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21 September 2022

Is Putin going to start a nuclear war?

Under pressure in Ukraine, the Russian president’s threat is a deterrent.

By Lawrence Freedman

This morning (21 September), the Russian president Vladimir Putin made a speech in which he announced military mobilisation – a move that will, I suspect, aggravate rather than solve the problems faced by Russian forces at the front.

His statement on nuclear weapons, however, has captured the most attention. This is what he said:

“Nuclear blackmail also came into play. We are talking not only about the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, encouraged by the West, which threatens a nuclear catastrophe, but also about the statements of some high-ranking representatives of the leading Nato states about the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons against Russia. To those who allow themselves such statements against Russia, I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction, and in some components more modern than the Nato countries. And if the territorial integrity of our country is threatened… we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. It’s not a bluff.

“The citizens of Russia can be sure that the territorial integrity of our Motherland, our independence and freedom will be ensured – I emphasise this again – with all the means at our disposal. And those who are trying to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the wind rose can also turn in their direction.”

This statement is about deterrence. It came at the end of the speech as a warning to the West about further escalation. There is a question as to whether the sham referendums proposed to support the annexation of the various occupied territories of Ukraine will be backed by this deterrent threat. He may be content to leave this ambiguous, but so was the statement on these referendums:

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“The parliaments of the people’s republics of Donbas, as well as the military-civilian administrations of the Kherson and the Zaporizhzhia regions, decided to hold referendums on the future of these territories and asked us to support such a step. Let me emphasise that we will do our best to ensure safe conditions for holding the referendum. To enable people to express their will. And we will support the decision about their future, which will be made by the majority of residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions.”

No link was made in the speech between this promise and the nuclear threat. Only Luhansk is close to being fully occupied, and that is now being contested again. No new red line has yet to be established there. If he wanted to protect these gains with nuclear threats, before they are taken back by Ukrainian forces, he would need to have made this explicit.

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[See also: The dangerous logic behind Vladimir Putin’s “partial mobilisation” speech]

Supreme leaders achieve their positions and then hold them by shaping events to their advantage. It is natural, therefore, to assume that even when they appear to have lost control, they will find a way to regain it. This assumption is behind the common refrain, even heard from people who would dearly like Putin to fail, that the Russian president “will not allow it to happen”. That even at this late stage he will find something that will turn the tide of the war. Whatever that something is, it will have to go beyond adding to the hurt and misery already caused – which we know he can do. It must also stave off Russia’s defeat, and that is another matter. Therefore, in addition to speculating about what Putin might do next, we also need to ask what good it will do him.

On Friday 16 September, Putin spoke at the conclusion of a diplomatic conference held in Uzbekistan. This conference was most memorable for evidence of Russia’s increasing isolation, even among countries that might have been expected to be more sympathetic. As there were visible signs of Central Asian states distancing themselves further from Russia, Putin was obliged to acknowledge that both the Chinese president Xi Jinping and the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi had concerns about the war.

Putin sought to explain how he would win the war. Asked about the Ukrainian counteroffensive he said: “Let’s see how it unfolds and how it ends.” Then, asked if the war plan needed to be adjusted, he stressed Russia’s minimum rather than maximum objectives: “The main goal is to liberate the entire territory of Donbas.” This is a narrower focus than the one with which he started the invasion, and the one that he was still toying with a few weeks ago. He reported that the work to achieve this objective “continues despite these counteroffensive attempts by the Ukrainian army… The general staff considers some objectives important, some things secondary, but the main task remains unchanged, and it is being implemented.” Perhaps he appreciates that Kharkiv is lost and Kherson may go soon. Certainly it informs the Russian offensive in Donetsk, which still continues, very much as before, despite the setbacks elsewhere.

[See also: What is Russia doing with Ukraine’s nuclear power plant?]

While the West worries that Russia might resort to escalation in response to Ukrainian advances, Putin claims to see it the other way round. On 16 September, he spoke of “attempts to perpetrate terrorist attacks and damage our civilian infrastructure”, referring presumably to occasional Ukrainian attacks on the Russian oblast of Belgorod, just over the border, and of Crimea.

