A Tactical Nuke Would Do Nothing to Change the Ukrainian Battlefield

Wes O'Donnell
4 min readOct 5, 2022
defense.gov. Public Domain.

There is no military reason to use a tactical nuke at this phase in Putin’s war.

But first, what exactly is a “tactical” nuke?

Strangely, there is no real definition of “tactical nuclear weapon.” Many arms control wonks simply use the term “tactical” or “battlefield” nuke to distinguish them from their strategic big brothers — the city-annihilating strategic nukes.

Typically, tactical nukes are between one and fifty kilotons, (although a few may venture into the hundreds of kilotons), and some weapons give its users the ability to ‘dial-in’ the destructive yield… A variable yield function, if you will.

What a time to be alive!

But here’s the thing — nukes, either tactical or strategic, don’t take territories. They don’t hold territories either. They simply make the area where they exploded impassible for a few hundred years.

Putin might be able to freeze the current conflict by nuking the front lines, but that would take hundreds of tactical nukes to accomplish.

Even though they’re smaller, tactical nuclear weapons are best for blowing up big things — carrier strike groups, tank columns, massed infantry, etc.

Because Ukraine is smartly fighting a dispersed war — almost acting like insurgents — Putin would be starved for targets.

So, any Russian use of nuclear weapons at this point would be exclusively as a show of force — a reminder to both the world and to his opponents at home that Vlad still has control of enormous destructive potential.

If I may be so bold… That’s the real danger here.

The danger lies in the possibility of a bad decision on Putin’s part that triggers a Western response that escalates out of control.

And let’s face it — The Kremlin isn’t making good decisions lately.

My fear is that Putin explodes a nuke. The West responds conventionally by killing Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and Putin escalates by attacking U.S. forces somewhere else.

That is a dangerous ‘tit-for-tat’ that may lead to an endgame that gives me the chills to think about.

Wes O'Donnell

Army & Air Force Veteran | Global Security Wonk for War is Boring, GEN, OneZero, Soldier of Fortune | Law Student | TEDx Speaker | Founder of Warrior Lodge