U.S.-Made Weapons Might Not Protect Ukraine From Nuclear Strike by Putin

As Russian President Vladimir Putin, his closest allies and state-sponsored media stoke the flames of potential nuclear war, arms control and defense capability experts hope cooler heads will prevail.

Questions remain regarding Putin's next tactical move. Videos posted online have speculated that Russia has already transported nuclear weapons toward Ukraine.

Daryl Kimball, executive of the Arms Control Association, told Newsweek that Russia has shorter-range systems that can deliver as many as 450 warheads that could be air- or ground-launched. Warheads are stored at central storage facilities in about five locations.

The most likely scenarios, Kimball said, would involve the launch of a short-range cruise missile loaded with a nuclear warhead with a yield that could be from 1-2 kilotons to 10 kilotons. In comparison, the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, Japan, near the end of World War II produced a yield of about 15 kilotons and led to the deaths of more than 140,000 people within six months.

Russian Nuclear Weapons Experts Ukraine
Military personnel stand in front of a High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) system during the military exercise Namejs 2022 on September 26, 2022, in Skede, Latvia. Experts said Ukraine's successful response to nuclear weapons detonated by Russia depend on multiple factors. GINTS IVUSKANS/AFP via Getty Images

"It would produce enormous detonations that don't just involve blast effects but extreme heat and radiation effects," Kimball said. "Any use in Ukraine against so-called military targets or civilian targets would cause extreme damage. Of course, it depends on how many devices Putin would order the use of or where."

Kimball said U.S.-provided weapons in Ukraine, such as stingers, National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS), High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) or S-300s could not shoot down a launched nuclear warhead.

Tom Karako, senior fellow at the International Security Program and director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told Newsweek that a real-time response would depend on the nuclear warhead deployed—a gravity bomb, cruise missile, ballistic missile or hypersonic delivery system.

It depends on the specific trajectory and delivery means, Karako said. Ukraine has "fairly limited, still very important" air defense weapons, Stingers and NASAMS for air defense. The MIM-104 Patriot, a surface-to-air missile system used by the U.S. and its allies, is another option.

The reality is that it simply is not possible to defend everything, in terms of a threat, means of defense, and means of an area.

"If the Russians really wanted to deliver a munition of any payload, some of them get through and some of them don't," Karako said. "It's important to emphasize the diversity of the multiplicity of delivery means....It goes to the principle of passive defense. You can't hit everything."

Ian Williams, fellow in the International Security Program at CSIS and deputy director of the Missile Defense Project, is slightly more optimistic.

"There are a lot of variables," Williams told Newsweek. "Could Ukraine defend itself? It depends on what vehicle is carrying the weapon. If it's an aircraft carrying a gravity bomb, which is probably the majority of Russian nuclear weapons, [Ukraine] could likely shoot down a target."

A nuclear weapon in the form of a ballistic missile, as opposed to a cruise missile, is "much more challenging due to defenses Ukraine has," as S-300s and NASAMS are "not really well suited to knock out ballistic missiles."

"You have to be at the right place at the right time," Williams said. "You take high-altitude systems and the area becomes small. You pretty much have to be sitting on what you're defending."

Karako said planning and the process of "thinking the unthinkable is a good thing," and that "it's a good forcing function to come to grips with who Putin and Russia is."

"There's an important role for air and missile systems, the utility of active and passive means of defense against all kinds of forms of missiles," Karako said. "Strip away all the complexity, you fundamentally have a threat and a desire to counter that threat in various means."

Williams' team at CSIS has run table exercises to explore the aftermath of Russia hypothetically detonating a nuclear weapon in the Baltic Sea. Different individuals represented Russia, the U.S. and various European countries.

"The first thing that the teams often did was look at specific circumstances of the use," he said. "If it's not a blatant use, a demonstration that's not widespread death and destruction, there's a real hesitation to respond to nuclear weapons in kind."

A clear use on a battlefield that kills myriad civilians and soldiers likely leads to a response from the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), he said.

"I have trouble imagining what a NATO response would look like without the U.S.," Williams said. "One interesting aspect is that it really appears that the U.S. and NATO countries have a very penetrating ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) capability and are able to see what Russia is up to and anticipating.

"We no doubt have a very close eye on Russia's nuclear force. It's quite possible that it could be seen happening before it happens."