He added: “Terrorist attacks are a serious matter. In fact, it is about using terrorist methods. We see this in the killing of officials in the liberated territories, we even see attempts at perpetrating terrorist attacks in the Russian Federation, including – I am not sure if this was made public – attempts to carry out terrorist attacks near our nuclear facilities, nuclear power plants in the Russian Federation. I am not even talking about the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

“We are monitoring the situation and will do our best to prevent a negative scenario from unfolding. We will respond if they fail to realise that these approaches are unacceptable. They are, in fact, no different than terrorist attacks.”

Somewhat bizarrely for the head of a country that has been systematically terrorising people in occupied territories and launching missiles on a regular basis against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, he insisted that Russia had been “quite restrained in our response, but that will not last forever”. Noting that “a couple of sensitive blows” had been delivered against Ukraine, he added: “Well, what about that? We will assume that these are warning strikes. If the situation continues to develop in this way, the answer will be more serious.” This was apparently a reference to the Russian strikes that followed Ukraine’s successful offensive in Kharkiv, which caused widespread blackouts and damaged a dam in the southern city of Kryvyi Rih. The reference to further attacks may have been intended to maintain the fear of nuclear weapons being used, it was not explicit and Russia still has the means to inflict such damage without resorting to these weapons.

Nuclear use

Yet the nuclear issue now comes up frequently. For officials and commentators in Kyiv and Washington that are asking what Putin might do next, it is probably the matter for the greatest speculation. Rose Gottemoeller, a former top US nuclear policymaker and Nato’s deputy secretary general until 2019, told the BBC of her fear that “Putin and his coterie” will “strike back now in really unpredictable ways that may even involve weapons of mass destruction”. She did not expect ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) launches, but possibly another form of nuclear sabre-rattling – “a single strike over the Black Sea, or perhaps a strike at a Ukrainian military facility” to “strike terror not only into the hearts of the Ukrainians” and its allies.

This is not a possibility that should be cavalierly dismissed. Russia has abundant stores of nuclear weapons, in a variety of shapes and sizes, and Putin might be desperate enough to use them. Because he has already done some really stupid things who can say for sure that he won’t do anything even stupider. This possibility is not negligible, and that is worrying enough in itself. But it is not enough to answer the question of whether he might give a nuclear order by referencing an unstable mental state, or with assumptions that because he is being humiliated he might respond with a tantrum to end all tantrums. We need to consider exactly what problems – military and/or political – that this might solve. Matthew Kroenig, writing for the US foreign affairs think tank Atlantic Council, has warned that a Russian nuclear strike “could cause a humanitarian catastrophe, deal a crippling blow to the Ukrainian military, divide the Western alliance, and compel Kyiv to sue for peace”. But will it?

To act this way would break a “taboo” that has developed around nuclear use since the only time they were used in anger in August 1945. It was a taboo that Putin himself acknowledged with the US president Joe Biden in June 2021, when they reaffirmed the observation affirmed by presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in 1985: “Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

It would also represent an extreme version of the behaviour his forces have already been following. Russia is not short of having the weapons to cause hurt and suffering, and it has shown no reluctance in using them. Ukrainian towns and cities have been pummelled by Russian shells, rockets and missiles, directed against residential buildings, factories, transportation hubs, power plants and much more.

Russia’s campaign has seen thresholds of violence being passed with disturbing regularity. In addition to long-distance strikes, there have been reports of more intimate crimes after the occupying forces have left – of tortures, murders, rapes, abductions and looting. If these were supposed to have a strategic purpose, and are not just random acts of cruelty (some may come into this category), then one supposes the intention is to make the Ukrainians concede. In practice, the effect has been the opposite. It has hardened Ukraine’s resolve and made its people even more determined to rid their country of the Russian presence. Despite all they have been through, Ukrainians have shown extraordinary levels of resilience, unity and determination. When asked, the Ukrainian government says that even nuclear use would have the same effect.

