1

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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    For starters, outlawing the term "war" back home with respect to Ukraine and insisting on "special military operation", which was probably intended to evoke a Crimea-type nearly bloodless affair, is kinda the opposite of nuclear armageddon, dontcha think? Lavrov insisted months later that Russia hasn't even attacked Ukraine! Also, Russia hasn't released any casualty figures in months. Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 18:12
  • 1
    Besides, the initial Russian plan looked pretty similar with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which was actually quite successful in its first few days, easily achieving regime change in Kabul in 3 days history.com/this-day-in-history/… Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 18:37
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    I really find it hard to believe this question was asked on Feb 26, 2022, just 2 days after the start of the invasion. Commented May 18, 2023 at 17:05
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    What if nuclear nukes will work similar to how all other glorious weapons from russia? Have you seen a huge success of new 'wonder waffles` like un-destroyable Armata or undetectable Kinzal? If those new weapons showed to be made from shit-and-sticks, how much do you believe that nukes from 60-th can even fly (or even exist and not be sold). Commented May 18, 2023 at 18:54
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Time travelers... Whatcha gonna do? ¯_(ツ)_/¯ Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 16:10

11 Answers 11

44

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. Commented Apr 25, 2022 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? Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 20:14
  • 2
    They don't need to nuke ukraine to prevent it joining nato now. They can do that the night before Ukraine joined nato if necessary. Commented May 18, 2023 at 19:16
16

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
    Commented Feb 26, 2022 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
    Commented Feb 26, 2022 at 15:55
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    Yes...countries strongly aligned with the USA.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Feb 26, 2022 at 17:28
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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
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 11:03
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    @user253751 This is an interesting question, but unfortunately this is the wrong place for any discusions, so we have to stop. As an example of acceptable war Yemen can be used.
    – convert
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 11:21
15

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.

1
  • Yeah, given the strong denials they issued in re Bucha etc., this was in hindsight correct. OTOH Putin keeps mentioning nuclear weapons, but mostly threatening the West, not Ukraine, with those. Commented Mar 12 at 4:46
9

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.

6

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.

3

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
    Commented Feb 26, 2022 at 11:11
  • 5
    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.
    Commented Feb 26, 2022 at 11:38
  • 1
    @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. Commented Feb 26, 2022 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. Commented Apr 3, 2022 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. Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 10:24
3

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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    Assuming the translation is correct, point "a" doesn't require said missiles to be nuclear armed, nor does it say anything about their range. Russia has regularly claimed Ukraine has fired Tochka-U ballistic missiles at the territory of their LPR/DPR allies. Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 17:35
  • @Fizz I haven't looked into it in depth, but if you're right, then we're evidently at the threshold of nuclear war.
    – Allure
    Commented Aug 13, 2022 at 3:29
  • @Fizz, I checked original Russia text and it looks like you are technically correct but: 1) all Russian-language comments on 19 a) assume it only applies to launch detection by early-warning system 2) Tochka-U maximum flight time is less than 3 minutes. Emergency launch require more time 3) Tochka-U is not "ballistic missile" per official Russian documents. It's "tactical missle"
    – Tauri
    Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 17:14
3

In connection with the conflict in Ukraine, the Budapest Memorandum is often mentioned and according to it, the West (USA and Great Britain) is obliged to protect Ukraine. This is not entirely true if you read the accompanying text carefully.

  1. The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used

As can be seen from the bold marked part, it would only be the case if nuclear weapons were used. The use of nuclear weapons by Russia would increase the likelihood that the West would step in after all.

2

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".

0

Why would Vladimir Putin want to murder the ~3 million Kyiv residents (presumably where a nuclear weapon would be aimed)?

As the "war" goes on, more people are interested in Putin and the Russian people's response. Don't forget, that while in rhetoric the "war" might be about asserting the former USSR's influence, the "war" is mainly about Putin and his compatriots, who consider its people expendable in both combat and international migration. War is an excellent backdrop for culture exportation, and Vladimir Putin has much to lose only if another world power intervenes inside Russia's borders.

-1

This may result a full scale nuclear war (may not, this answer assumes the risk exists). Now, while the full scale nuclear war will be devastating for human civilization, the total extinction of Homo sapiens as a species is unlikely. And the question is, what comes after.

For how long it will take for the humanity to forget, which nation have started the nuclear war? And, assuming they do not win so they can write the truth on a blank sheet of paper as they wish, what it would be the consequences for such a nation?

Full scale nuclear war, as commonly described in media, means massive collateral damage all over the world. The "neutral" countries like India, China, all South America, all Africa unlikely to stay very neutral if multiple millions die there from starvation due nuclear winter, caused by somebody solving the own problems with stupid weapons when there were others at hand. Political leaders, if any remaining, will need to direct lots of anger somewhere, and here it is easy: "Hey, this nation is dangerous for humanity, they still possess some technologies and economic power, let's unite efforts and make sure they will never try again". Morgenthau plan at best, maybe even genocide possible if the current political system degrades and some new Nazi come to the world power. The human instinct for revenge is universal, automatic, and immediate. And the former initiator of the nuclear strikes, with nuclear weapons already spent and the retaliation blow already received, may not be fit for a one more war.

Of course, this is not Russia specific. This is the demotivating factor for any nation to start the nuclear war. Not a good idea, simply.

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  • This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review
    – SQB
    Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 8:44
  • Does not not explain enough the motivation not to start the nuclear war? I assume, this is that has been asked. Of course, if, say, USA would start the nuclear war, no any difference so this is also neutral.
    – Stančikas
    Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 8:52
  • You're assuming that any use of nukes by Russia will result in a full scale nuclear war. That might very well be, but you do not explain why that would be so. Russia using a tactical nuke for instance may not win them any favours and isolate them even further, but may not necessarily escalate to that level. Also, while I fully agree that a nuclear apocalypse is undesirable, the current leadership of Russia may not feel that way, while the persons further down the chain of command may be unwilling to refuse to "push the button".
    – SQB
    Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 9:20
  • Furthermore, you make assumptions on who will survive and how they might look upon the instigators. Whether anyone will survive remains to be seen. And I hope we never field test it. But I wouldn't bank on any retaliation / punishment after a nuclear war being any deterrence to a party to willing to start a nuclear war in the first place.
    – SQB
    Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 9:22
  • Well yes, I assume that this may result a full scale nuclear war, that is true. I will add this to the answer. The claim that it likely will be survivors is based on the source. But countries as they are now may cease to exist. Likely some new power will come, it is quite promising to be some kind of dictatorship.
    – Stančikas
    Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 9:25

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