On 1 December 2022, the House of Lords is due to debate a motion in the name of Lord Harries of Pentregarth (Crossbench) “that this House takes note of the war in Ukraine, including the threatened use of tactical nuclear weapons”.

1. War in Ukraine: Recent developments

On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in what Russian president Vladimir Putin described as a “special military operation”. After failing to take the capital, Kyiv, Russian forces subsequently focused on southern and eastern Ukraine, in particular the Donbas region in the east which includes the areas of Luhansk and Donetsk.

In recent months Ukraine has conducted a major counteroffensive. Ukrainian forces have liberated significant territory in the northeast and east of the country. In the south, Ukrainian forces have retaken territory in the Kherson region north of the Dnipro River.

On 9 November 2022, Russia announced its intention to withdraw from the southern city of Kherson which it formally claimed to have annexed along with the region of the same name only six weeks earlier following a disputed referendum. On 11 November 2022, Ukrainian forces liberated the city. The wider Kherson region to the south of the Dnipro River remains in Russian control. Following Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson, Ukraine has claimed to have found evidence of torture and other war crimes committed by Russian forces.

The latest defence intelligence assessments of the situation in Ukraine can be found on the Twitter account of the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD). Daily updates are also provided by the US-based Institute for the Study of War think tank.

Figure 1 below, reproduced from the MoD Twitter account, shows the areas of military control in south-eastern Ukraine as at 23 November 2022.

Figure 1. Control of terrain in southern and eastern Ukraine as at 23 November 2022

(Source: Ministry of Defence, ‘Official Twitter account’, accessed 23 November 2022)

On 15 November 2022, there were concerns about an escalation of the conflict when a missile struck neighbouring Poland (a NATO member), killing two people. The missile strike occurred during the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. There was initial speculation that Russia may have launched the missile. In response, leaders of the G7 nations and NATO members held an emergency meeting on the fringes of the summit, at which they agreed to “determine appropriate next steps as the investigation proceeds”. However, following subsequent analysis of the blast site NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said there was:

No indication that this was the result of a deliberate attack and we have no indication that Russia is preparing offensive military actions against NATO.

At the time of writing, initial findings from a Polish and US-led investigation suggested that the missile had been fired by Ukrainian forces at an incoming Russian missile as part of an air defence system. However, the incident has highlighted the potential for the war in Ukraine to escalate into a confrontation with a neighbouring NATO member. Such an escalation could trigger a NATO response under the principle of collective defence in article 5 of the NATO treaty.

The MoD defence intelligence update on 18 November 2022 stated:

Following the withdrawal of its forces from west of the Dnipro River, Russian forces continue to prioritise refitting, reorganisation and the preparation of defences across most sectors in Ukraine […] It is likely that Russia will attempt to eventually redeploy some of the forces recovered from Kherson to reinforce and expand its offensive operations near the town of Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast.

On 19 November 2022, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak made an unannounced visit to Kyiv to meet the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Mr Sunak said the UK would “continue to stand by Ukrainians in their fight”. He pledged to provide a £50mn package of “air defence to help protect Ukrainian civilians and critical national infrastructure from an intense barrage of Russian strikes”.

The Institute for the Study of War reported that on 20 and 21 November shelling had caused “widespread damage” to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in south-eastern Ukraine. Despite the damage, the International Atomic Energy Agency said there were “no immediate nuclear safety or security concerns” arising from the damage.

The MoD defence intelligence update on 21 November 2022 stated:

Over the last seven days, intense artillery exchanges have continued around the Svatove sector in Luhansk Oblast in north-eastern Ukraine […] With Russia’s south-western front line now more readily defendable along the east bank of the Dnipro River, the Svatove sector is likely now a more vulnerable operational flank of the Russian force […] Both Russian defensive and offensive capability continues to be hampered by severe shortages of munitions and skilled personnel.

Further updates on the progress of the war in Ukraine can be found at:

2. Could Russia use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

2.1 What are ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons?

Tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs), also known as battlefield or non-strategic nuclear weapons, are designed for use on the battlefield, for example against conventional forces such as large formations of infantry and armour. They typically have lower explosive yields and a shorter delivery range compared to ‘strategic’ nuclear weapons, such as the warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles. TNWs typically have an explosive yield ranging from under one kiloton to 50 kilotons. These yields are smaller than strategic nuclear weapons, which can have explosive yields between 100 kilotons and a megaton. However, TNWs could still be very destructive if deployed. For comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 is estimated to have had a yield of approximately 15 kilotons.

Russia is currently estimated to have an arsenal of around 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons. Russia has the capability to launch TNWs by air, land, and sea. These systems have a range of about 500 kilometres.

Nina Tannenwald at Brown University has said that the effects of a TNW explosion would include:

[…] a fireball, shock waves, and deadly radiation that would cause long-term health damage in survivors. Radioactive fallout would contaminate air, soil, water and the food supply.

The interactive ‘Nukemap’, produced in association with the US-based Stevens Institute of Technology, allows the effects of a nuclear explosion of any size to be simulated anywhere on earth.

2.2 Assessments of the likelihood of Russia using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin has used threats of escalation to deter Western nations from intervening in the conflict. When he announced the beginning of military action in Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Mr Putin said:

I would now like to say something very important for those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside […] [T]hey must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history. No matter how the events unfold, we are ready. All the necessary decisions in this regard have been taken. I hope that my words will be heard.

On 21 September 2022, Mr Putin announced a “partial mobilisation” of Russian citizens to serve in the war in Ukraine. He also accused NATO members of making statements about “the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction—nuclear weapons—against Russia”. He threatened to escalate the conflict if, in defence of Ukraine, any attacks were launched on Russian territory:

In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.

