With rational people talking of the possibility of President Putin utilising a chemical or nuclear weapon in Ukraine, it’s worth having a discussion about how we in Europe and the west generally shall respond to such an event.
First, we have to recognise that it has to be possible to have a discussion about nuclear weapons without falling into Armageddonesque hysterics or into cold Strangeloveian normalisation of what would be a major event in human history.
Consider the following image: the impact of a B61 nuclear bomb (the smallest in the US arsenal) on Dublin if exploded over the GPO.
Would it cause massive devastation, panic, evacuation, economic damage and kill thousands? Yes. Would it end Dublin as a city? The answer is quite simply no. Even with fallout, and a sealed off central zone for decades, Dublin would recover eventually.
If Russia dropped a Tsar Bomba on Ireland, the biggest single bomb ever detonated by Russia, on the middle of the country (Sorry Tullamore) most of Cork, Limerick and Galway city would escape undamaged. The devastation would be immense, and millions would die from the blast and the radiation poisoning, and the presumable collapse of the country as a functioning nation.
The point is that there are different types of nuclear weapons, and a B61 being detonated is different from a Tsar Bomba.
What isn’t different is the psychological effect: the the Russians (or anyone else) have suddenly used a nuclear weapon for the first time since 1945. It becomes the most important story in the world. It is bigger than anything else. People will stop what they are doing in work. Planes will immediately land. Some people will commit suicide.
That’s also what Putin is counting on: the idea that populations in European democracies will be swept up in hysteria and demand their governments immediately acquiesce to whatever he wants to avoid “the end of the world” as he pretends to be (we assume) a madman with nothing to lose. In the only countries that matter in this scenario, the US, UK and France, furious debates will be held as to how to respond. Responding by detonating a comparable weapon against Russian forces in Ukraine is not an option. Nor is detonating a weapon over Russian territory. Therefore, the most likely option would be a massive conventional attack using non-nuclear weapons (Aircraft and cruise missiles) against Russian forces in Ukraine to inflict a high price on Russia for crossing the nuclear threshold without escalation it.
The problem with that is that such a response could, ironically, push Putin further into a corner by a) being attacked directly by NATO forces, and b) by devastating his forces in Ukraine making defeat there far more likely.
This is also against a background where, almost certainly, possibly millions of Europeans will protest demanding their governments abandon Ukraine so as not to provoke further use of nuclear weapons by Putin, the very thing he is hoping.
What if he detonates a second weapon in Ukraine, again of very small yield but nuclear nevertheless? How does NATO respond then? Let us not forget: Putin believes the west is weak. That our people are spineless and obsessed by gender identities and race and celebrity and will buckle when a real man puts his thumb on our collective jugular. That when he shows that he is willing to go further than we are, we will beg him to stop and give him everything he wants.
He may well be right.