Russian strategic nuclear missiles Yars roll on Red square during a traditional Victory Day parade during it's final rehearsal on Red square in Moscow, Russia, 07 May 2019.
© EPA-EFE/MAXIM SHIPENKOV   |   Russian strategic nuclear missiles Yars roll on Red square during a traditional Victory Day parade during it's final rehearsal on Red square in Moscow, Russia, 07 May 2019.

Is Ukraine capable of withstanding a nuclear attack from Russia?

Holzstock Festival

Starting February 24, Russia has been using nuclear blackmail increasingly often, either via propaganda or in the discourse of various officials, from president Putin to the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. At first, Russia threatened only the West, but lately we have witnessed an increasing number of threats regarding the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Whereas in the first months of the war analysts believed Moscow was bluffing, after the illegal annexation of parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, the Kremlin’s threats could no longer be ignored, since Russian military doctrine stipulates that nuclear weapons can be used to defend one’s own territory. Furthermore, analysts say that, for Putin, a defeat is out of the question. Conversely, the victories secured by Ukrainian forces on the ground make it very hard for Russia to win the war using the conventional forces at its disposal right now.

Will Ukraine be capable of withstanding a possible nuclear attack and stay in the fight? Are Ukrainian authorities, the army and the people ready for this scenario?

Survival instructions in case of a nuclear attack

In recent weeks, the Ukrainian media has been publishing a number of instructions and recommendations in case of a nuclear attack. Most of these are messages designed to encourage national resistance. The regional news portal YE.UA writes that “nuclear weapons should not be considered magical weapons that will help Russia defeat Ukraine”. The article continues with a few other patriotic statements before making a number of recommendations for the civilian population.

Experts YE.UA has talked to have analyzed what would happen in Khmelnitsky in western Ukraine if the city got hit with tactical or strategic nuclear weapons. The former would seriously impact an urban area in a radius of 820 meters, while the radius of a strategic nuclear blast would exceed 2.5 km. YE.UA also factors in mass destruction and high levels of radiation, writing that such nuclear blasts would not alter the course of the war, although they would hamper Kyiv’s defensive efforts.

At the same time, Ukrayinska Pravda publishes a number of recommendations as to how civilians must react in the wake of a nuclear strike: what people should do first, how to protect their children, where to take refuge, etc. This summer, television and radio stations broadcast such information in the context of a possible blast at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Now, recommendations are addressed to civilians regarding possible nuclear attacks. 

Ukraine’s Defense Minister, Oleksy Reznikov, said however, that the probability of Russia using nuclear weapons against Ukraine is rather low. “There is such a risk, we cannot rule it out, yet the use of nuclear weapons will open up the ultimate front that will destroy the aggressor state”, the Ukrainian minister went on to say.

A nuclear attack will not affect Ukrainians’ fighting spirit

Serhii Kuzan, a military adviser with the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, pointed out that the Ukrainian army is ready for the worst-case scenarios, including a nuclear strike from Russia. Regardless of Putin’s plans, Ukrainians will keep on fighting.

Ukrainian political theorist Pavlo Lodyn, the executive director of the Center for Political Narratives of Democracy, told Veridica that Russia’s nuclear blackmail did not cause a panic at the level of society, which is already familiarized with the tragedies of war.

“The Russians are committing so many war crimes on Ukraine’s territory, that the human mind is no longer capable of assessing this potential threat with a cool head. On social media, people react through various jokes and ridicules”, the political pundit explained.

Lodyn is confident the Kremlin will not be able to break past the frontline as easy as it claims with the use of a nuclear weapon. “The intensity and density of artillery fire are close to the levels of World War II. To get past Ukraine’s defenses, which stretch far and wide, Russia will need a large number of nuclear warheads”, Pavlo Lodyn argues, adding that the attacks will be followed by radioactive fallout that will definitely spread to nearby Russian territories.

At the same time, Pavlo Lodyn questions the capacity of Russia’s NBC protection troops of getting Russian forces safely into Ukraine’s territory.

The critical moments of the war offer a clue regarding Ukraine’s resistance capacity

To understand if Ukraine is capable of withstanding a potential nuclear attack from Russia, we should examine the actions of the Ukrainian leadership and its military in the key moments of this war.

The advance of the Russian army on Kyiv at the start of the invasion was a great test for Ukraine. Part of the population left the city in panic, but many enrolled in territorial defense units and supported the defense efforts of the professional Ukrainian army. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s decision not to evacuate the city and stay in Kyiv also made a big difference. This grassroots mobilization helped Ukraine fend off the Russian attack and grab its first great victory in the war.

A similar example is what happened in Kharkiv, where one district was nearly completely razed to the ground by sustained shelling. Much like in the case of Kyiv, many inhabitants joined territorial defense regiments, and for a long period of time, the army had to rely on men without any military experience in order to maintain public order and help prepare the city’s defenses. In the end, despite its proximity to Russia, Kharkiv managed to resist repeated attacks. In September, the entire Kharkiv oblast was liberated part of a lightning counteroffensive.

The battle for Mariupol is also a telling example in this respect. The city was cut off from the rest of Ukraine and destroyed for most of its part by Russian bombing. A large number of civilians and military were killed. Running water, heating and electricity networks were taken down, and still people continued to put up a fight for weeks.

The latest crisis successfully overcome in this war was the time Russian artillery bombed Ukrainian positions, forcing local forces to progressively withdraw from Luhansk in Donbas. The Ukrainian army, was clearly outnumbered, demoralized and tired. However, the counteroffensive operations launched in the south and the east shortly after the bloody battles of Luhansk proved Ukraine has the power to overcome difficult moments and get back into the fight dramatically.

Chernobyl – an experience that should inform any approach to a possible nuclear crisis

Military expert Serhii Kuzan, an adviser at the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, says that every military unit knows what it is supposed to do in case of a nuclear attack. In September, Defense Ministry officials told a press conference hosted by the national news agency Ukrinform, that “Ukrainian troops have the necessary equipment” that can be used in case of a nuclear attack. Ukrainian authorities say such equipment was sent by Western states to support the war effort in Ukraine.

“Our nuclear and chemical protection units include nuclear espionage sub-units equipped with state-of-the-art nuclear espionage technology and  all other necessary equipment. A lot of equipment is manufactured in Ukraine, but some was sent by our Western partners”, the head of the Support Forces of the Ukrainian Army, colonel Serhyi Pakhomov said.

Ukrainian society can learn a lot from the sad experience of the Chernobyl disaster. After the 1986 nuclear incident, the USSR introduced civic protection classes in schools, which included nuclear defense instructions. Such classes were also introduced in Ukraine. For three decades, Ukrainians were taught in secondary schools and high-schools what they should do in case of a nuclear attack, how to react, how to work with the army, where to take shelter in case an explosion is reported at a nuclear power plant or in case of a nuclear attack. This information, which may seem obsolete for a post-Soviet education system, might be useful to avoid widespread panic.

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