Watch the Video: Demystifying Russia’s Tactical Nukes and Raising the West’s Nuclear IQ

Since the early days of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russia has consistently employed various means of nuclear blackmail in an effort to push Kyiv, and its Western supporters, to the negotiating table. Vladimir Putin and other government officials have not shied away from feigning nuclear strikes in an attempt to manage any escalation on the frontlines. Most recently, Moscow announced that it would station some of its tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory. And while it remains unclear how these nukes might be used and even who will have control over them, these developments have raised considerable alarm in Kyiv and many Western capitals.

These concerns are all the more warranted following Russia’s destruction of the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine, which has had catastrophic effects for the environment and populations in the surrounding region. This act in turn has effectively compromised the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), as the water level for the nuclear reactors’ cooling ponds runs dangerously low. Moreover, reports are growing that Russian forces have mined the ZNPP as well as the Crimean Titan chemical plant, potentially in preparation for explosions similar to what transpired with the dam.

Given these recent provocations, it is critical for Western policymakers to understand the true probability for the Kremlin to resort to tactical nuclear weapons, as well as what affect they would have on Ukraine and its neighbors. Furthermore, the West must demonstrate a strong resolve to Putin in dissuading the Russian leader from seriously considering such a move. As such, The Jamestown Foundation was proud to host a panel of Russian and nuclear experts consisting of Dr. Phillip A. Petersen, Lt. Col. Jim Gifford, PhD, Col. (ret.) Sam Gardiner, Dr. Francesca Giovannini, and Ukrainian Admiral (ret.) Ihor Kabanenko. The panel was moderated by Lt. Gen. (ret.) Ben Hodges, with Jamestown President Glen E. Howard offering introductory remarks.


Participant Biographies

Col. (ret.) Sam Gardiner is currently a non-resident fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School, Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University. While on active duty, he had multiple tours at the Pentagon, was with the 432 Tactical Fighter Wing during the Vietnam War and in Plans and Operations at SHAPE.  With the SHAPE assignment, he was close to NATO plans for nuclear weapons. He participated in the design and execution of wargames for the US Air Force, Army and Navy. He  facilitated the US government’s modified deputies review of Libya Strategy prior to the creation of the no-fly zone. Col. Gardiner has published more than 20 articles and essays on simulation and learning. He has also co-edited two books on strategy and authored more than 30 articles on operations and future warfare. He is currently publishes a daily summary and analysis of combat activities in the Ukraine War.

Lt. Col. Jim Gifford, PhD, is currently the Chief of the Nuclear Wargaming Team (RD/NTA) at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), Fort Belvoir, Virginia. RD-NTA assists units with wargames, TTXs, exercises, training, planning, and acquisition analysis in the area of “operating in a nuclear environment.” Lt. Col. Gifford is a 2001 graduate of the United States Military Academy. He was commissioned as a field artillery officer and has served as a fire support officer, platoon leader, battalion S-5, and gunnery instructor. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he earned a master’s degree in chemical engineering in 2010. Lt. Col. Gifford then taught chemistry at the United States Military Academy, after which he transferred into Functional Area 52, Nuclear and Counter-WMD. In 2020 he earned a PhD in nuclear engineering from North Carolina State University in 2020. Lt. Col. Gifford deployed to Iraq in 2003, 2004, and 2013

Dr. Francesca Giovannini is the executive director of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs and the academic director of the MacArthur Research Network on Rethinking Nuclear Deterrence, the largest consortium of academic institutions on issues related to nuclear weapons, deterrence, and arms control. Dr. Giovannini has published widely in academic and policy journals as well as in specialized magazines. Her articles have appeared in NatureThe Washington Post, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the Hill and the National Interest, among others.

She is a regular commentator on Italian television and radio talk shows dedicated to international security and foreign policy. She holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford and two master’s degress from the University of California, Berkeley.

Lt. Gen. (ret.) Ben Hodges, the former Commanding General of US Army Europe, is currently a Senior Advisor to Human Rights First. General Hodges held the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He serves as NATO Senior Mentor for Logistics; consults for several companies on Europe, NATO, and the European Union; and is co-author of the book Future War and the Defence of Europe, published by Oxford University Press.

General Hodges served in various Joint and Army Staff positions, including Chief of Plans, 2nd Infantry Division in Korea; Aide-de-Camp to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe; Chief of Staff, XVIII Airborne Corps; Director of the Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell on the Joint Staff; Chief of Legislative Liaison for the United States Army; and Commander, NATO Allied Land Command 2012-2014 in İzmir, Turkey. His last military assignment was as Commanding General, United States Army Europe in Wiesbaden, Germany from 2014 to 2017.

Glen Howard is the president of The Jamestown Foundation. Based in Washington, DC, Mr. Howard has overseen the research and analysis activities of Jamestown for the past 19 years and extensively dealt with Russia and Eurasia in his capacity, working with regional leaders and national strategists across Eurasia from the Baltic to Central Asia.

An expert on Eurasia and Russia, Mr. Howard is the co-editor with Matthew Czekaj of the book, Russia’s Military Strategy and Doctrine, a collection of writings on Russian military strategy and doctrine by some of the world’s leading defense experts. He is also the editor of the book Volatile Borderland: Russia and the North Caucasus, and other works. He has published articles in the Wall Street JournalReal Clear Defense, the Hill, and other prominent publications.

Admiral (ret.) Ihor Kabanenko is a retired admiral with the Ukrainian Navy. From 1983 to 1990, he served in the Soviet Navy in various positions up to commander of the ship and chief of staff of the Missile Ships Division. He began his servive in the Ukrainian Armed Forces in 1993. He was appointed to the positions of chief of operations and chief of staff of the Ukrainian Navy, military representative of Ukraine to NATO, chief of operations of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and the first deputy chief of defense. He retired in 2013 with the rank of Admiral. From May to August 2014, Admiral Kabanenko served as the Ukrainian deputy minister of defense, and from August to October 2014 as Deputy minister of defense for European integration. Currently, he is the president of UA.RPA (Ukrainian Advanced Research Project Agency), which focuses on high-tech solutions and products for defense.

Dr. Phillip A. Petersen holds a PhD from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. For 15 years, he served as a United States Army officer, an intelligence analyst at the Library of Congress and Defense Intelligence Agency, and as a policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and at National Defense University. Upon leaving government service with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dr. Petersen served for 25 years as a Senior Fellow at The Potomac Foundation and served as its Vice President for Studies until he left for the Center for the Study of New Generation Warfare.