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27 October 2022updated 28 Oct 2022 2:12pm

Vladimir Putin counts on “dirty bombs” and dipping temperatures in Ukraine

The Russian president has relied on coercive pressures to deliver the political victories that he has failed to achieve by military means.

By Lawrence Freedman

Winters loom large in the military history of Russia and Ukraine, famously when they were fighting together as part of Imperial Russia against Napoleon and then as part of the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. Winter is about to return and with it questions about how it will affect this war – whether in the impact of energy shortages and high prices in Europe, the vulnerability of ordinary Ukrainians after Russia has done its utmost to deprive them of the ability to keep the lights on and stay warm, and then the troops at the front, shivering in their tents, unable to function properly.

The onset of winter is already starting to shape thoughts about military strategy. It encourages the generals to look for ways to win their battles before manoeuvre becomes too difficult, and their logisticians to worry about how to get the necessary kit forward so that operations can continue. It creates pressure to speed up before everything slows down. It is not the only reason for the current sense of urgency, for both sides are finding it difficult to sustain this war, but it is one of them. Another factor is the growing worry that if things carry on as they are, and especially if Russia faces defeat, then something truly terrible will happen. Before we can assess the impact of winter, we therefore need to consider the fears of escalation.

Nuclear deterrence and dirty bombs

Possible Russian nuclear use has dominated discussion about how the war might escalate. We dare not ignore this possibility but the intense focus on it glides over the role that nuclear weapons have been playing in Russian strategy from the start. They have enabled Russia to pursue an aggressive war against Ukraine, including measures designed to hurt the Ukrainian people, without risk of other major powers intervening directly.

Terrible things have already happened. Tens of thousands have died. The amount of damage that Russia has inflicted, and continues to inflict, on Ukrainian civil society is horrendous. While they may have been spared the fireballs and insidious radiation associated with nuclear weapons, the human costs, destruction of property and infrastructure, along with the disruption to everyday life, is severe. One estimate suggests that the costs of putting the country together again could be up to $1 trillion.

Russia has been able to go about its destructive business with impunity without fearing comparable costs. The US and its allies, who could impose costs, or simply make it impossible for Russia to continue to fight in Ukraine, have been unwilling to do so because they are – understandably – fearful of nuclear escalation. The Biden administration’s policy has been to enable Ukraine to prevent a Russia victory, and if possible defeat Russia, while also avoiding a nuclear war.

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Ukraine is not a member of Nato and so cannot expect to be backed on that basis. The UN Security Council should declare Russia a threat to international peace and security, but it cannot because Russia has a permanent seat on the council and can veto any resolution to that effect. Ukraine can reasonably ask for support as a victim of aggression by invoking Article 51 of the UN charter, which recognises the inherent right of self-defence. This was the basis for allied military action in support of Kuwait after Iraq’s invasion in August 1990.

This is where the nuclear risk kicks in. It was apparent from early on, when Russia first began to bomb apartment blocks in Mariupol in March, that when it came to the fighting Ukraine was on its own. President Volodymyr Zelensky asked the US and Nato to establish a no-fly zone over the country. He was refused because this would have required engaging Russian forces in combat. In addition, although Western countries accepted the need, with varying degrees of urgency, to provide Ukraine with the capabilities to sustain its fight, one area that has been problematic, for both practical and political reasons, has been the provision of extra aircraft. In addition, despite its considerable generosity with so many types of military systems, the US remains reluctant to supply Ukraine with anything, including long-range artillery, that would allow it to strike deep into Russia.

Vladimir Putin has been explicit that Russia’s nuclear arsenal has this deterrent role. He underlined this when launching the war on 24 February. “I would now like to say something very important for those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside. No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so to create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”

A clear restatement of this position came most recently on 14 October at a press conference. Putin was asked what appeared to be a planted question from a state media journalist, Sergei Dianov: “Nato officials are saying explicitly that Ukraine’s defeat would mean the alliance’s defeat. Do you think Nato will send troops into Ukraine if the situation on the battlefield becomes disastrous for Kyiv?”