The following week, on 30 September 2022, Mr Putin signed treaties of accession for four occupied Ukrainian regions following disputed referendums. He said during a ceremony in the Kremlin that he had “no doubt that the Federal Assembly will support […] our new constituent entities”.

On 6 October 2022, US president Joe Biden accused Vladimir Putin of “sabre rattling” over the use of nuclear weapons. Mr Biden said that any use of tactical nuclear weapons would risk escalation into a full nuclear confrontation. He said:

I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.

Russia’s military setbacks in Ukraine have raised concerns that Vladimir Putin could use nuclear weapons to break a stalemate or to prevent defeat. Dr Matthew Harries, director of proliferation and nuclear policy at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, has said that the “moment of maximum danger” in the war in Ukraine “would come if and when Russia faced a large-scale defeat and there was a threat to Putin’s grip on power”. He continued:

On the one hand, we need to take the nuclear risk seriously. On the other hand, we must remember that if one thinks through the scenarios for nuclear use by Russia, it is difficult to identify one that does not end badly for Russia and Putin.

Most commentators have argued that the risk of Russia using nuclear weapons in Ukraine is low, but it could rise if Russia faced the prospect of a significant military defeat. Dr Sidharth Kaushal and Sam Cranny-Evans of the Royal United Services Institute have claimed that TNWs are “unlikely to be used in Ukraine, except in the unlikely scenario that Russian forces are routed to the point that Ukraine can retake Crimea”. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

William Alberque at the International Institute for Strategic Studies has argued that Russia’s nuclear threats “are not credible”. He claimed there were three potential scenarios in which Russia could use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine:

1) A demonstration strike against an unpopulated area such as the Black Sea

2) A counter-force battlefield strike

3) A counter-value strike against a population centre to seek a political termination of the war, or possibly to decapitate Ukraine’s government

Mr Alberque argued that scenarios one and three are “vanishingly unlikely”, because:

Scenario one would probably have no effect on Ukraine’s will to fight or on Western support for Ukraine, but would give rise to massive global political opprobrium. Scenario three would obviously increase Ukraine’s will to fight and it would also increase global support for Ukraine’s struggle.

As for scenario two, Mr Alberque claimed there “are no attractive military targets” for Russia to use a nuclear weapon. He continued:

Ukraine does not operate with a large-enough concentration of forces to justify a 10–100 kiloton blast. Smaller nuclear weapons would be of even less use, as below 10 kilotons their effects are overtaken by those of high-end precision mass-effect artillery, such as the Tornado-G and -S and the TOS-1M/1A and TOS-2, especially when using thermobaric warheads.

In March 2022, Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College, London, speaking at an event at Chatham House, said:

I don’t see [the use of nuclear weapons] as being a likely development, but we always […] keep on coming back to President Putin’s state of mind, and his grasp of the situation that he’s put his country into, and how determined he would be to avoid that humiliation [of defeat].

Separately, Dr Matthew Harries at the Royal United Services Institute made a similar argument about the difficulty for analysts in assessing Vladimir Putin’s intentions:

It’s only reasonable to remind ourselves that early this year, many of us would have said that the war that Putin planned to launch on Ukraine was self-defeating, stupid, brutal and risking grave consequences for Russia. However, Putin still went ahead and committed all these errors.

2.3 Recent developments

The UK’s secretary of state for defence, Ben Wallace, reiterated to the House of Commons on 20 October 2022 that UK support for Ukraine would continue. He said:

The resolve [of NATO members to support Ukraine] is absolutely rock solid. When it comes to the nuclear issue, the line is consistent that there would be severe consequences for Russia if it uses tactical nuclear weapons. Our commitment to responding to such issues and the threat they pose to the world order in breaking the nuclear taboo is determined and united.

Also on 20 October 2022, Mr Wallace responded to a written parliamentary question on the threat posed by the potential use of TNWs in Ukraine by stating that the government did “not see this as a nuclear crisis”.

On 23 October 2022, it was reported that Russia had alleged that Ukraine was considering the use of a radioactive “dirty bomb” on its own territory. US officials refuted the claim as a “false flag operation” by Russia. In response to the allegations, US president Joe Biden said “Russia would be making [an] incredibly serious mistake if it were to use a tactical nuclear weapon” in Ukraine.

On 27 October 2022, it was reported that Vladimir Putin had told a conference of foreign policy experts that he saw “no need” to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. He said, “there is no point in that, neither political, nor military”. AP News said that he also “repeated Moscow’s unproven allegation that Ukraine was plotting a false flag attack involving a radioactive dirty bomb it would try to pin on Russia”.

The UK foreign secretary, James Cleverly, provided an update to the House of Commons on the war in Ukraine on 31 October 2022. On the potential use of nuclear weapons by Russia, he said:

No other country is talking about nuclear use. No country is threatening Russia or threatening President Putin. He should be clear that for the UK and our allies, any use at all of nuclear weapons would fundamentally change the nature of this conflict. There would be severe consequences for Russia.

On 2 November 2022, it was reported that a US intelligence assessment had concluded that senior Russian military officials had discussed “how and under what conditions” Russia could use a TNW in Ukraine. However, the report added:

The assessment, drafted by the National Intelligence Council, is not a high confidence product and is not raw intelligence but rather analysis […] For that reason, some officials believe the conversations reflected in the document may have been taken out of context, and do not necessarily indicate that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon.

The report stated that President Putin was not believed to have been involved in the discussions described in the intelligence assessment.

Following the conclusion of the G20 summit in Bali on 16 November 2022, some commentators argued it was significant that China had agreed to the G20 Leaders’ Declaration which included a condemnation of the war in Ukraine. It stated that “the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible”. Speaking after the summit, French president Emmanuel Macron said China had an “important role” in putting pressure on Russia to avoid the use of nuclear weapons.

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Cover image by TheDigitalWay on Pixabay.