Should Putin become desperate enough to use a tactical nuclear weapon, the west should respond forcefully and immediately along these lines:

  1. Publicize  and condemn the Russian use of nuclear weapons, the first use since the Second World War.
  2. Provide incontrovertible evidence that the radiation is the result of Russian activity.
  3. Demand Russian expulsion from the U.N. Security Council, going through the General Assembly to overcome a presumed Russian veto in the U.S. Security Council.
  4. Push China, India and other major ‘swing voter’ nations to condemn Putin and cut off trade with Russia.
  5. Confiscate all Russian financial assets in western hands for the express use of reconstructing Ukraine.
  6. Increase the supply of advanced surface to air defensive missile systems, including modern Patriots defense systems to be used around big population centers and critical infrastructure
  7. Establish a NATO ‘no fly zone’ in support of the Ukrainian air forces, using NATO jets operating out of Polish and German bases.
  8. Go after Russian military capabilities aggressively in the world of cyber.
  9. Directly and overtly target the Russian Black Sea fleet and provide Ukraine with the intelligence and long range-cruise missiles.

All of these measures should be communicated NOW to Putin so he understands the reaction of his use of radioactive weapons will be swift and formidable.

One thing we should NOT contemplate is responding in kind, with NATO nuclear capability. Although the Alliance has such means and recently conducted its annual exercises demonstrating this ability, avoiding further nuclear excalation must be avoided at all costs.

Putin must understand it will go even more badly- exponentially so- if he reaches for the lever to use a radioactive nuclear device of any kind.

Note: Tactical nuclear weapons have a smaller payload and more precise targeting, which makes them conducive to battlefield use. Russia has about two thousand tactical nuclear weapons that it could deploy by plane, missile, or ship. It would most likely use the short-range Iskander-M missile system. These weapons have yields of 1–50 kilotons, the largest of which would have a blast radius about half a kilometer wider than the bomb the U.S. military dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II.

Russia could target Ukrainian forces in Luhansk to prevent Russian forces from having to retreat, like they did in Kherson. A nuclear attack could weaken those Ukrainian forces and create an uninhabitable no-man’s-land. Even if a battlefield nuclear weapon made a land advance more challenging, Ukraine would likely continue its focus on aerial attacks and air defense Moreover, using nuclear weapons on the battlefield would be less effective in shutting down Ukrainian electricity and energy infrastructure than conventional bombing because their higher yield and lower accuracy makes them ill-suited for those targets.

The environmental effects of tactical nuclear weapons use are difficult to calculate and would depend on warhead yield, detonation height, weather, and local geography. Russia would be cautious not to detonate weapons too close to its own soldiers or occupied territory.

China would almost certainly be forced to publicly denounce such weapons use by Russia, and the resulting distancing would have repercussions for future China-Russia cooperation more broadly.

The West likely would not respond to tactical nuclear use by sending troops into Ukraine, but the United States and its allies would likely ramp up the number of conventional weapons they send to Ukraine. Western states would also be more willing to provide non-military humanitarian assistance in response to the fallout and radiation, which could also affect neighboring countries.


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