He replied: “Sending troops into direct engagement, a direct clash with the Russian Army is a very dangerous step that could lead to a global catastrophe. I hope those who talk about this will be smart enough not to undertake such dangerous steps.”

So when nuclear use is spoken of in the future tense it is important to keep in mind that Putin has already got value from his nuclear arsenal without it being used. It provides cover for his efforts to create a humanitarian disaster in Ukraine. (This does of course work both ways: the US arsenal provides cover for neighbouring Nato countries as weapons and war materiel for Ukraine pass through their territory.)

[See also: What will stop Vladimir Putin?]

Putin will not want to lose this cover, which might happen if Russia tried to use nuclear weapons to influence the course of the land battle. This may be a reason, along with the practical difficulties of effective use, why this threat is kept in reserve. Meanwhile it does no harm from his perspective to generate as much anxiety as possible about these weapons being used, however irrational it might appear. One method for generating anxiety is to spread stories about what Ukraine is supposedly about to do, because then it is natural to assume that is exactly what Russia is planning to do. With most of these mooted outrages it is only Russia that has both the motive and the opportunity. When the Kremlin is asked to explain why Kyiv would do things to harm its own people, the normal explanation offered is that the aim would be to make Russia look bad, as if otherwise nobody could possibly conclude that Russia’s behaviour was anything other than considerate and fully in line with the Geneva Conventions. (I dealt with this false flag thinking in an earlier piece.)

The main Russian false flag claims currently in circulation involve a meltdown at the nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia, bursting a dam at Kherson, and now a “dirty bomb”. This latter scare was the subject of phone calls between the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and his American, British and French counterparts, all of whom told him he was talking nonsense. A dirty bomb involves mixing radioactive materials with conventional explosives, so it irradiates an area, not necessarily large, within which people would probably suffer radiation sickness. The prospect might generate some panic, but the actual effects would be nowhere close to those associated with a nuclear device. The Russian media’s evidence to justify the claim has been put together with its singular incompetence. (See here and here). Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have visited the sites where Russia claims that Ukraine is preparing such a bomb (both of which are under Ukrainian control and where there is access to radioactive materials held legitimately). The inspectors have promised to check again.

Hopefully, all of this will soon be forgotten as just one more scare, of which there have been a number promoted by Moscow during the course of the war. Nonetheless, simply by imposing these scares on public consciousness they leave everybody nervous, not least by raising the question of whether they are pretexts for some awful Russian action to come. Ukraine’s nuclear energy operator, Energoatom, has issued its own warning that the Russian military operators at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant might be “preparing a terrorist act using nuclear materials and radioactive waste stored at the ZNPP site”. Biden, asked about all of this talk about a “dirty bomb” and the possibility that it is creating a pretext for a proper nuclear bomb, observed: “Let me just say: Russia would be making an incredibly serious mistake for it to use tactical nuclear weapons… I’m not guaranteeing you that it’s a false flag operation yet – don’t know – but it would be a serious, serious mistake.”

One thought here is that if the Russians really wanted to get alarm bells ringing in Washington, London and Paris they would not rely on these transparent games but instead ensure that Western intelligence picked up signs of relevant systems on the move or chatter involving command centres. At some point it can be truly difficult, as we discovered last February, to be sure whether what is being picked up represents bluffs, development of an option or the real thing.

Surovokin’s strategy

Such scares fit in with regular Russian efforts to manipulate perceptions about the conduct of this war and to increase international unease. They might be intended to encourage caution when it comes to supporting Ukraine for fear of where it all might lead, which clearly works on some sections of Western opinion. They are part of the exceptional measures that Putin took to move his “special military operation” into a higher gear in mid-September. This came as he realised that Russia was losing and that this awkward fact could no longer be hidden from the Russian people or from moderately friendly countries, such as India and China. After a number of setbacks, starting with the successful Ukrainian offensive in Kharkiv, he was coming under intense pressure from hardliners to turn the situation around.

To address this pressure he went into overdrive. We do not need to see what Putin does when he starts to feel desperate and so escalates. We already know.

