The great tension over whether or not Vladimir Putin will use nuclear weapons or not comes down to two factors. The first is that he has two types of nuclear weapon. When we talk about nuclear weapons we primarily think of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles – strategic nuclear weapons. The UK’s version of this is the Trident missile system which is designed to launch from Submarines that can be hidden anywhere around the world. Russia has significant stockpiles of such weapons, some like the UK carried by Submarines, others land-based in Russia.
When we think about apocalyptic scenarios concerning nuclear weapons we are considering the possibility of Russia or the USA along with Britain and France launching their ICBNs, each one with the destructive power to wipe out a whole city and send a radioactive cloud across much of a country’s population. Just one strike along on a city like London or Birmingham would be brutal for the United Kingdom.
However, Russia has what are referred to as tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons. These are designed to be used in a more localised context. Britain used to have such weapons available, aircraft including the Vulcan bombers and later Tornados were designed to carry such weapons in the payload. The aim of the warhead is to take out maximum casualties on the ground rather than to create a significant amount of radiation fall out.
For Russia, there is perhaps less of an ethical stumbling block to using such weapons which are more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima but nowhere near as destructive as a Trident missile. It is conceivable therefore that they would use such a weapon in Ukraine either in frustration to attempt to wipe significant elements of the Ukrainian army or to send a warning message.
The main reasons against Russia using these weapons are also tactical and logistical. There’s no guarantee that the terror impact of a tactical strike would be enough to dissuade the Ukrainians from fighting for their homeland or the west from supporting them. Additionally, the difficulty is that Russia may not be able to use the weapons without causing significant destruction to their own forces. Finally, it takes time to prepare forces on the ground and move equipment to the frontline. This would give western intelligence the time to identify movements of munitions and equipment and then pass that information to the Ukrainians enabling them to destroy the equipment before weapons can be deployed.
This doesn’t mean that Putin won’t attempt to use the weapons because we cannot be certain of the gameplan that is going on in his head. His greatest strength is that we see him as unpredictable although I would argue that his responses so far have been pretty predictable. Maybe that is part of the gameplan though?
The second reason why it is possible that Putin might opt for nuclear weapons is that Russian ethics around the use of nuclear weapons is different to western thinking. We work on the presumption that these are weapons of last resort. We are fully bought into the principle of mutually assured destruction. This means that NATO countries are unlikely to launch nuclear weapons first. Even if Russia were to launch a single nuclear weapon at a European target, our first response would no doubt be to seek to shoot it down. However, if the west was under significant nuclear attack then the response would be massive and brutal. The West would deploy their strategic nuclear weapons and Russia would be pretty much wiped out. This is why Russia is very unlikely to use its ICBNs despite the sabre rattling of some of Putin’s friends.
However, Russia’s nuclear doctrine is different. Russia is prepared to use nuclear weapons first on the basis that you can escalate to de-escalate. The hope is that the shock will cause others to back down. Russia have also been clear that they reserve the right to use nuclear weapons if there is an existential threat to Russia’s borders. Hence the fear that if Ukraine were to move into Crimea or the areas that have been recently annexed by Russia through bogus referenda then Putin would declare this a direct attack on and direct threat to Russia.
Here, I think we are seeing the way in which the war is going very differently not just to how Putin expected but how NATO did as well. No-one seemed to expect that the Russian army would be this shockingly bad. We’ve not seen an opposition so badly over-estimated since Germany capitulated 5-1 at home to England!
We expected Russia to struggle to occupy and control Ukraine. However, I think that most people though that this would lead to protracted war over many years similar to the way in which Afghanistan wore down the Soviets previously. Russia bogged down in Ukraine suffering a long war of attrition after already being subject to heavy casualties in the initial invasion may well have suited a lot of western strategists.
However, what we’ve discovered is that the Russian military was a paper tiger, instead of getting bogged down, they’ve been forced to retreat. It is now possible that Ukraine could retake territory lost in 2014 and that’s what takes us into the danger zone of uncertainty. I don’t think anyone had really prepared for this.
What this means is that Putin can no longer rely on conventional military strategy. No-one anywhere need worry about the feared Russian army rolling into their countries. There isn’t much of it left and what is left clearly isn’t up to the task. At the moment, Putin still has some options, he can continue a terror campaign by targeting civilians with conventional missiles but what happens when those stocks run low and when he’s losing in the Crimea. That’s the danger point when he might choose to cross the ethical line by either launching a tactical nuclear strike, using chemical weapons or even blowing up one of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants with just as deadly an affect.
Now here is the crucial point, Putin’s justification for such an atrocity will be that there was an existential threat to Russia’s security and very existence. So on that basis, what should Western strategy be? Well, to me, it seems obvious that our approach at this stage should be to get the message across that the biggest threat to Russia is Putin himself.
Now, there are challenges to our ability to do this and those mainly arise through our own failings. It’s exactly because we have behaved in ways that suggest that we rather than Putin is the threat that we’ve made things harder for ourselves. I don’t mean by this that we should not have supported Ukraine emotionally or practically. We should have done. What I mean is that things like the rhetoric of Joe Biden about Armageddon and the way he talks about catastrophic responses no more present the leader of the West as a strategic clear thinker than we see Putin as. I suspect in Russia, the propaganda machine will be busily communicating that the US is led by an unstable and unwell elderly man who could end up hitting the big red button at any point.
Additionally, I believe that the mass pull out of western companies from Russia and her cultural isolation has not been helpful. It creates the perception that Russia is under siege and must go it alone. I’ve always believed that we should be decoupling Putin from the Russian people. They need to see the west as their friends.
However, I still think it’s possible to recover from those miscalculations. There are also things that work to our advantage. First, the mass conscription of young Russian men has backfired with many now attempting to flee the country. The evidence is mounting in Moscow that Putin is loosing his war and the Russian people have been lied t. Secondly, the message has gone I’m sure to Russian military leaders that a nuclear incident will lead to what is left of Russia’s military capability being wiped out. Third, given the performance of their conventional forces, I’d be a tad bit worried if I were part of the Russian military that the nukes might blow up on launch, fizzle out or not even launch at all.
If I were responsible for western strategy I’d be leaning heavily on all of these points to develop the narrative that it is Putin who singlehandedly has managed to see to the destruction of Russia’s military and the embarrassing of a once great country. It is Putin who has made it highly likely that within the next year with his forces driven out of Crimea that NATO will advance right to the border of Russia with Ukraine and Finland joining (though I think that Ukraine as part of the EU has the same consequences).
And then I’d be looking to give Russia a way out of this nightmare -not Putin, Russia. His fate should be pretty much sealed, there will be no compromise with him. However, we should make it clear that should the Russian people remove Putin, order a ceasefire and being the process of withdrawal from Ukraine and de-escalation on the borders with NATO countries then there will be scope for negotiation with Russia.
I suspect that when this finishes, we will see that it was in many respects more comparable to the end of World War 1 than World War 2. Putin is more Kaiser than Fuhrer. That being so, it’s important also that we do not make the mistakes made at the end of the great War. A humiliated Russia will be a dangerous breeding ground for a future deadly extremist.
Our aim should be not just the defeat of Russia in Ukraine but the reintegration of Russia with the rest of the world. Our vision should be for a democratic and prosperous Russia at ease with herself and her neighbours. We should be preparing now for life after Putin.