CNN  — 

With his forces retreating in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has once again threatened to turn to nuclear weapons, most likely what are often called tactical nuclear weapons.

In a speech last week, he warned that, “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.”

Russian weapon systems include 4,477 deployed and reserve nuclear warheads, with about 1,900 of these being “non-strategic” warheads, otherwise known as tactical nuclear weapons, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

But what is a tactical nuclear weapon and how does it differ from a regular nuclear weapon?

Here’s what you need to know.

Tactical vs strategic

Tactical warheads refer to ones designed for use in a limited battlefield, say to destroy a column of tanks or an aircraft carrier battle group if used at sea. These warheads, with explosive yields of 10 to 100 kilotons of dynamite, are also called “low yield.”

In contrast, Russia’s most powerful “strategic” nuclear warheads have explosive yields of 500 to 800 kilotons and are designed to destroy entire cities – and then some.

The reference to “low yield” for tactical weapons is somewhat misleading as explosive yields of 10 to 100 kilotons of TNT are still enough to cause major destruction – as the world discovered in 1945 when the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

Those bombs were the equivalent about 15 and 21 kilotons of dynamite, respectively – within the ballpark of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons.

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The initial blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed about 70,000 and 35,000 people instantly, and tens of thousands more later died from the radiation released, according to US government archives.

Alex Wellerstein, director of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, says the real difference in nuclear weapons is not really in what their explosive yield is but what their targets are.

“The atomic bombi