The Kremlin’s use of tactical nuclear weapons is no longer inconceivable. But a strong Western stance can stop President Vladimir Putin from taking such a step.
Russia has begun deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. The move could be more than just a tit-for-tat signal following the West’s decision to give F-16 fighter planes and Patriot anti-missile defense systems to Ukraine. In fact, it could be a warning from the Kremlin that it is considering utilizing such arms. Tactical nuclear weapons are designed to be used against smaller, mainly military targets.
This is a clear threat, but it is no reason for fear and weakness in the West. Giving in to such threats only emboldens the aggressor.
Besides being intended to increase Western angst, the move shows that Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the use of tactical nuclear weapons as no longer taboo. Up to this point in history, nuclear weapons have been seen purely as instruments of deterrence, never to be used. This may now be changing.
Beijing’s opposition to any use of nuclear weapons has also been seen as a major reason why Russia would refrain from taking that step. Moreover, employing such arms could lead powers like India, Brazil and South Africa to abandon their neutral stance.
But while we can expect China to condemn the use of nuclear weapons rhetorically, it might also find it valuable to have the taboo broken to increase tension in Taiwan, which Beijing is seeking to reunify with the mainland. Also, neutral powers may not drastically change their views even if tactical nuclear weapons are used against Ukrainians.
NATO countries are safer. The use of any nuclear weapons against Poland, the Baltics or any other ally would invite overwhelming retaliation against Moscow.
No nuclear weapons are stationed in NATO countries bordering Russia. There is no need. What would be helpful is to give ironclad security guarantees to Kyiv if Russia deploys tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine.