Russia: Belarus forced to ‘plug gaps’ in military
Vladimir Putin is “definitely considering” using tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) in Ukraine – and the possibility will increase if Russia appears to be losing the war, an expert has claimed.
Author and journalist Owen Matthews, who lived in Russia when he was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief, also fears the Kremlin is edging towards breaking the taboo about the use of such weapons, as Putin’s advisers embracing what Mr Matthews called a “terrifying logic”.
Speaking as Russia prepared to deploy TNWs in Belarus, Mr Matthews, whose mother was born in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, told Express.co.uk: “The bottom line is that nuclear weapons are all about symbolism and about threat, not about use, that’s the whole point about nukes.
“They’re not actually meant to be used, or at least, that was the doctrine that actually prevented the Cold War from becoming a hot war.
“But clearly what Putin is doing in moving around nuclear weapons into the territory of Belarus is rattling the sabre.
“He’s issuing a warning that he might use them. Now, in terms of practicalities, already we know there was a scandal three years ago when Russia moved nuclear weapons into Kaliningrad, which is an enclave of Russia, on the Baltic Sea.”
In practical terms, the Iskander-M missiles being sent to Ukraine’s neighbour were unlikely to change the dynamic significantly, Mr Matthews suggested.
He explained: “It doesn’t really make a battlefield difference, whether the tactical nukes which tend to have a range of up to 1500km, so I think they’re still quite powerful weapons. That doesn’t make a practical difference,
“But it’s a really important and very disturbing signal because the problem is as the war progresses, and if Russia starts to lose, the chances that they’re going to use nuclear weapons as a form of desperation rises.”
Mr Matthews also referenced an op-ed written by pro-Kremlin academic Sergei Karaganov earlier this week in the Russian magazine Profile.
He said: “He’s not a government official but the whole point about this article was this sort of ruminating about, ‘maybe it’s time to change the rules of nuclear engagement’.
“His argument was, there’s always been a huge taboo about strategic nuclear war for a good reason, because strategic nuclear war ends in mutually assured destruction.
“But we don’t know the rules for the use of tactical nuclear weapons? And we already know, in terms of the Western response so far, the only western nuclear power leader that’s actually commented on this was Emmanuel Macron last year, when he said that any use of battlefield nuclear weapons by Russia will be met by an “overwhelming NATO response”, but not a nuclear response.”
Mr Matthews explained: “I think the whole reason why I mentioned Karaganov, the reason why that’s significant, is that you have senior Kremlin-committed, connected figures, you know, thinking, writing musing publicly about what the conditions were under which Russia would use its nukes. And that’s definitely scary.”
He continued: “There’s another really important point. People tend to think nuclear weapons equal armageddon, end of humanity.
“But actually, the truth is, in the 60s and 70s, both the Soviet Union and the US scaled down nuclear weapons to tiny ones.
“The smallest one ever made fitted in a NATO standard 155-millimetre artillery round was an American one with a yield of naught 0.07 kilotons. In other words, 70 tonnes of high explosives.
“We’re talking about these missiles and Belarus and these are weapons with warheads of the tens of kilotons so that’s already bigger than Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
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“But there are other battlefield tactical nuclear weapons, which are much smaller and you’d have a yield of let’s say, one kiloton. That’s the explosive equivalent of 1000 tons of TNT.
“That’s obviously a gigantic explosion, but it’s not going to end the world and it’s not going to even, depending on the type of nuke, to cause a nuclear winter, it’s not going to cause any sort of massive irradiated zones, unlike Chernobyl and so on.”
The point was that Russia was exploring what the parameters might be for the use of smaller nuclear weapons, Mr Matthew suggested.
He added: “The terrifying logic is that actually, I don’t think the West really has a response.
“Because, let’s say for the sake of argument that Putin does lob a small, one kiloton nuclear missile somewhere in Ukraine, somewhere not very populated.
“Is the West going to start nuking Russia? Are we really going to fight the Third World War level over whether this town or that town in Ukraine is Russian or Ukrainian? I think the answer is no.
“So in some senses, Putin and the people around him are starting to realise that, in fact, the whole logic of mutually assured destruction of global thermonuclear war kind of doesn’t apply to tactical nuclear weapons. And that’s a really dangerous thing, because they’re definitely considering it as an option.”
In a sense, what was happening was an attempt on the part of Moscow to normalise the concept of using battlefield nuclear weapons as an option, to the point where it became an accepted form of warfare, Mr Matthews argued.
He said: “This is ancient history now but that was exactly what top Soviet and American generals wanted nuclear weapons to be in the 1940s and 50s.
“The Americans used them twice in 1945, obviously, but by 1949, Douglas MacArthur, the American viceroy of occupied Japan and so on, wanted to nuke North Korea during the Korean War.
“So the world’s had this debate, and came down on the side of massive strategic nuclear weapons rather than using it as a battlefield weapon.
“But it looks like we’re back to square one, right at the dawn of the nuclear age. We’re now having the same debate.”
Owen Matthews’ book, Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on Ukraine, was published by Harper Collins on June 8
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