The escalation so far has taken the following form:

·  Annexation of the four occupied (or more accurately semi-occupied) provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. This has raised the stakes, demonstrating that the prize is the expansion of Russian territory, though this will never gain international recognition. The immediate effect was to make it much harder to back down, for that would now involve abandoning Russian territory.

· Introduction of martial law in these territories and also in some parts of Russia. This has made it easier to control discontent, continue with Russification and, when possible, mobilise men for the front.

· Appoint a new “Commander of the Joint Group of Forces in the Special Operations Zone”, General Sergei Surovokin. His reputation is that of a tough and harsh commander, as demonstrated in Syria.

· Authorise mass mobilisation. This initially seemed to be looking for up to a million draftees. After a chaotic process, which caused some backlash in Russia, the number now seems to have been capped at 300,000 (although the actual number may be higher).

· Send these additional troops, whether or not properly trained or equipped (and in most cases they are neither), to thicken defences at the front. The aim is to establish lines that if held can see the campaign through the winter, after which time there may be fresh units, better trained and ready to revive offensive operations.

This is how General Surovikin describes his approach: “Ukrainians and I are one people and we want one thing, that Ukraine was independent from the West and Nato, a friendly state to Russia. Our enemy is a criminal regime that is forcing the citizens of Ukraine to death.

“All measures are taken to build up the combat strength and formations of military units, create additional reserves, equip defense lines and positions along the entire line of contact, continue attacks with high-precision weapons on military facilities and infrastructure facilities affecting the combat capability of the Ukrainian troops, to reduce the combat capability.”

If he wants a state friendly to Russia he is going an odd way about it. Far from choosing targets for long-range strikes to affect Ukrainian combat capabilities, targets have been chosen to affect the will of the Ukrainian people and government to continue with the war. There have been similar attacks all through the war but the more recent, using combinations of missiles and “kamikaze drones” supplied by Iran, have been more systematic and focused. They have led to 40 per cent of Ukraine’s electricity generating capacity being damaged. In many areas water supplies have also been disrupted and contaminated.

We might note in passing that although Putin justified the first barrage of missile/drone attacks on Ukrainian cities on 10 October as retribution for the “terrorist” damage inflicted on the Kerch Bridge connecting Crimea to the mainland by an act of sabotage a few days earlier, it is now clear that these attacks were planned well in advance.

It has become a priority for Ukraine to find ways to protect its cities from further attacks. In fact, according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, they have been doing quite well intercepting missiles and drones, often using improvised means. Aircraft are becoming quite adept at intercepting the drones. (Some 70 per cent of the Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 drones have been downed.) Ukrainian air defences relied on relatively old systems – the S300 surface-to-air-missile, which can hit incoming targets out to 46 miles. As supplies are running low, and so must be conserved to take out the most accurate Russian missiles, the Ukrainians are eagerly awaiting the first Nasams (National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System) from the Americans. These can see up to 80 miles away. The first of these, on which Ukrainians are being trained, should be arriving in November.

There are varying estimates of how many missiles the Russians have got left. Ukrainian intelligence suggests that stocks of the more precise cruise and ballistic missiles are well down, so they may have to rely on systems which may miss key targets. The problem remains for Ukraine that even while the defensive coverage could improve significantly it will never be possible to protect all possible targets. A lot of damage has already been done which will take time to repair. Many Ukrainians will have to cope with a cold winter without basic facilities.

None of this, however, will make much difference to their determination to continue to prosecute the war.

The battle for territory

In his interview Surovikin also explained that: “The situation regarding the special operation is tense. The enemy does not abandon attempts to attack the positions of Russian troops.”

How tense? Russia’s extra troops have caused some problems for Ukrainian forces. They prefer to avoid the need for frontal assaults on core areas of enemy strength, and therefore rely on attacks directed against Russian logistics, command, and morale, with artillery and air strikes, while seeking to get round enemy positions. The thicker and wider those positions the longer they take to encircle. Russian orders are clearly to hold their positions and not to abandon them, as happened with earlier offensives. Recent fighting has therefore been gruelling for both sides.

