What would happen if Putin conducted a nuclear strike?

Putin's regime to 'collapse' in two years predicts Mikhail Kasyanov

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Vladimir Putin shocked millions on Wednesday when, during a televised address, he announced a “partial mobilisation” of 300,000 Russians to aid the “special operation” in Ukraine. The announcement came paired with a threat to western leaders that he would use the country’s weapons of mass destruction if the conflict threatened Russia’s “territorial integrity”. While the possibility of an impending nuclear strike has weighed heavily on the minds of millions since February, the latest threats have spooked experts more than previously.

What would happen if Putin conducted a nuclear strike?

Russia is one of the world’s few nuclear-capable nations and currently possesses the largest warhead arsenal of any nation.

Putin has an estimated 5,977 at his disposal – many created by the Soviet Union during the mid-20th Century arms race.

Whether he would follow through on his threat after insisting it was “not a bluff” remains to be seen, but experts have long debated how a Russian strike would pan out.

Putin may choose to use a “tactical” nuclear weapon in Ukraine to deter further western intervention.

Speaking to the Daily Express in March, Canadian political scientist David Welch, of the University of Waterloo, explained the most “limited” use of a nuclear weapons would be a “low-yield” warhead.

He said: “The most ‘limited’ use imaginable would involve a single, very low-yield warhead.

“Both Russia and the United States have nuclear demolition charges that can be carried around in a backpack.

“They are designed to do things such as destroy bridges with high reliability.

“If Russia were to use one of these, there would be a debate for at least a while about whether Russia had used a nuclear weapon at all.”

Experts are unsure exactly how many of the nearly 6,000 warheads are tactical, which typically have a smaller 300-mile range.

Tactical warheads carry between tens and hundreds of kilotons (kt) of TNT worth of damage, akin to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Ukraine’s size means damage likely wouldn’t leech into neighbouring NATO nations, but any nuclear explosions would serve as a stark warning to them and the West not to intervene or risk additional strikes.

If Russia used a strategic warhead, the result would be much more catastrophic.

Strategic warheads have a range more than 10 times greater at roughly 3,100 miles.

Otherwise known as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), they are used by nations to strike those far outside local borders.

They are also much more powerful and can cause explosions up to 300 kt each after remote launches.

A decision by Putin to use one of these would mean the Russian premier may have decided to strike beyond Ukraine, potentially a NATO member.

Striking a NATO member would trigger the organisation’s policy of collective defence.

Contained in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, the principle states that an “armed attack against one or more [NATO member] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all”.

Members would need to respond after considering the nature of the attack.

Article 6 states that NATO may activate Article 5 following an armed attack:

  • On the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America
  • On the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties

If NATO decided to respond in kind to Putin, a long-range missile attack from Russia could result in World War Three.

But the situation would depend on talks undertaken by NATO leaders, as Article 5 has only ever been invoked once following the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

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