There’s been much talk, these past few weeks about Vladimir Putin being ready to escalate the war in Ukraine by use of chemical or even nuclear weapons. It is important to remember a couple of things here when discussing potential nuclear assault.
- First, we appear most likely to be talking about the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Whilst this would be an incredible atrocity and unthinkable escalation, it would not be on the same scale as Strategic nuclear strike on somewhere like London or Paris.
- Second, that the very fact that we are talking in terms of tactical nuclear weapons rather than strategic nuclear attacks constrains Putin in two ways. First, because the calculations are difficult for him. He must determine whether or not he intends to do actual military damage or create further levels of fear in order to intimidate. He must balance these things out with the impact of any nuclear fall out on territories and peoples he now claims his own. There’s no point boasting that you’ve added to Russia’s grain harvest before making the harvest inedible.
- The other constraint is that tactical nuclear weapons have to be deployed into a position where they can be used and that will be observed by Western powers enabling them and Ukraine to prepare both for any potential strike and for how to respond -as well as considering potential preventative action.
In terms of response, I believe that NATO powers will prefer preventive to reactive measures. They will want to find ways to stop Putin from using nuclear weapons in the field of battle. The starting point here will be to ensure that the Generals around Putin know exactly and in no uncertain terms what the cost of any attempted strike would be to them. The idea is that even if they cannot dissuade Putin from a course of action that they will themselves think twice before following through on his commands. Alongside this, increased efforts will be made to get Russia’s allies involved in dissuading the Kremlin from any course of action. China may be happy for Putin to be a nuisance but they don’t want an erratic neighbour to get into the habit of letting off nukes in their backyard. This is both because they don’t want trouble from Russia and because they don’t want North Korea getting any ideas.
The next level of response will be to consider pre-emptive military action. This would potentially include air and cruise missile strikes against Russian logistics to prevent the mobilisation of and use of the weapons. If possible, though I suspect that America would prefer to draw Russia close enough to be able to provide the intelligence to enable Ukraine to respond rather than being drawn in directly at this stage.
If a Russian strike does get through -and given the state of her conventional forces, that really is a big if -then American has already threatened a significant response. Some defence experts believe that this could include a military response. I’m still not convinced about this. I think that the only way that the West would want to get involved at that kind of military level is if there is 100% certainty that Russia would not escalate further with nuclear strikes on NATO countries.
There are a few possible ways in which this certainty could be achieved.
- If there are strong indicators from within Russia that Putin would not be able to get his generals to comply with such an order. Indeed, if that intelligence is coming through, then NATO may even detect a window of opportunity to give Putin’s opponents the pretext to move against him.
- If intelligence suggests -as many are beginning to suspect -that Putin’s nuclear arsenal is likely to be as about as unusable and ineffective as his conventional forces then NATO command may determine that a response is possible without too much risk to the West. Again, this may create the opportunity to finish Putin.
- If NATO is confident that they are capable of launching a response with such overwhelming force and surgical precision that they could decapitate Putin’s regime and render it impossible for him to fight back. Such a response would probably involve a mixture of a cyber attack plunging Moscow into isolated darkness and surgical strikes on nuclear launch facilities.
Modern warfare capabilities make the last option a little more in reach than would have been the case back during the Cold War. However, you have to be absolutely certain that you’ve got everything. Whilst the West might be confident of neutralising Russia’s land based nuclear arsenal, the presence of SSBNs (Submarine based nuclear capability) means we can never be truly certain of that.
Out of the three scenarios, I think the first is the most possible. However, we cannot be sure of that. The good news is that I don’t think Putin can be sure of it either and so that combined with the other constraints above reduce the risk of Russia going nuclear in Ukraine.
What I do think we are likely to see is Russia making use of planned nuclear drills and ratcheted up rhetoric. Putin is in effect a global terrorist. He relies on spreading fear and uncertainty in order to achieve his aims because he does not have the conventional state based methods to succeed. Putin’s military are a pretty unconvincing conventional war machine so it turns out but they are still a very effective terror outfit.
Now, you will notice that the Kremlin are always careful about how actual government officials themselves talk as opposed to “friends of the Kremlin”. They never get caught talking directly about nuclear attack themselves. The strategy is to get us talking about it. We end up building up our own fear.
Newspaper editors will do well to remember this before allowing some of the articles they’ve been producing out into print. They risk doing Putin’s dirty work for him.
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