It is especially important to note that just because nuclear weapons have not been employed, it does not mean that they have had no influence on the course of this conflict. They have played an important deterrent role. Just before the invasion began, Putin took part in an annual drill involving Russian missiles. Then, when he announced the “special operation” on 24 February, he remarked  that “whoever tries to hinder us” will face “consequences that you have never faced in your history”. Three days later he publicly ordered his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, “to transfer the army’s deterrence forces to a special mode of combat duty”. This did not amount to much in practice: the point was to underline a deterrence threat.

The threat was directed towards Nato countries that might have been thinking about directly intervening to support Ukraine. Threats of this type were made in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea. Back then Putin stated that other countries “should understand it’s best not to mess with us”, adding that “Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers”. At that time, as now, Russian media broadcast regular, lurid descriptions of the terrible things Russia would do to any countries that interfered, neglecting to mention what these countries could do in return. The aim was to present Russia as a country with unlimited power, with the will to use it, and with little sense of proportion, so that any minor provocation could result in terror raining down on the perpetrator.

[See also: What is Vladimir Putin’s next move?]

These threats were geared to reinforcing Putin’s original message. Take the contributions of Andrei Gurulyov, a lieutenant general, member of the Duma and regular media commentator. He was directly involved in Russia actions in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas in 2014 and 2015, and he is something of a charmer. The Ukrainian authorities released an intercepted call from him on 28 February 2022, just after the invasion started, issuing orders to set Ukrainian households on fire. He has a thing about destroying the UK. On state television in August, when asked if Britain was readying for war with Russia, Gurulyov replied that this was already the case. Russia was fighting both the UK and the US in Ukraine.

“Let’s make it super simple,” he said on Russian TV. “Two ships, 50 launches of Zircon [missiles] – and there is not a single power station left in the UK. Fifty more Zircons – and the entire port infrastructure is gone. One more – and we forget about the British Isles. A Third World country, destroyed and fallen apart because Scotland and Wales would leave. This would be the end of the British Crown. And they are scared of it.”

More recently, Gurulyov noted that Biden had warned Russia against using nuclear weapons in Ukraine. He observed that “we may use them but not in Ukraine”. This time he made particular mention of strikes against decision-making centres in Berlin, threatening Germany with total chaos, along with his familiar theme of turning the British Isles into a “martian desert”. He added, confidently, that the US would not respond. All this was linked to preventing Nato getting directly involved. “They should tuck their tails in and keep up yapping.”

Strip away the absurd rhetoric and braggadocio and it is clear the focus remains on deterring Nato countries, now including the provision of Ukraine with the means to mount deep strikes against Russian territory. As another recent example, the Russian TV presenter Olga Skabeyeva, who regularly describes the current conflict as the Third World War, made specific threats with regard to the potential delivery of the long-range (300-kilometre) Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) missile from the US to Ukraine. “Russia has every right to defend itself. That’s to say, to strike Poland or the US’s Ramstein base in Germany, for example.” The current narrative in Moscow is that the troubles they now face are not because of the exertions of the Ukrainians but because they are backed by the best Western weapons. It is a familiar refrain that they are at war with Nato.

These threats have not been ignored by Nato. It was determined right at the start that there would be no direct intervention by member states. That was behind their refusal to agree to Kyiv’s pleas to set up a no-fly zone to push Russian aircraft from the skies over Ukraine. Biden has been clear that he does not want to give Putin an excuse to escalate, which is one reason why he has been reluctant to authorise the ATACMS deployment. Another reason is that the Pentagon is unconvinced that this would make a large difference to Ukraine’s military performance.

The US has also sought to warn the Russians about the risks associated with nuclear escalation. In an interview with CBS at the end of last week, Biden explained that turning to nuclear or other unconventional weapons would “change the face of war unlike anything since World War II… They’ll become more of a pariah in the world than they ever have been.” He added that “depending on the extent of what they do will determine what response would occur”.

Backed into a corner

Yet while the nuclear threats are directed against Nato countries rather than Ukraine, the latter is the reason Russia is in trouble. Ukraine also seems to offer the most troubling scenario. Colin H Kahl, the under secretary of defense for policy, said in a statement to the New York Times over the weekend that “Ukraine’s success on the battlefield could cause Russia to feel backed into a corner, and that is something we must remain mindful of”. This point was reinforced by the deputy director of the CIA, David Cohen, urging not to “underestimate Putin’s adherence to his original objective, which was to control Ukraine” or “his risk appetite”.

