the same time, there is no doubt what Putin wants the world to think when this individual uses key phrases like “all the forces and indicates at our own disposal. ” He is hoping that the specter of nuclear conflict will intimidate Ukraine and the West into being more cautious.

  Q. Do nuclear risks work?

A. Nuclear weapons are useful for some things and not others.

On one hand, nuclear threats seem to be useful for self-defense – for preventing aggression. Before the nuclear age, territorial aggression was quite common, and the world’s great powers routinely fought bloody wars against one another. But nuclear weapons have changed that will equilibrium. Anyone contemplating invading a nuclear-armed country would have no doubt that such an attack would be met with a nuclear response.

But things get trickier whenever leaders try to use nuclear threats to engage in hostility. Leaders possess certainly tried to use them this way.   The Soviets, for example , tried to use nuclear dangers to change the status quo in East Berlin in the 1950s and 1960s.   Nixon used a nuclear alert in a failed gambit to bully their way to a favorable settlement in Vietnam within 1969.   And India and Pakistan have attempted nuclear coercion from time to time as well. But the record here is much spottier: By and large,   these threats have not worked.

Q. Has Putin’s oblique threat netted any concessions?

A. It is notable that Russia’s repeated nuclear threats never have managed to extract any meaningful concessions from Ukraine, the United States or Europe. If anything, they have worsened Russia’s international isolation. Yet this fits the historical pattern: Nuclear threats are credible tools of self-defense, not aggression. Leaders sometimes have a misconception that nuclear threats are a dial they can turn up plus down until they get what they want. But over and over, leaders from Nikita Khrushchev in order to Donald Trump have discovered that it isn’t so simple. Nuclear weapons are not a magic wand.

Q. What might the use of nuclear weaponry in Ukraine look like?

A. The particular explosive magnitude of nuclear weapons is measured in kilotons – thousands of tons – or even megatons – millions of lots – of TNT. On this spectrum, nuclear weapons can range widely. At one end are “strategic” nuclear weapons like Russia’s Topol-M ballistic missile, which carries a warhead with an explosive yield associated with perhaps 500 kilotons. The largest warhead in the U. S. nuclear arsenal, the B83, has a yield of 1. 2 megatons.

At the other finish are shorter-range nuclear systems, sometimes called “tactical” or “battlefield” nuclear weapons, which usually generally have got explosive yields of a few dozen kilotons or less. These are the weapons that will Putin would be most likely to use in Ukraine. But even a few kilotons are still incredibly powerful by any measure: The atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945 was about 15 kilotons.

Q. Are there considerations beyond the size of the particular weapon?

A. The more important question is not the size of the weapon, but the target.   A lower-yield weapon detonated in a city could still cause tens of thousands of casualties; a massive nuclear warhead targeted at a remote underground bunker would cause comparatively few casualties.

Russia could assault Ukrainian leadership targets, military targets, and even conduct the so-called “demonstration” strike over an uninhabited area.   Worst of all, it could strike an Ukrainian city with a nuclear weapon, hoping to trigger widespread terror and coerce Ukraine into surrendering.

Q. Would using nuclear weapons help Russia?

A. Using nuclear weapons is not going to give Russia a magic escape route from this war. Attacking a town with nuclear weapons would be a horrifying and barbaric act that would permanently transform Russian federation into an isolated pariah state. It is worth remembering that nuclear weapons have never been used since 1945.   Although Putin would like us to believe otherwise, there is a strong precedent today against using nuclear weapons – some scholars have even called this a “nuclear taboo. ”

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