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4 May 2022updated 10 Jun 2022 3:06pm

A “strategic nuclear exchange” would offer Putin zero military gains

Threats of “battlefield” warheads are alarming, but an actual deployment would cause Russia major setbacks – both tactical and practical.

By Lawrence Freedman

The military concept of escalation has always had a dual meaning. It can refer to a tragic process, of events spiralling out of control, as confused leaders become driven by their fears, making panicked moves that lead to catastrophe. But it can also refer to deliberate moves taken to achieve a strategic advantage by raising the stakes in a conflict, putting additional pressure on an opponent. In the early 1960s the American strategic theorist Herman Kahn spoke of an “escalation ladder”. While the traditional interpretation of escalation viewed it as a spiral inevitably ending in catastrophe, he envisaged a ladder with 44 individual rungs that could be mounted one at a time, without matters getting out of control. It was even possible to de-escalate by going down the ladder.

Kahn’s version of the ladder became famous not so much for his 44 rungs but for the fact that nuclear weapons were first introduced as early as rung 15, demonstrating just how vivid his imagination could be when considering how these weapons might be used. 

All this was a product of Cold War thinking, but the idea of an escalation ladder has stuck. It reminds us that even in dire situations there are always choices, but also that at some point a deliberate decision to escalate might trigger tragedy. Two other ideas from Kahn help us understand these dangers as the Russo-Ukrainian war reaches a pivotal stage.

[See also: Putin has little to celebrate in Ukraine as a key anniversary approaches]

The first is that there are distinct thresholds in a war which change its character as soon as they are passed. Examples in this war include Russia’s deliberate targeting of residential accommodation and other infrastructure targets, Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory, Nato countries donating offensive, as well as defensive, weapons, and Russia cutting off energy supplies to European countries.

Thresholds currently being discussed include Ukraine moving against the separatist enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk, and then on to Russian-annexed Crimea; the war spilling over from Ukraine into neighbouring countries, for example Moldova; Nato forces becoming directly engaged in the war, and then on to the most dreaded outcomes – limited “battlefield” use of nuclear weapons, and strategic nuclear exchanges. The passing of each threshold brings new obstacles in containing the war and bringing it to a conclusion. Clearly, once nuclear weapons are in play then everything becomes more alarming, which is why it is the threshold that currently captures the most attention. It may be the scariest, but is it the most likely?

This is where the second of Kahn’s ideas becomes relevant. He defined “escalation dominance” as “a capacity, other things being equal, to enable the side possessing it to enjoy marked advantages in a given region of the escalation ladder”. So, it makes sense to escalate if at the next stage there is a chance of coming out on top. The onus would then be put on the other side to take the risks of moving to yet another stage, where the fight might become even more deadly and harder to control. There were always objections to Kahn’s approach, including that it was too mechanistic and too optimistic about the rationality of the decision-makers. In recent weeks, several Kremlin officials have suggested that nuclear options are being considered. But it is important to keep in mind that the thresholds of war are passed for a reason, and the best reason would be to help win the war.

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To break the so-called nuclear taboo in this way would be a huge step and open all sorts of perilous possibilities. What would be the military gain? If employed in a battlefield role, a substantial number of Ukrainian units would have had to offer themselves as a convenient target, though for now they are not massing at all but hunkering down. Even then, Russia has other deadly but still conventional weapons that can cause huge explosions if that is the idea. Russia would also need to ensure that its own troops were not engaging with the Ukrainians at the time. Fallout might be carried into Russia and Belarus (which suffered most from the radiation effects of Chernobyl). A final risk is that the weapons turn out to be embarrassing duds when detonated. These systems do not get many tests to see how well they work.  

[See also: Putin’s war aims are in disarray, as the Donbas debacle shows]

It is possible to imagine other scenarios, for example an attempt to coerce Ukraine into capitulation. Suppose it was successful. Russia would still suffer from the problems it would have faced if it had already seized Kyiv and imposed a puppet government – a sullen and uncooperative population making it impossible to govern. Most of all, the Kremlin could not be sure how the other nuclear powers would respond because this would be such an unprecedented situation. 

Using nuclear weapons in these circumstances would not solve any military or political problems for Russia in its war against Ukraine and would create many new ones. It would turn the world into an even more hazardous place, including for Russia. Against this is the objection that this analysis is too rational. Putin appears unhinged and capable of anything (although he would still need underlings to carry out the orders to launch). He certainly does not want us to forget that Russia is a great nuclear power and has had missile tests to prove the point.

Yet these tests are designed to remind Nato countries not to get directly involved, and so far, from this perspective, the deterrent is working. Nor have there been any reports from Western intelligence of weapons being prepared for use. Unless anxieties about nuclear use is considered an argument by itself to get Kyiv to capitulate, it is not clear what Nato leaders – let alone the Ukrainians – are supposed to do about the possibility of such craziness, other than possibly toning down their rhetoric. For now, to use the cliché, the best advice is to keep calm and carry on.

[See also: Ukraine is better prepared for a long war than Russia]

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This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future