26th Sep 2023


What should Europe do if Russia uses a nuke?

  • Perhaps the Vladimir Putin's seat in the UN Security Council would be challenged, and many countries which currently tacitly support Russia, such as China, might rethink their position (Photo: Kremlin.ru)
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As Russia suffers severe setbacks and Ukraine's counter-offensive moves on, concerns over Russian president Vladimir Putin's next move continue. He does not seem to have many options, and even the possible use of nuclear weapons is not completely off the table.

Although Russian military efforts have been in decline since the war's early days, the possibility still exists that Russia might use its nuclear arsenal in Ukraine in order to stop Western military support for Kyiv and to give Russia the psychological upper hand.

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  • A Russian R-36 intercontinental ballistic missile (Photo: Wikimedia)

What would happen if Russia were to fire a nuclear strike? Most likely it would be a tactical strike, with a smaller nuclear missile.

One could assume that the Russian calculation would be that as a result, Ukraine would be forced to stop its military activity and negotiations would follow. Russia might assume that the West would decline to support Ukraine militarily, by fear of an escalating nuclear conflict.

Sign of weakness

But the consequences would be very hard to predict — and most likely they would be very unfavourable for Russia. To start, Russia's nuclear strike would not be seen as a sign of strength, but rather as a sign of extreme weakness; as an ultimate, desperate move.

Leaving aside the fact that Nato would feel forced to react to Russia's nuclear attack, and establish an even more forceful posture against Russia, it is doubtful that Ukraine would suddenly stop defending itself.

Since the frontline is very long and group concentrations are limited, a tactical nuclear strike would not achieve much more than one currently can with conventional warfare — perhaps only immediately demobilising one or two brigades.

In addition, it would be very difficult to control the radiation fallout in the following days, leaving Russia's own troops and territory potentially victim to exposure.

The international response against Russia would be strong and harsh, especially as Russia's own territory is not under threat. Perhaps the Russian seat in the UN Security Council would be challenged, and many countries which currently tacitly support Russia, such as China, might rethink their position.

Sanctions from the West would become even more extreme. More importantly, the entire post-Second World War rulebook on the non-use of nuclear weapons would be thrown into the dustbin.

For Ukraine and any other country bordering Russia, the message would be clear; Russia is an existential threat — and if it does not gets its way, it will use nuclear arms. The only logical response would be for the smaller neighbouring countries to have easy access to similar response capacity and increased nuclear deterrence.

The nuclear umbrella and the Trump factor

European Nato members have internalised that they can rely on the United States' military umbrella. However, the fact remains that since former president Donald Trump entered US political life and China began taking an increased amount of American focus, Europeans have been concerned.

The tipping point for the United States and Europe for the use of a nuclear response could be different. It should also be remembered that, even during the Cold War, there were discussions on whether the US would indeed be willing to risk the lives of millions of American citizens by defending Europe with its own nuclear weapons.

One could also argue that the more military capacity Europeans have, the better it is for Nato and transatlantic burden sharing. Consequently, the United States have continuously encouraged Europe to take more responsibility for its own security.

Up until now, nuclear arms have been something that large and militarily powerful countries have had, but not the smaller ones (with a few exceptions), even though it would be relatively easy for smaller nations to start their own nuclear arms programme.

If an increasing amount of smaller countries in their periphery had nuclear weapons, global great powers might find that situation difficult. This would also multiply the risk of nuclear war.

Today, the idea of increasing the amount of individual European countries with their own nuclear arms might be seen as unconceivable. However, we should remember that after the Second World War, many European countries were reflecting on nuclear arms.

Post-WW2 history lesson

For example, Sweden had its own nuclear arms programme after the war and recent research indicates that Sweden was closer to owning nuclear weapons than previously thought.

Also, in the 1950s, German chancellor Konrad Adenauer's government was reflecting on the idea of building a European bomb with France and Italy.

As a consequence, in November 1957, German defence minister Franz Josef Strauss signed a secret deal with his counterparts from Paris and Rome. Their goal was to make Europe independent of the US nuclear umbrella.

The idea was abandoned later due to Charles de Gaulle, who wanted France to have its own nuclear weapons. The idea of a joint European bomb never gained traction.

Christoph Heusgen, the security policy adviser to former German chancellor Angela Merkel, proposed Germany should begin a strategic dialogue with France focused on if and how Europeans can jointly contribute to nuclear deterrence against Russia. According to him, the German government and other EU member states could participate financially to the French nuclear weapons programme, in return for the planning and deployment of French atomic weapons elsewhere in the EU.

Alternatively, one could imagine a common European programme, under French leadership. President Macron's proposal in 2020 paved the way for such a development. In addition, tying the UK into the programme would seal the UK to European common defence, which has already become very tangible in the context of the war in Ukraine.

Today, that war continues, and a potential nuclear strike by Russia remains an unfortunate possibility.

For now and for its future challenges, Europe must draw conclusions — to analyse what the threat means for the continent's security and what European countries must do to enhance their nuclear deterrence.

Author bio

Tomi Huhtanen is the executive director of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, the think tank of the European People's Party.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Putin and the threat of a tactical nuclear attack

Nato could be in a position to experience nuclear deterrence in an entirely unexpected form, requiring skilled diplomacy and even a willingness for some compromise, however bitter, to avoid disaster.

Losing on the Ukrainian battlefield will not unseat Putin

Notwithstanding the remarkable Ukrainian advances, a Russian defeat would not necessarily translate into regime change in Moscow. It is likely Putin will try to spin his military setbacks as evidence of the existential threat facing Russia.

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