What if Vladimir Putin used nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

President Vladimir Putin’s thinly veiled threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine if Russian “territorial integrity” is threatened has sparked deep discussion in the West as to how it would respond.

In a televised address on Wednesday, the Russian leader said he was not bluffing about using nuclear weapons if Russian territories were threatened, as he announced a partial military mobilisation that would see some 300,000 reserve forces sent to fight in Ukraine

“Those who are trying to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the wind can also turn in their direction,” Putin said, adding: “This is not a bluff.”

Analysts are not convinced that Putin is willing to be the first to unleash nuclear weapons since the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945.

Several experts and officials spoke with AFP about the possible scenarios that could arise should Russia carry out a nuclear attack.

What would a Russian nuclear attack look like?

Analysts say Moscow would likely deploy one or more “tactical” or battlefield nuclear bombs.

Tactical nukes are small weapons, ranging from 0.3 kilotons to 100 kilotons of explosive power, compared with the 1.2 megatons of the largest US strategic warhead or the 58 megaton bomb Russia tested in 1961.

Tactical bombs are designed to have a limited impact on the battlefield, compared with strategic nuclear weapons which are designed to fight and win all-out wars.

But “small” and “limited” are relative: The atomic bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 to devastating effect was just 15 kilotons.

What might Moscow target?

Analysts say Russia’s goal in using a tactical nuclear bomb in Ukraine would be to frighten it into surrender or submission to negotiations, and divide the country’s Western backers.

Mark Cancian, a military expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, said Russia would not likely use nuclear weapons on the front lines.

Capturing 20 miles (32km) of territory could require the use of multiple nuclear bombs – small gains for the huge risks of introducing nuclear weapons and nuclear fallout.

“Just using one will not be enough,” Cancian said.

Moscow could instead send a strong message and avoid significant casualties by detonating a nuclear bomb over water, or exploding one high over Ukraine to generate an electromagnetic pulse that would knock out electronic equipment.

Or, Putin could opt to attack a Ukrainian military base, or hit an urban centre and generate mass casualties and possibly kill the country’s political leadership.

Such scenarios “would likely be designed to split the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) alliance and global consensus against Putin,” Jon Wolfsthal, a former White House nuclear policy expert, wrote on Friday on Substack.

“It is unclear if it would succeed, and could just as easily be seen as desperation as resolve,” he said.

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