But Russia is not truly backed into a corner. At the moment there is no existential threat to the Russian state, even if one might be developing with respect to Putin’s personal position. The way to get out of any corner is to cross the border back home. And if the president wants to escalate he has other options. To quote the New York Times again: “More indiscriminate bombardment of Ukrainian cities, a campaign to kill senior Ukrainian leaders, or an attack on supply hubs outside Ukraine – located in Nato countries like Poland and Romania – that are channelling extraordinary quantities of arms, ammunition and military equipment into the country.”

More might be done against critical infrastructure or Ukrainian government buildings.

Yet these are all things Putin has either done already to a certain degree, tried and failed to do, or simply not attempted because they are too difficult. If Russia could have interrupted the weapon supply lines coming through Ukraine’s western borders, it would have made no sense to wait: Russia has not been capable of doing this. Attacking Poland or Romania would invoke Nato’s Article 5, which considers an attack on one member to be an attack on all. Russian leaders are well aware of this because they refer to it often. This is how nuclear deterrence works in the other direction and keeps the conflict contained.

So if initiating a direct war with Nato is too dangerous, and the value of deterrence lies in limiting the forms of assistance provided to Ukraine, what about using such weapons against Ukrainian targets?

There is a view that Russian forces might hold on until the winter and recreate the sense of stalemate and mutual attrition that occurred over the summer when the battle for Luhansk was under way. Another view is that Russia’s army is in a shambolic state and will be unable to regain a grip on the situation. Should the Ukrainians start moving against the Russian position in the Donbas region, or capture the large number of Russian troops defending territory around Kherson and cut off from new supplies, then Putin would face calamity. In the face of such calamity would nuclear weapon use be of any value?

Two possible roles are identified: first, to affect the course of the fighting on the ground, and second, more coercive, to threaten to raise the stakes to terrifying heights, including attacks on cities, persuading the Ukrainians to give up. To a degree this second role is inherent in the first. Once the nuclear threshold has been passed then the barriers to further escalation have been reduced. How might this be done? Options range from a demonstration shot – perhaps against a significant but currently uninhabited site (Snake Island has been mentioned) to make the point that a process with an unpredictable end has been set in motion – to direct strikes against Kyiv at the other end, with battlefield nuclear use in the middle.

The problem with a demonstration is that the message may be unclear. It will show that Russia is ready to ignore the strong normative prohibition on any nuclear use yet is still cautious about making the most of its explosive power. When a similar option was discussed in 1945 prior to the decision to target the city of Hiroshima in Japan, one concern was that while this could show that the US had a new weapon of unprecedented power, and do so without killing large numbers of people, unless the Japanese could see its destructive effects directly it would make no impression on their leadership.

Another issue was whether the bomb would work. It would be embarrassing to encourage the Japanese to watch and then for the spectacle to turn out to be a dud. It is possible that this could be a non-trivial consideration in any Russian deliberations: while missiles are regularly tested this is not the case with their warheads. The last such test under the Soviet Union was during the early period of the Cold War. As we have seen with other weapons that have been brought out of storage, they have not always been well maintained and do not necessarily work as advertised.

Another decision made in 1945 was not to warn the Japanese in advance of what was coming. Because this would be a lone aircraft they did not want the Japanese to make an effort to shoot it down. As it was, although the air-raid sirens sounded over Hiroshima, the absence of a large raiding force meant that it was turned off, and so many people were outside when the bomb exploded. Presumably the Russians would want to add to the shock value of a strike, and to reduce the risks of it being caught by air defences, by keeping it a surprise. This would mean that any coercive value would have to be extracted after the event, and used as a warning of more to come.

What sort of event? It is assumed, but who can know, that the aim would be to combine any coercive value with a direct military value. This is why the focus is on the short-range low-yield “battlefield” weapons, sometimes mistakenly described as “tactical” (any nuclear use has strategic repercussions). This is where the analysis gets tricky.

