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The media occasionally mentions the possibility of the Russian Federation using a tactical nuclear bomb in Ukraine. The last and only case like that was back in August 1945, and after the Soviet Union got a nuclear bomb all the deterrence and non-proliferation principles started to emerge.

As far as I understand, the key deterrence principle between the nuclear powers is mutually assured destruction (MAD): "don't attack me cause eventually we'll attack each other with nukes, and thus both of us will be destroyed".

But what if the attack is committed against a non-nuclear state that one of the sides is an ally of? The effects of such an attack will probably reach the countries supporting Ukraine: economically (as the influx of refugees, the increased support costs, etc.) and politically.

If these countries respond with military power (and there have been statements by current and ex-officials in the US and the EU that imply that they may do so but with conventional weapons, not nuclear ones) then these will probably change the deterrence principle. There will be nuclear powers in direct military confrontation, so the original wide statement won't apply anymore.

If these countries don't respond with military power, this will probably change the non-proliferation principle. The Budapest memorandum, whether legally binding or not, provided some security guarantees to Ukraine for it giving up on its nuclear arsenal and joining the non-proliferation treaty. It's questionable what would have happened if they had kept the arsenal (deadly sanctions by most of the world or yet another nuclear superpower in the middle of Europe) but the fact will be that a nuclear state attacked a non-nuclear one with a nuclear weapon and this state's allies didn't act despite some guarantees.

Still, the non-response will also reinforce the deterrence principle. So why would any country that is capable of creating nuclear weapons not do so? The deterrence doesn't work here. The presence of nuclear arms in the US didn't prevent the USSR from getting them. Same for India and Pakistan. All of them having nukes didn't prevent North Korea from getting them as well. It's unclear if/how anyone can stop Iran or Israel from getting them. South Africa used to have nuclear weapons but gave up those, they should definitely still have the technology and they are one of the exporters of Uranium. And we can continue with many more countries on this list.

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    Isn't that why North Korea and Iran worked on getting nuclear weapons of their own?
    – Joe W
    Nov 23, 2022 at 2:23
  • I'm not really familiar with the NK nuclear program. For Iran, it seems like a good old mix of religious fanatism and a will to be a regional and global superpower.
    – Igor
    Nov 23, 2022 at 2:25
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    This is asking us to predict the future, making this out of scope here. Even wo counterstrikes, hard to predict: on the one hand you could see extra revulsion. China could drop its RU bromance. But remember no one's gonna take away RU's nukes without its agreement. On the other hand it might mean a run to develop nukes in self-defense. Cue in everyone's opinions! It is also asking us to speculate on this event happening in the first place, i.e. Russia being even nastier than is already generally perceived. For now, I'll assume it's beyond them (not least cuz it wouldn't gain them much). Nov 23, 2022 at 3:38
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    This seems a very vague and open-ended question. A lot of it is unknowable - nobody knows exactly how NATO will respond to a nuclear attack on Ukraine, probably not even NATO's leaders. Some part of this may be covered by deterrence theory or other models/theories, or have been trialled in wargaming, but you don't specifically ask about that; and leaders may have spoken about this (although I'm not aware of it). Please try and ask a question that asks for more than just speculation.
    – Stuart F
    Nov 23, 2022 at 9:59
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    To everyone voting to close the question, I fully accept your criticism. Still, to clarify a bit on the intent, I was interested in some published analysis (game theory, mere philosophy, military experts making comments, etc.) on this admittedly theoretical situation cause I believe there was such. And I believe that the context (Russia invading Ukraine + nuclear talks with Iran) makes this question relevant.
    – Igor
    Nov 25, 2022 at 0:54

2 Answers 2

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Here is the USA thinkings about what to do if Russia uses nuclear weapon in Ukraine (source):

we would respond by leading a Nato – a collective – effort that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea.

So the response will be non-nuclear but otherwise strong.

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  • It should be noted that this is not official stated US policy. It's a retired army general and CIA directors view on things. Officially USA is vague on what the reaction will be.
    – vidarlo
    Nov 26, 2022 at 18:48
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You're confusing MAD, deterrence and non-proliferation and the ban of weapons testing.

Like first of all using nukes is incredibly stupid to begin with.

Look at the spread of Chernobyl over even western Europe and realize that the neatly contained incident is bullshit. A bit of bad luck with the weather and you might contaminate your own country as well. Or how the nuclear arms tests in the atmosphere still contribute to global background radiation and cancer rates. Not to mention that you should spare a thought of what it means to be on top of the food chain, I mean the literal one, where we eat all the stuff that eats the radioactive stuff...

So since we realized it's not just a "big boom" but also contaminates large areas for long and that we live in a globalized world where things don't stay where they are this should have been plainly obvious...

So yeah don't do nukes, not even once. Not even for testing. No fun to be had for anyone with that.

Now unfortunately that means countries see them as a deterrent like in "If I get a nuke and threaten to use them if attacked then people won't attack me because they might fear, a desperate me might use those nukes just for the heck of it. Genius.". Let's be real it's still the most pointless weapon to have because you can't really use them and especially small countries often only have short ranged carrier systems so they likely would not just piss in their own pool (harm the planet) but directly on their own feet (harm their own country). So again it's stupid to use them but they somewhat work as a deterrent that way.

