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Russia is suffering from the cost of war in both blood, money, and resources. The sanctions hurts their economy and the international condemnation hurts their reputation and pride. All of this will have long-lasting effects.

On the other hand, once the decision to do all of this has already been made, Russia also can't just back out. The sanctions and boycotts would still be there, their reputation would still be hurt, and they would have gained nothing geo-politically, and would be much worse off than before the invasion.

So it seems to me that the best decision for Russia is (apart from not starting the war to begin with) is to end it as quickly as possible with Russian victory. If so, why are Russians not just using their nuclear weapons to annihilate large parts of Ukrainian infrastructure?

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8 Answers 8

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Russia has tried to justify its invasion of Ukraine in terms of getting rid of an undemocratic (and neo-nazi) government forced on the country in a coup orchestrated by the west. There is also talk of protecting the interests on ethnic Russians inside Ukraine from government oppression and Putin's claims of genocide against those ethnic Russians.

I don't think that even Putin actually believes all those claims, but that is what is being used to publically justify the invasion.

Nuclear weapons are obviously not the right tool to use if your goal is to get rid of a government in the name of protecting the population. It would cause massive civilian casulaties, destroy critical infrastructure, and make major cities uninhabitable for some time. It is impossible to square that with trying to defend the Ukrainian population.

If you subscribe to the western view that Russia is trying to bring Ukraine back in to its sphere of influence and be essentially a client state, nuclear weapons still don't make any sense. Russia wants to bring Ukraine's manufacturing, economy and military (and territory) under Russian control. Again, this is best achieved by getting rid of the government while keeping the rest of the country as intact as possible. A functional Ukraine subservient to Russian interests is a much better outcome than a broken Ukraine whichever way it is aligned, so that is what they are trying to achieve.

Whichever view you subscribe to, Russia has every interest in trying to minimise civilian casualties and impact while still achieving regime change.

The only time that calculus comes in to question is if it looks like Russia won't be able to create regime change through conventional military means.

Or to put it another way, this isn't a game where the point is to "win" the war by "beating" the opposition, and then getting the game over screen. In the real world the war is "won" by achieving the political objectives behind the war. Nuclear weapons do little or nothing to advance those objectives, and come with massive and unknowable downsides.

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    "It is impossible to square that with trying to defend the Ukrainian population." - have you ever heard of doublethink? They said that the Moskva destroyed itself and also that they must take revenge on Ukraine for destroying the Moskva.
    – user253751
    Apr 25 at 10:21
  • Okay, but another objective they mention is that they do not want Ukraine to join the NATO. Looking it from their viewpoint this would enable the NATO to put e.g. nuclear weapons as close to Moscow as last time Germans were in WW2. From this viewpoint, I think it is absolutely not impossible that they might consider at least tactical nuclear weapons if the war turns extremely bad for them and Ukraine reconquers all its de jure territories. Did the US consider using nuclear weapons or any kind of mass destruction not against Russia but against Cuba during the missile crisis? Apr 25 at 20:14
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The term international condemnation is not 100% correct in this context, as it's only Western condemnation. By using weapons of mass destruction Russia would be condemned not just by the West, but also the most countries which are friendly to Russia, like China, would condemn such action as well.

The use such weapons would be a valid reason to interfere. This would be a begin of World War 3.

Putin has no credibility in the West, sure, but in Russia it looks completely different. In Russia the majority believe in what he saying. Putin said in his speech, that Russia is a friend of Ukrainian people and just the enemy to its government, which it calling a Nazi regime, the goal of Russia is to liberate Ukraine from that regime. By causing the death of lots of Ukraine's civilians all at once, he would look like a liar for all Russians, including his main supporters.

One of the most important reasons is the geography. Ukraine is not somewhere in Africa, it's a direct neighbor of Russia. The border to Ukraine is less than 1000 km away from Moscow. All the radioactive fallout would go to Russia, specially Moscow. Not a good idea.

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    I don’t think it’s accurate to say that condemnation so far has only come from the West- see the cosponsors of yesterday’s UNSC resolution, for example.
    – CDJB
    Feb 26 at 13:15
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    By the West I was refering to all countries strongly alied with USA. Is there some beter term for that countries?
    – convert
    Feb 26 at 15:55
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    Yes...countries strongly aligned with the USA.
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 26 at 17:28
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    @Caleth Cuba is a more suitable example.
    – convert
    Mar 1 at 9:55
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    @user253751 But it´s stil acceptable. I could give you a list of wars in this century, most of them having nothing to do with Russia.
    – convert
    Apr 25 at 11:03
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Russia's goals in Ukraine have nothing to do with annihilating Ukrainian infrastructure.

While Russia and the West have different views on what the goals of the invasion are, if we take an intersection of only the undisputed ones, the short summary comes to four:

  1. Maintain Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk as friendly.
  2. Prevent Ukraine from becoming unfriendly, on its own or as part of NATO.
  3. Assert the former USSR as Russia's sphere of influence.
  4. Strengthen Russia's, i.e. Putin's, status as a protector of his people everywhere.

Nuclear weapons are, as of today, a deterrent against stronger or evenly-matched opponents. This is not the case here, as Ukraine is a soft target for Russia.

Deliberate and indiscriminate use of force against civilians would be only barely workable and for only the 2nd of these goals:

  1. Popular support for Russia in Ukraine would be reduced.
  2. Only possible with impractical levels of damage - simply dropping one on Zelensky won't do it.
  3. Resorting to nuclear weapons, while the US and China control their areas of influence with conventional ones, would not look strong.
  4. Putin's approval would plummet, as most Russians consider Ukrainians to be a brother nation.

