This is what Putin’s nuclear disaster would really look like

Vitaly Fedchenko is a widely recognized authority on fissile things booming at night and a powerful key collaborator in the business of thwarting the apocalypse.

Indeed, the throwing weight of this nuclear engineer’s expertise over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Armageddon arsenal is perhaps best illustrated by the blast radius of his job title at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute: Senior Researcher for Strategic Forces Technology, Nuclear Energy, Nuclear Reactors, Nuclear Fuel cycle, nuclear materials and fuels, uranium and plutonium, nuclear warheads, nuclear forensics and verification in the WMD program.

“A nuclear explosion is a nuclear explosion,” is how Fedchenko soberly formulates the validity of Putin’s grand bluff, which is now irking the world: Would Russia’s beleaguered tyrant comply with his threats to launch either a targeted tactical nuclear attack or a strategic nuclear strike against the Ukraine and other western nations? “There is no clear definition or agreement on what the difference is between tactical and strategic,” says Fedchenko.

Regardless of the deadly arithmetic of kilotons, the answer is debatable anyway, the body count overwhelmingly creepy.

“The difference between a nuclear weapon then and now is the difference between a Ford and a Lamborghini.”

— Vitaly Fedchenko

Fedchenko and other mutually assured destruction experts polled by The Daily Beast roughly calculate that Putin has three trajectories for his 6,000 or so nuclear weapons. A high-altitude electromagnetic pulse explosion over Ukraine, frying electronic systems there and in Europe; a low-altitude blast intended to kill tens of thousands of Ukrainians but not directly affect those in neighboring countries, or the so-called ground burst, in which prevailing winds carry radioactive fallout around the globe at lightning speed.

And Fedchenko adds that Putin’s plans to use conventional weapons to destroy Ukraine’s 16 nuclear power plants and turn the country into an underworld on Earth does not take into account.

During the Cold War, nuclear brinkmanship between the US and the Soviet Union, like the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961, resembled a calculated chess game. The nuclear confrontation shown in Ukraine is more like the TV game show Truth or Consequences, in which hostility has replaced probity, with both participants hinting at dire consequences.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned Putin of the “serious consequences” if Russia uses nuclear weapons.

But former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the current Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council, rumbled: “Russian weapons, including strategic nuclear weapons, could be used.”

Another Putin pawn, Russia’s regional Chechen chief Ramzan Kadyrov, over the weekend encouraged his boss to unleash the nuclear weapons. “More drastic measures should be taken, up to and including the imposition of martial law in the border areas and the use of low-yield nuclear weapons,” Kadyrov said.

“If Russia crosses that line,” said US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, “the results will be catastrophic.”

Ever since the US dropped “Little Boy” on Hiroshima in 1945, killing 66,000 and injuring another 69,000, there has been no questioning just how dangerous an atomic bomb can be. Shortly thereafter, America’s atomic bomb makers stopped deliberately naming their explosive devices like Fat Man and Thin Man after characters in Dashiell Hammett’s detective stories. Reset the cinematics The Maltese Falcon and the antics of Nick and Nora Charles, the Pentagon began identifying their weapons with names like Hotpoint and Lulu.

But a reminiscence romp in Russia’s thermonuclear showroom — which the Soviet Union sold domestically as Nuclear Blasts for the national economy — is an equally chilling journey. It usually brings back memories of the 1949 plutonium classic Joe-1; the imperially branded Tsar Bomba of 1961; and the memorable Chagan, which dug a 1,338-foot-wide radioactive shrine 328 feet deep in Kazakhstan in 1965.

“The difference between a nuclear weapon then and now is the difference between a Ford and a Lamborghini,” explains Fedchenko. “The yield, the power of the explosion, is the same. The differences are in size, resistance to external shocks and ease of delivery.”

The joke in Putin’s nuclear armory is how many of his weapons systems, ancient or contemporary, actually work.

“The 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty stopped Russia and the US from assessing their capabilities,” says Fedchenko. “There are many new radical designs out there, but without several live tests, you don’t know if a nuclear weapon will actually work the way you intend it to. Nuclear arsenals are based on systems developed in the late 1980s or earlier.”

The 139-page United Nations treaty is a bling in Kyiv.

“It’s useless,” says Olena Pavlenko, a 41-year-old energy policy analyst at the Dixi Group research institute in Kyiv. “The UN has done nothing to stem Russia’s nuclear threats against Ukraine. Putin has tried for years to intimidate us with threats of nuclear destruction, and the UN’s response is always, “Let’s not talk about it or do anything because Putin has nuclear weapons.” That’s the UN storyline.”

Nonetheless, Pavlenko says the narratives have prompted Ukrainians to stock up on anti-radiation iodine pills and take other precautions to ensure Putin doesn’t turn the key in a nuclear strike. “Just in case,” she adds cheerfully. “We have to take his threats seriously, but psychologically we are not afraid.”

Pavlenko says there is a lot of laughter and cursing in Ukraine these days. “Everyone wants to know whether Putin will use nuclear weapons,” says Pavlenko. “Well, Ukrainians know Russia’s psychological tricks better than anyone,” she adds, with no small measure of patriotic pride. “If Putin starts vociferously threatening you with something, it means he’s not going to go through with it. When the Russians are silent, it’s time to worry.” This is what Putin’s nuclear disaster would really look like


Hung is a Interreviewed U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Hung joined Interreviewed in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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