Like the next step of insanity is aptly acronymized as MAD. That is the idea of "Yeah but what if we nuke you first and destroy all your nukes?". Well you'd still be living in a world full of radioactive waste that will haunt you for quite some time but you might have won that war. Congratulation king nothing. However the response to that was "yeah we just build even more nukes and more and diverse carrier systems and all so that you cannot destroy all at once and we still get to destroy all your bigger cities and whatnot and are going to add even more waste and destruction. Genius". To the point of nuclear overkill where you have enough nukes to basically wipe out humanity as a whole and ruin the planet for everyone. Not to mention that the bomb designs became more insidious with radiation as a weapon and not just as a side effect of "big boom". So like "salted bombs" that would deploy radioactive material with a half-life of 5 years making the area uninhabitable for decades and stuff like that. Many of these doomsday devices hopefully stayed dystopian fiction but yeah that route was not pretty.

And let's be real it didn't really add much deterrence as it was stupid to begin with it just upped the stakes ... like a lot. So yeah a hot war between the US and the USSR would have been something of the end of the world as we know it. Also again it didn't deter shit, the U.S. was still developing missile defense systems and whatnot (don't know if the USSR mirror that as well) to uphold first strike potential and/or survive a first strike. And both sides thought about MAD devices that would auto-fire if attacked (and fingers crossed only then).

But that's about the major players with their world ending arsenals. What about the smaller ones? Well the collective wisdom was "Oh shit, the more nukes in circulation the bigger the chance that some idiot might actually use one". Like suicide bombers exist, so the idea isn't inconceivable. Luckily the development of nukes requires state level funding and resources so again fingers crossed there are not to many "death or glory" fascists who just want to see the world burn or you know terrorists who hijack a nuke...

So usually there was some consensus to not proliferate nukes to non-nuke countries and keep that small. But then the US and USSR also did some imperialism and proxy wars... like a lot... and apparently smaller rogue states thought getting WMDs, including nukes, as a deterrent is a honking good idea.

And there this whole MAD idea works even less... Because idk if Iran starts using a few nukes that's bad. But if the U.S. nukes Iran into oblivion that's even worse. Sure Iran is gone but the rest of the world would be still there just ... you know worse. So for one's own sake you'd probably respond to that conventionally because anything else would just be plain stupid. So MAD doesn't apply here unless they build US/USSR levels of nukes, meaning they could already create enough assured destruction themselves.

Unfortunately the major nuclear powers have set dangerous precedents in terms of attacking countries that give up their WMDs and not attacking those that don't... so ... yeah... they kinda work as a deterrent now. At least for those small states. Which again, remind you, is not good, not only because that allows dictators to mistreat their people without intervention from others but also adds more nukes that might potentially be used.

And now to the actual question of what happens if a nuclear superpower attacks another state with a nuke (nuclear power or not)? Well they'd violate all kinds of international treaties and with a realistic chance of radiation spreading to allied countries or those directly associated with one of the major superpowers you'd have a legit reason to start WWIII (with nukes).

Now would people actually play that game of chicken or even actually end the world? Well we don't know and we hopefully never get close to finding it out!

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  • Chernobyl’s contamination didn’t kill anyone outside the immediate fallout zone. The 30km isolation zone is also mostly safe to live in by now, as evidenced by how great the wildlife is doing there. Nov 23, 2022 at 15:35
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    @JonathanReez The fallout is a) not immediate and b) the fallout zone was WAAAAAYYYY larger than 30km. vividmaps.com/chernobyl-disaster or here 8 years later en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chernobyl_radiation_map_1996.svg And it's not proportional to the proximity to the incident but light stuff gets thrown into the air accumulates in clouds and then comes down wherever it rains. Which is why it's called fallout it's what falls out of the sky. And even if it doesn't kill you through radiation poisoning there's still no "safe" radioactive exposure, the less the better.
    – haxor789
    Nov 23, 2022 at 18:16
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    That map looks very scary but the only important question is: what's the total number of QALYs lost due to the accident vs. the total number of QALYs lost in 1 year due to car accidents? And the answer is that Chernobyl is basically a nothingburger in terms of QALYs lost. Nov 23, 2022 at 18:21
  • Comparing an accident to a designed weapon (whose capability had been improved over the course of 70 years) is illogical. It's like comparing a gas explosion in a building to a grenade.
    – uberhaxed
    Nov 23, 2022 at 19:17
  • There are many problems with that. First of all unlike car deaths, that is not a "calculated risk" that we take because the benefits are worth it. You might bring that argument in a conversation about nuclear energy production in terms of how many lives are saved by electricity vs how many are lost in the production of it. But even there it would be wrong, cars don't just kill by accidents, the fossil fuel consumption contributes to climate change making the accidents become a nothing burger pretty soon and that's not going to be "excess mortality" it will be our "new normal".
    – haxor789
    Nov 23, 2022 at 19:23

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