Repeated threats of nuclear strikes are emanating from Russia’s increasingly ruthless and unstable President Vladimir Putin. With Russia increasingly losing ground in the war, CBNW Editor Andy Oppenheimer reviews Putin’s deployment of weapons which are on the edge of WMD.

Nuclear strikes are less likely because of fallout returning to west Russia. However, while these cannot be ruled out, Putin is stepping up his use of conventional weapons of mass destruction.

By autumn, a new level of Russian escalation and vengeance against Ukraine was under way. Following the reported Russian use of air launched guided weapons, attacks moved to the capital Kyiv itself. On 17 October, ‘kamikaze’ strikes by Iranian-made drones struck Kyiv, Odesa and Mykolaiv as well as energy facilities in the Kyiv, Sumy and Dnipropetrovsk regions. In all 30% of Ukraine’s energy supply was compromised.

So far Russia has used artillery shells, mortar rounds, rockets, missiles and aerial bombs in Ukraine as well as cluster munitions and, pushing out the conventional envelope –  enhanced blast (aka thermobaric) weapons. On 28 February 2022 the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States confirmed that Russia had used a “vacuum bomb,” killing 70 soldiers. Two days earlier, CNN reported  that Russian TOS-1 rocket launchers, which can launch up to 30 rockets armed with thermobaric warheads, were mobilised in eastern Ukraine. In late May footage emerged of Russian forces using thermobaric weapons against Ukrainian positions in the Donbas.

A back story of destruction
Thermobaric weapons – also dubbed ‘vacuum bombs’ – are to date regarded as the biggest ‘conventional’ bomb. As a type of volumetric weapon, which also include fuel air explosives (FAE), thermobarics comprise a fuel container and two separate explosive charges. When dropped or launched, the first charge detonates to disperse the fuel particles; the second ignites the dispersed fuel and oxygen in the air. A blast wave of extreme pressure and heat is produced – which creates a partial vacuum which sucks up all surrounding oxygen in an enclosed space – causing immense destruction at and within the target. The blast area can exceed 3,000 sq m.

The US used thermobarics in Vietnam; in Afghanistan in 2001 against al-Qaeda forces secreted in the Tora Bora caves; and in 2017, the 22,000-lb GBU-43 massive ordnance air blast (MOAB) and later as the MOB – ‘mother of all bombs’ – against ISIS in 2017. The Russians deployed them in Chechnya in the 1990s and during the past decade in Syria. In 2007, Russia developed the world’s biggest non-nuclear explosive device with a TNT equivalent of 44 tons.

Both the US and Russia have advanced these ‘bunkerbuster’ weapons as a substitute for nuclear bombs to breach hardened overground and underground military targets. But like cluster munitions and barrel bombs, they have been used far more against civilians, who are likely to be vaporised by a thermobaric attack.

Putin’s last stand
Putin will likely continue to use these in repeated attempts to break the Ukrainian people. No such weapon is banned by any treaty and their legacy of harm persists long after cessation of hostilities. So far, thousands of casualties, damage to power plants, hospitals and other major infrastructure has persisted via Russia’s use of high-yield explosive weapons since the invasion in February.

Russia has rehearsed these attacks in Syria for several years. The danger here is further devastation for Ukraine before NATO considers direct intervention. Meantime, 9,000 Russian troops were deployed to the Belarus border in mid-October amid fears of a renewed ground offensive against Kyiv.

Attacks on infrastructure
Despite reports that Russia is running low on military supplies, ammunition and vital parts – hence the latest drones being from Iran – Russia is likely to mobilise troops to fill the gaps of its massive manpower losses. An increasingly desperate but equally determined Putin will not hesitate to unleash further mass-casualty attacks, and to step up attacks on vital infrastructure.

This poses the heightened risk of a major nuclear radiation incident, with the Zaporizhzhia NPP a likely deliberate Russian target. This is the first war fought in a theatre with so many highly developed nuclear facilities. The October attacks on Kyiv and many other areas hit civilian infrastructure that millions of urban residents depend on.

Much depends on how NATO will respond if attacks become actual WMD or stray into NATO territory – such as the recent sabotage, prime suspect Russia, of the underwater natural gas pipelines Nord Stream 1 and 2, which run between Russia and Germany.

Russia’s illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions on 30 September accompanied a statement that Moscow had a right to use WMD to defend “Russian” territory. Short of the unthinkable, Putin’s state terrorism on Ukraine is set to continue. As of early November Putin was claiming that Ukraine were deploying RDDs (radiological dispersal devices). Assuming he is projecting his own aims onto the country he has invaded and terrorised, we can assume that ‘dirty’ rather than nuclear bombs are possibly to be among his options for WMD-style destruction in Ukraine.

A shopping centre in the city of Kremenchuk in the Poltava region of Ukraine following a Russian rocket strike on 27 June 2022. The fire covered 10,300 sq m.
State Emergency Service of Ukraine