Russia has scarcely disguised the threat of an atomic bomb; the danger of using nuclear weapons has not been so high for 30 years. But why should the Kremlin boss do that at all? And under what circumstances could he? Three conceivable scenarios.

The atomic bomb is already unfolding its full power without even having to be used. Merely mentioning them or announcing that delivery systems will be put on alert spread fear and terror. That’s what Russia’s President Vladimir Putin did recently, having previously threatened “unprecedented consequences” if “the West should intervene in the Ukraine war.” That there could be more behind it than mere rhetoric can be observed on Russian state television. “During prime time, people are talking about sending atomic bombs to European cities,” says Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina, who fled the opposition. Graphics show how long Russian nuclear missiles need from Kaliningrad to Berlin, for example (106 seconds).

Since the Cold War, Europe has once again been in real danger of a nuclear strike. How high it actually is is controversial. Some rate them higher than they did during the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the most delicate moments in the superpower showdown at the time. The American secret services, on the other hand, believe that the use of nuclear weapons is unlikely.

The US magazine “Politico” points out that there are at least three variants of using nuclear weapons. And not every one of them necessarily has to end in ultimate annihilation:

Scenario 1: The atomic bomb test

This use of nuclear weapons would be more symbolic, but disturbing nonetheless: the above-ground test of a low-yield nuclear bomb. For example on the island of Novaya Zemlya, a remote test site in the Arctic Ocean. The damage to be expected and the fallout would be negligible there, but not the psychological effect. It would be the first nuclear weapons detonation by a superpower since 1992 and the first atmospheric test since 1963. It would also be “a powerful reminder that Putin has tactical nuclear weapons in abundance, around 2,000, and is prepared to use them,” according to Politico “.

Scenario 2: An explosion in the airspace over Ukraine

In 1962, the United States detonated a nuclear warhead 400 kilometers above the Pacific Ocean – with surprising results. The electromagnetic impulse paralyzed the street lighting and the telephone system on the Hawaiian Islands 1500 kilometers away. A comparable nuclear explosion over Ukraine would be visible from afar and could cover entire regions in “darkness and silence, turning off computers, cell phones and other electronics,” writes the US magazine. But the same effect could occur in both NATO countries and Russia. The consequences of this scenario are therefore also difficult to assess for the Kremlin.

Scenario 3: use of atomic bombs in Ukraine

The most dangerous and therefore probably the least likely use would be the bombardment of Ukrainian targets, for example military installations or cities like Mariupol, with nuclear warheads. A drop over sparsely populated areas such as on the farmland in the west of the country would also be conceivable. But even the smallest atomic bomb would set large swaths of land on fire. And depending on the height of the explosion, the radioactive fallout could move towards NATO countries as well as towards Russia.

Conclusion: “Although these scenarios are currently improbable, they are not far-fetched either, because there are conceivable reasons: an imminent defeat for Russia, further humiliation such as the loss of the Russian flagship “Moskva” or growing domestic Russian dissatisfaction with the course of the war – Putin doesn’t need a logical reason to use nuclear weapons,” Politico said.

Sources: DPA, AFP, “Politico”