Putin will never stop (DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)

October 12, 2022   6 mins

Talking about nuclear war used to be taboo. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis, both Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy refused to invoke the idea of it. But the story of 21st-century international affairs is, in certain regards, one rooted in the erasure of political norms. Now, any despot with a chip on their shoulder and a bomb in their hands can mouth off about nuclear Armageddon and hope it provides some protection to whatever heinous behaviour they are engaged in.

How did we get here? The answer is, once more, Vladimir Putin. On Sunday, he went on Russian TV to fulminate over a “terrorist act” he claimed was carried out by Ukraine’s security services the day before. Early that morning, an explosion on the Kerch Bridge linking the Crimean Peninsula to Krasnodar Krai in Russia caused parts of it to collapse. The Russians are saying it was caused by a truck bomb. Kyiv has neither claimed nor denied responsibility.

Either way, once Putin spoke of “terrorism”, my Ukrainian friends knew what was coming. “He was going to hit us hard,” one in the south told me. “We knew it would be our schools and hospitals.” And so it proved. Yesterday, another in Odesa described the extent of the attack:

“Three waves of attacks hit us in a one-hour period. Our Air defence announced [the presence of] 83 missiles (of which 43 were intercepted) and 12 kamikaze drones (nine were intercepted). The strikes came from the Black Sea, from Astrahan, from Belarus and from Russia. Our MoD is saying that three missiles even crossed Moldovan airspace. All the big cities and several small towns were hit. The Russians targeted energy infrastructure, specifically electricity and heating. Many cities are now lacking in both.”

I also spoke to a military contact on the ground in Kyiv. “I was near one of the strikes and it was strange,” he told me. “The missiles came in almost vertically, which means they leave huge craters but there isn’t a huge amount of shrapnel flying around. This was a poorly planned attack. Whatever coordinates they entered, they made a legitimate attempt to knock out comms and infrastructure across the country. But here in Kyiv they seem to have just fired as a form of intimidation.”

Shortly after the attacks, Putin went on television to announce the completion of a “massive strike” on Ukraine’s “energy, military command and communications facilities”. It was, he told his long-suffering Security Council, revenge for Ukraine’s long history of “terrorist” actions, including its attack on Kerch Bridge. He also made a threat: “If attempts to carry out terrorist attacks on our territory continue, Russia’s responses will be tough and will correspond in scale to the level of threats posed to Russia… No one should have any doubts about this.” Putin was once again alluding to nuclear weapons’ use — something he has done several times throughout the war.

The taboo, it seems, has been shattered. Now, Russian TV talks about this prospect regularly. For chat show host and Kremlin blowhard Dmitry Kiselyov, blowing up the UK has become a favoured topic. One Russian nuke could “sink [Britain] once and for all” or turn it into a “radioactive desert”, he said with customary restraint over the summer. He also claimed a single bomb would cause a 1,600ft radioactive tidal wave “plunging Britain to the ocean’s depths”.

Kiselyov obviously doesn’t control Kremlin nuclear policy — he’s a TV star. But as a de facto official Kremlin mouthpiece, he would never have said something so inflammatory without official sign off. This points to a further truth. The Russian military playbook in Ukraine is a variegated thing. It has consistently evolved in the face of Moscow’s repeated defeats and is, accordingly, one born not of strategy and foresight, but of emotion: generally, anger and the unceasing desire for revenge.

Ukrainian officials now consider nuclear war, or more realistically, the possible use of a tactical nuclear bomb — loosely defined as nuclear weapon of limited power designed to be used on the battlefield with friendly forces close by — a real possibility. When I was in the country earlier this year, I lost count of the number of conversations I had with Ukrainians who feared this. And the more the Ukrainian army pushed Russia back on the battlefield, the greater the frequency of these conversations.

This is the paradox facing Ukraine — and the paradoxical nature of much of military strategy. Sometimes, the more you succeed the more vulnerable you become. The classic example of this is an army that keeps defeating its enemy, pushing it further and further back into its own territory. But the further the successful army goes into enemy territory, the further it is from home, and the harder it is to supply, and thus the weaker it becomes. The same principle is clearly at work here: the more Ukraine defeats Russia on the battlefield, the greater the possibility it drives Putin into using a tactical nuclear weapon to even the score. The more it wins, the greater the chance it can lose spectacularly.

Ukrainians are bitter about this, not least because when the Soviet Union collapsed, a substantial part of its nuclear arsenal was on the territory of the newly independent Ukraine. Kyiv agreed — under the Budapest Memorandum — to give up the weapons in exchange for guarantees on its territorial integrity. And who made these guarantees? Principally, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. No wonder they’re bitter. Had Kyiv nukes of its own, things might look different. But they don’t and this is what they are facing.

But it’s not simple for Russia either. If it decides to use a tactical nuke then it needs to, theoretically at least, avoid killing its own soldiers (not that Moscow has ever really cared about this) — and to achieve this it has to use the weapon competently. After what we’ve seen of its performance throughout the war, this is not a given. Then there are the wider issues. Ukraine is bordered by, among other countries, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania — all of which are Nato powers. If any of the nuclear fallout entered one or more of these countries, it would be considered an attack against a Nato state and thus — because of Article 5, which is the binding principle of collective defence — against every Nato ally.

Would Moscow risk war with Nato, which it would unquestionably lose? Not even Putin is that insane. Former US General David Petraeus has suggested that, in the event of nuclear weapons’ use, the US would sink Russia’s Black Sea fleet. It sounds equally nuts — but Washington could do it. That’s the point.

Then, of course, there would be the wider political and economic fallout. If Putin uses a nuke on the European continent, the international reaction would be beyond anything we have seen before. To take just one critical example: for decades, Russian energy has heated Berlin — and made it docile. But if Moscow went nuclear, even the Germans would have to go to wage economic war with Moscow and wean themselves off Kremlin gas, further crippling Russia.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that the past few days have ushered in a new phase of heightened tension that even Moscow can’t escape. Since the bridge attack, Putin has replaced several army commanders and defence officials. He has also seemingly placated Chechen leader and general psychopath, Ramzan Kadyrov, who had expressed public dissatisfaction with the trajectory of the war, but is now mollified — clearly delighted at the indiscriminate violence of the revenge strikes.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says he wants to open negotiations with the West, while the UAE (a close US ally) has agreed to meet with Putin. These are most likely moves to gain time for Russia to train up and integrate men from its recent mass mobilisation into something at least approximating a fighting force.

Putin is a dictator and dictators, especially in Russia, cannot afford to lose wars if they wish to remain in power. Whatever is happening on the battlefield — or bridges — of Ukraine, he is not about to throw in the towel. He can’t afford to — even if deploying a tactical nuclear weapon is the only alternative.

If this happens, it would be more dangerous than perhaps any act in history. And it is for this very reason that we would have to remain steadfast despite the horror. We would have to continue to resist Putin and his genocidal dreams.

If he were to use nuclear weapons and see them achieve all his goals, he will never stop. Neither, for that matter, would North Korea or China. And every despot — from the Mullahs down — would dash for a bomb to achieve their goals of conquest and perennial autocracy. Facing down a tyrant who has used a nuke would be the most terrifying thing we have ever had to face, but it would be necessary for the sake of all of us — Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians alike.

David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)