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How Russia Has Revived Fears of Nuclear War in Europe

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Photographer: Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images

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A distinctive feature of Russian military policy is an express willingness to introduce nuclear weapons into an otherwise conventional war. That helps explain why President Vladimir Putin’s saber-rattling about his nuclear arsenal was taken with grave seriousness as his army bogged down and suffered heavy casualties in the early weeks of its war in Ukraine. In the 77 years since the U.S. proved the destructive power of nuclear weapons, their use has been considered practically unthinkable. Russia’s posture on so-called tactical, or nonstrategic, nuclear weapons has changed that.

“Tactical” is an inexact term meant to describe a nuclear weapon that could be used within a theater of war. Generally speaking, that means it has a less powerful warhead (the explosive head of a missile, rocket or torpedo) and is delivered at shorter range -- by mines, artillery, cruise missiles or bombs dropped by aircraft -- than the “strategic” nuclear weapons the U.S. and Russia could launch at each other’s homeland by intercontinental ballistic missiles. Arms control accords between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (and later, the U.S. and Russia) starting in the 1970s generally focused on reducing the number of strategic nuclear weapons, not tactical ones.