Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has both horrified and instilled fear in the world, the likes we have not seen since World War II. The wanton destruction of Ukraine and Ukrainian lives appearing before our eyes have rallied the world in ways we have not seen since World War II. Countries are
leveling crippling financial sanctions upon Russia, but there is a growing chorus to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Ambiguity in Russian nuclear first-use policy must give the United States and its NATO allies pause before implementing such a move. Instead, we must allow time for financial sanctions to work.
A Nuclear Primer
In August 1945, the United States vaporized in an instant approximately 200,000 Japanese citizens by dropping two atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Soon after, the United States developed the hydrogen bomb that increased the destructive yield by almost one thousandfold. Other counties
followed suit, and the nuclear race was on.
Nuclear weapons fall into two categories: strategic and non-strategic weapons. Strategic nuclear weapons typically have higher explosive power, inflict the most damage, and are deployed on ballistic missiles, air-launch cruise missiles, or gravity bombs. Nations use strategic nuclear weapons to target
assets not in the immediate battle-zone, such as an enemy's military bases, command and control centers, energy infrastructure, and cities.
Non-strategic weapons often called battlefield or tactical nukes, are used in the direct theater of conflict and typically have lower explosive yield and a shorter range delivery mechanism. These weapons come in various delivery systems, from artillery shells, cruise missiles, gravity bombs, and
ballistic missiles. Controlled by front-line military commanders, their purpose is to attack troops or
battlefield assets such as military airfields, bridges, etc. While the United States has reduced its tactical nuclear weapons stockpile to around 500 warheads, the Russian Federation has maintained and modernized approximately 1900 of these weapons. This disparity is rooted in Russia's increased reliance on these weapons in war planning, recognizing that their conventional land forces are no match to NATO forces.
Escalate to De-Escalate
Past public statements by Russia and military exercises have led many U.S. analysts to believe that Russia adopted an escalate to de-escalate policy whereby Russia would be the first to use a nuclear weapon against NATO if it were losing on the battlefield. One scenario would be Russia using a single tactical nuclear weapon on a NATO asset such as a troop formation or airfield. In Russia's likely view, the detonation of this weapon would cause such ontological shock and display a willingness to go nuclear, the United States and NATO would back down.
The Real Escalation and Potential Costs
While Russian first use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Europe would be a game-changer, the real issue is the potential of this initial exchange to escalate to a full-blown nuclear war between the United States and Russia. While an initial strategic attack by Russia would target our military assets here at home, the nuclear exchange would likely accelerate to target American cities. Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) each contain multiple independently targetable nuclear warheads that would blanket an American city with 5 to 10 warheads. Our small
strategic missile defense system would be no match for the sheer volume of nuclear warheads raining down on U.S. targets.
In 2019, Princeton University's Science and Global Security program developed a computer simulation that modeled a nuclear war with Russia that begins with using a single tactical nuclear weapon. The model predicts the conflict would snowball into a full-blown nuclear exchange within the first few hours. The computer simulation calculated 91.5 million immediate casualties following this exchange.
A No-Fly Zone
The bottom line is that establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine would require the United States and its allies to shoot down Russian aircraft. This operation would undoubtedly accelerate the conflict and likely lead to a nuclear exchange.
Some people postulate that Vladamir Putin would never be insane enough to initiate a nuclear conflict. However, with what we are witnessing daily in Ukraine, we should not underestimate Putin's willingness to cross that line. So let's not push him over that line with a U.S.-led no-fly zone over Ukraine. Instead, we must give financial sanctions time to have the desired effect of the Putin regime being overthrown internally.
Matthew Ford is a political filmmaker and the founder of the Political Action Committee Stand for Better