The Russian armed forces have thought long and hard about nuclear strategy. A detailed and subtle examination by the analysts Michael Kofman and Anya Loukianova Fink shows that, at least in theory, the Russian military does not believe that limited nuclear use necessarily leads to uncontrolled escalation. The potential targets for limited nuclear strikes are those already identified for conventional strikes – critical infrastructure more than cities. How far this would be taken once the first threshold had been passed would depend on the opponent’s reaction. Russian thinking on the matter, however, is geared to great power conflicts, and not an attempt to crush a supposedly weaker and smaller neighbour. Moreover, this is the sort of escalation that Putin was talking about in his Uzbekistan press conference on 16 September, for which he does not need nuclear weapons to have the desired effect.

That leaves the question of using the limited nuclear weapons to affect the ongoing underway battles on the ground. It is worth noting the issues that surround any attempt to use these as if they were normal weapons of war. In this role they can be seen as uniquely powerful versions of conventional munitions – from bombs, depth charges, shells and mines, with the added ingredient of radiation. In this regard they are best employed against large targets, for example a gathering of troops preparing for an offensive. The alternative would be a strong defensive position. Ideally this target would be some distance away from Russian troops. (The Americans famously developed a nuclear gun – the Davy Crockett – which had a lethal radius greater than its range.)

Given the nature of the fighting in Ukraine, this is not at all straightforward. There are rarely massed formations operating in either defence or attack. Units tend to be dispersed. Consider an account (from a Russian source) about the offensive in Kherson. It notes that the Ukrainians have made their impact by messing with the Russian supply lines while advancing not by armoured thrusts (unlike in Kharkiv) but instead by using small groups of infantry “creeping” forward over watery ground, for this is an area cut through by irrigation canals. Finding a useful target for nuclear use in such circumstances would be difficult and, given how little it might achieve, a strange way to start a nuclear war. Moscow has shown no great care for the populations of Luhansk and Donetsk, but as their liberation is supposedly at the heart of Russian war aims it would also be strange to mark this by nuclear detonations.

There is no evidence for now that weapons are being moved into position or being prepared for such strikes. US intelligence, which has been extraordinarily precise so far, can be expected to pick up any details (or at least the Russian would need to assume that). No effort has been made to explain to the Russian public why strikes like that might be necessary. As we have seen, Russian figures talk garrulously about scenarios for nuclear use against Nato countries but not against Ukraine. We can also assume that neither of Putin’s recent interlocutors – Xi and Modi – would be enthused. This is a scenario largely generated in the West to anticipate contingencies that have yet to be reached.

It is true that the prospect of nuclear use might engender panic in Ukraine and Nato. It is also hard to imagine that the news would be greeted calmly in Russia. It could intensify opposition in Moscow to Putin. He would of course need a compliant chain of command to implement an order to go nuclear, especially as part of a complex military operation on the ground. If the wind catches radioactive dust close to the borders it could fall on Russian territory.

Even if their use did make a difference, the fundamental political problem would still exist: how to pacify a hostile population with a depleted army. Meanwhile, nuclear threats do serve an important purpose for Putin: by deterring more direct Nato engagement. Should he use nuclear weapons in a limited and possibly futile way, the threshold would still have been crossed and all bets would be off in terms of a Nato response, which might well include doing exactly those things Putin was trying to deter.

There is one qualification to this analysis, which is Crimea. This territory was seized from Ukraine in 2014 and Ukraine wants it back. Militarily this would be even more challenging than the other acts of “de-occupation” that Ukraine wants to achieve. There are ways of making the Russian hold on Crimea more difficult without a military assault, and the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has spoken of this as a problem that might require a diplomatic solution, although if Russia shows no interest in a negotiated withdrawal his forces will keep on going. Rather than fretting about some future craziness, efforts might more usefully be put into preparing for the moment when Putin realises that he has lost and may seek to hold on to Crimea. All the issues connected with ending the war – sanctions, reparations, war crimes, prisoner exchanges and security guarantees – would need to be addressed.

We may find it difficult to imagine that Putin can lose, and wonder about how well he will cope with his failed aggression, but it is entirely possible that at some point he will run out of options. Then the Russian president will have to look failure in the eye.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. A version of this piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

[See also: Why China won’t ditch Vladimir Putin]

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