WE WOKE yesterday to the news that President Biden mentioned nuclear Armageddon and that the crucial Kerch bridge that links Crimea to Russia has been destroyed. Add in the destruction of the Nord Stream gas pipelines by as yet unknown actors and it looks like Putin’s ‘special military operation’ is spreading quickly. Whether it stays under control is an increasingly open question.
Let’s start with Putin’s not-so-veiled nuclear threats (or bluffs). He has perhaps 4,500 tactical nuclear weapons. These tend to be about the same size as the Hiroshima bomb and can be delivered by artillery, aircraft or missiles. Tactical weapons are used on the battlefield to kill military capability and broadly have the ability to destroy everything in a 1,000 to 5,000 metres radius, plus causing a lot of collateral damage (fires, building destruction and some radioactive fallout – the amount depends on the explosion height). It also generates an electro-magnetic pulse that will destroy unprotected (‘unhardened’ in the argot) electronics.
The military damage varies. Troops in armoured vehicles and trenches are much less vulnerable than those in the open. The impact of building demolition, tree blowdown and fires will impede movement, as will the radiation fallout. It is, at least hypothetically, possible to survive to fight but it takes substantial training and constant practice, which has not been a priority since the end of the Cold War. A well-targeted tactical strike would halt the Ukrainian advance in the affected area. Given the size of the battlefield, multiple strikes would be necessary to halt the entire Ukrainian counter-attack.
Which is where it gets a bit theoretical. The general understanding of Russian military thought is that tactical nuclear weapons are part of the panoply of weaponry available – to be used if necessary. In the Cuban Missile Crisis FROG tactical missiles were armed with nuclear warheads and authority for use was delegated to the local commander. That was in the age of mutually assured destruction, but of course was 60 years ago. The two key questions are would Putin use them and what would the West do.
The answer to the first is a good old-fashioned ‘no idea’, and nor does anyone know if the relevant troops would actually launch them. I guess that there are two calculations being made in the Kremlin. First, would a single weapon generate sufficient shock to cow the Ukrainians into surrender? President Zelensky seems to have ruled that out – but he may be bluffing too. The second is what, if any, retribution would the West – specifically the nuclear powers (USA, UK and France) – extort?
Again, the honest answer is we don’t know. The options range from doing nothing through to vaporising Moscow, both of which look unpalatable. The classic Nato doctrine of ‘flexible response’ (where Nato proposed to match its response to Warsaw Pact actions, albeit while refusing to sign a ‘no first use’ agreement) is somewhat constrained by the paucity of Western tactical nukes. The US is thought to have 100 (unguided) bombs stored in Europe and about the same again elsewhere. There’s also the question of where to drop them.
The emergence of precision guidance munitions in the late 1980s meant that Nato didn’t need nuclear weapons to achieve near-nuclear effects. This was demonstrated in the first Gulf War, where MLRS strikes were destroying everything in a 1,000m square without the hassle of nuclear weapons. At the tactical level, therefore, a Nato response might be with the use of conventional weaponry. Demolishing the Kerch bridge would have been an obvious target, but that’s already happened.
Quite how the bridge was demolished is as much of a mystery as the recent destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines. Demolishing reinforced concrete bridges like Kerch requires vast amounts of explosive or very specialised munitions delivered by air or placed by hand. Like the Nord Stream explosions, it’s pick-a-theory time. The bridge is about 400 km from the nearest part of Ukrainian occupied Ukraine. Although its in range of SS-21 Tochka missiles, of which the Ukrainians have plenty, they are not accurate enough. Of course, the Ukrainians might have upgraded them – but that’s one heck of a technical advance.
The destruction of the Kerch bridge is a very significant step – in Putin’s eyes probably a strategic escalation. Until Khrushchev, Crimea was part of Russia. Many Russians still resent its reassignment to Ukraine. Crimea was 67 per cent ethnic Russian in a 2014 census, with only 16 per cent Ukrainian and 13 per cent Tartar. Tactically it cuts a major supply route both to Crimea and to the battles raging near Kherson. Until the Russians repair the bridge (and keep it repaired) supplies will either have to go by boat across the Sea of Azov or along the road through Mariupol – where they will be more vulnerable to interdiction. Of course, this is equally true for non-military supplies (the population of Crimea is around 2.5million) and for retreating Russians and refugees.
Demolishing the Kerch bridge is a huge tactical gain for the Ukrainians. I worry that Putin will see it as a strategic attack on Russia.