For two years of my young life in the 80s I was an intelligence analyst with a battalion of the Pershing Nuclear Brigade in then West Germany. The Pershing missile was a tactical intermediate range nuclear weapon.
During the Cold War, because of the preponderance of Soviet men and material, the Pershings were there to deter them from invading Western Europe by guaranteeing we could stop them one way or the other. We were also there to counter Soviet SS-18s and SS-20s stationed in East Germany. Our strategy worked and the Soviets never invaded. But forty years later the Russians did invade Ukraine and there is a possibility a desperate Putin could use tactical nukes in Ukraine. My Pershing training takes it from here.
First off, are we at that point? Close to it. Putin is stalled and he desperately needs a victory to stay in power. He doesn’t care about worldwide condemnation anymore and his propaganda machine has been ridiculously claiming the Ukrainians are a nuclear threat to Russia, thus setting up a preemptive strike.
How would he use nukes? There would be one or two limited tactical strikes. Not in Kyiv, but Kharkiv. Maybe Odesa or Mariupol. Not in the west. Too close to NATO. He’s sending a message to Ukraine: Resistance is futile. Surrender or lose more cities.
There would be tens of thousands of casualties. Many deaths. It would look more devastating than Hiroshima. Could be lots of radiation fallout as well. The Ukrainians would not surrender. In fact, they could have kept some of their own nukes in hiding after The Budapest Memorandum, just for insurance. They would be tempted to retaliate with any nukes they still may have. But they won’t. They want to remain the good guys and this brings their martyr rating through the roof. Plus, it would play into Putin’s hands and let him justify more strikes as defensive retaliation. Zelenskyy will hold his ground and not take the bait.
How will NATO respond? Full worldwide alert. Allied nuclear forces at full readiness. The POTUS and UK PM evacuated to safety. Forces rushed to Eastern Europe. NATO Eastern European states in a panic over possible radiation or Russian strikes at them. And then…a pause.
Now the escalation ladder comes into play. One or two nuclear strikes by the Russians does not necessarily mean the world goes bonkers and launches everything at everybody. Anyone who tells you so is an idiot. After a limited strike the world would hold its breath and the Kremlin would take a step back. They would know massive retaliation is just a button away. They are on the first rung of the escalation ladder. Do they want to escalate to the next and face nuclear strikes themselves. Unlikely.
What happens then? The Russians become pariahs even to the Chinese and Iranians. Generals in Moscow start plotting. The world stays at alert. But as the days pass without another nuke strike the tension slightly decreases. Ukraine still does not surrender. Putin asks for mediation. The Chinese offer it. The world turns them down until Putin is gone. The FSB stays up late at night. Tanks roll in Moscow.
This is just one scenario, a realistic one. But the situation is still so fluid that many bets are on. However, one thing is certain: If Russia uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine the ultimate loser will be Russia, not Ukraine. Ukraine will take it in the shorts, granted. Though they will recover quicker than you’d think. But the Kremlin will not recover any shred of international credibility for generations. It will be what Hitler did for the Germans in the eyes of the world, but worse. Much, much, worse.