In contrast, crippling Ukraine's military and government while keeping down the collateral damage serves all four of the goals:

  1. Crimea, DNR and LNR feel supported and defended.
  2. With a crippled military, Ukraine can't be a threat on its own, and is less likely to make it into NATO.
  3. Conventional force can be used readily and proportionately, so proving its capability is critical for recognition as a power.
  4. An allied and functioning Ukraine would be the best-case outcome for domestic approval.

This suggests that the logical "realpolitik" decision is targeting Ukraine's military while avoiding infrastructure damage, even at the expense of increased own losses. Putin is known for being ruthless, not illogical.

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There is no reason for Russia to use nuclear weapons. They want to take over Ukraine or at least use it as a puppet state, so destroying it wouldn't make sense. Also the use of nuclear weapons would agitate NATO and at the very least have astronomical increase in sanctions if not more serious escalation including war.

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I am surprised none of the current answers cite the Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence. See clause 19. Russia will only use nuclear weapons if:

  1. The conditions specifying the possibility of nuclear weapons use by the Russian Federation are as follows:

a) arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies;

b) use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against the Russian Federation and/or its allies;

c) attack by adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions;

d) aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.

Nothing in Ukraine meets one of these four conditions, yet. If NATO intervenes, depending on what form the intervention takes, then it's possible the Russian leadership will consider any of the four conditions met. If Ukraine wins the war and carries the war into Russia, then it's also possible the Russian leadership will consider (c) or (d) met.

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Since after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons are not offensive weapons anymore. Since the Cold War, they have been always meant for deterrence.

Using nuclear weapons would likely pull the world into WW3.

However, Russia can use other means like carpet bombing that they used in Syria, i.e. the indiscriminate bombing of the military installations and civilian residences.

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    Why would it mean nuclear war? Ukraine don't have nuclear weapons. You can say "other nations will step in", but they're not doing that now, why would they if nuclear weapons are used? In fact, the reason why those other nations are not stepping in is because they fear a nuclear WW3, and surely that would be even more realistic if Russia used nuclear weapons against Ukraine, hence giving even more incentive to other nations to NOT step in.
    – Dukie
    Feb 26 at 11:11
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    I disagree with your estimate of all-out nuclear war. If Russia were to use a few such weapons in Ukraine (highly unlikely, in my opinion), it would cause worldwide condemnation but no counter-strikes.
    – o.m.
    Feb 26 at 11:38
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    @om "...it would cause worldwide condemnation but no counter-strikes." Nobody knows for sure. It may well happen. But that makes for a good question: How far could a psychopath with nuclear weapons come in the world.
    – Trilarion
    Feb 26 at 15:33
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    @Dukie: Nuclear weapons are detectable, with early warning systems developed specifically to catch them being used before they detonate. If, say, an ICBM was aimed at Ukraine, it would likely be aiming in general in a westward direction. Before it's determined that it stopped at Ukraine, other Nuclear weapon capable nations would be on alert and prepared to (If not in the process of) launching their nuclear weapons at Russia in retaliation. A non-ICBM nuclear weapon has logistical issues to use in an active warzone. Apr 3 at 4:04
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    @Trilarion Very far. Let's let him have Crimea if it means no more nukes. Let's let him have Poland if it means no more nukes. Let's let him have East Germany if it means no more nukes. Let's let him have the UK if it means no more nukes.
    – user253751
    Apr 25 at 10:24
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An answer based on a month of development after the question:

An important aspect of why whole types of weapons and systems are not used is because they are probably not up to the hype created around them.

This is a speculation, but it is based on the less than expected performance of the weapons already deployed - including ones that are more or less routinely exercised, e.g. tanks.

The fallout of a single nuclear event is not really an important consideration when the image of the whole Russian army is at stake.

On the other hand, a malfunctioning nuke will be both a PR as well as a military disaster. Since the last Russian nuclear test was 30+ years ago, a malfunction is rather likely.

Whatever the Russian higher-ups had as an image of their military forces, it is now recalibrated towards the reality in the news. They have no reason to believe that the nukes are in a much better state than everything else.

A successful nuke strike may or may not get other countries directly involved.

On the other hand, a failed nuke strike can bring everyone and their dog on the track of "get the Russian nukes under control because Russia already doesn't properly manage them".

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In addition to PhilS's excellent answer, there's the fact that nuclear weapons just aren't that good against distributed targets like armies.

Freeman Dyson co-wrote an excellent article about how, even excluding political ramifications, using tactical nukes is a bad idea.

First of all, the instant-lethal radius of tactical nuclear weapons is rather small; modern armies don't bunch up in big, tight formations like Napoleon did. Your tactical nuke won't wipe out the whole army, you'll kill a few hundred at best.

Second, the destruction of infrastructure isn't necessarily a good thing for you, the attacker. As the Germans found out in Stalingrad, and the Allies found out at Monte Casino, rubble makes fantastic defensive terrain. I'm sure you've seen some of the videos of Russian vehicles getting ambushed; imagine if Ukrainian anti-tank teams had even more places to hide.

Third, radiation just isn't that big of a concern for an army. You can't really use it to block movement; the quickly lethal isotopes are gone in a few days, and the ones that stick around longer take weeks to induce dangerous doses, plenty of time for an army to move through.

So, like PhilS said, war isn't a game where all you need to do is defeat the enemy army and get the Game Over screen, but even if it was, nukes just don't help that much.

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