[See also: Is Putin dead?]

Most attention has been given to the Kherson front in the south. Here Russian forces are almost cut off as resupply depends on a ferry and a barge bridge. It will not be easy to escape in a rush. Russia reportedly told the civilian population to leave but this largely seems to have been those connected with the local Russian administration. There has been speculation that Russia is pulling its forces back to the eastern side of the Dnieper river, where the positions might be defensible, though this would mean conceding a lot of territory to the Ukrainians. They do appear to have moved some of their best troops there while leaving some of the newly-mobilised forces on the western bank to defend the city. Despite doubts about how well these units might cope, Ukrainian intelligence has reported that they are preparing for urban combat. They might still need to leave quickly if they otherwise risked getting trapped.

Ukraine has also warned that the large hydroelectric dam at Nova Kakhovka, upstream from Kherson, has been mined, with two trucks full of explosives placed on top of its walls. The Russians have also taken some steps to reduce the volume of water behind the dam. If the dam was breached by explosions the flooding would still lead to environmental damage and loss of life. The Ukrainian view is that if this was done to impede their advance it would cause some delay – perhaps a couple of weeks – but it would also affect water supplies to Crimea, a big issue for Russia.

If the liberation of Kherson is important to opening up the south, thereby rendering Crimea more vulnerable, penetration of the defensive line protecting Luhansk in the east would open even more territory to be “de-occupied”. Although both sets of battles have been covered by news blackouts in Kyiv, Ukrainian sources are sounding optimistic about this front. A key highway between the towns of Kreminna and Svatov has now been reached, adding to Russia’s problems of supply and encirclement.

Lastly there is Bakhmut in Donetsk. In some ways this has been a curiosity because here the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary force controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been pummelling away for four months, achieving only small gains. Until recently Ukrainians were describing the situation as difficult, with occupation of the battered town at risk, but Russian forces seem to have exhausted themselves after a series of catastrophic pushes, many involving new draftees, that left many dead. They have been used as disposable soldiers, good only for one attack before they are dead, wounded or surrendered. It may be that here as elsewhere, for this reason, officers are not bothering to kit them out properly, saving scarce equipment for experienced soldiers more likely to survive.

If the Bakhmut attack has stalled – or has even gone into reverse – this could have important political implications. This was Wagner’s personal project – unrelated to what was going on elsewhere in the war. Even if Bakhmut had been taken it was not obvious how victory would be exploited. Prigozhin was aiming to demonstrate how much he could achieve compared with regular forces, thereby fortifying his standing as a power broker in the Kremlin. But if he has failed in his project and his forces now get pushed back then the effect could be opposite to the one intended.

Intriguingly it has been reported in the Washington Post that Prigozhin, a long-time critic of Shoigu and the Ministry of Defence, has complained directly to Putin that his forces have been given insufficient resources to prosecute the war effectively. This may just be getting his excuses in before his failure gets noted. He is quoted as saying that: “Our units are constantly meeting with the most fierce enemy resistance, and I note that the enemy is well prepared, motivated, and works confidently and harmoniously. This does not prevent our fighters from moving forward, but I cannot comment on how long it will take.” At the same time he has also been getting to work on a line of fortifications in eastern Luhansk, bolstered by the presence of Wagner units – each one “already an impregnable wall”. As this appears to concede some of the territory of the Donbas statelets and goes into Russia’s Belgorod Oblast this could be controversial.

The weather

The war may yet take some unexpected and even terrifying turns. One of the few things that is predictable is that winter is coming.

Even if the Russians can hold their positions and avoid more hurried and humiliating retreats there is still a question about their ability to cope with winter weather. First there is heavy rainfall, making movement much more difficult, especially for heavy vehicles, and then there is the freezing snow, when movement is more possible but equipment, and people, are less reliable. Brigadier General Vahur Karus, head of Ukraine’s Defence Forces Academy observes: “Fighting in winter is very different from summer as snow cover could keep you from staging major offensives out in the open and contain you to roads alone. The hostile environment means that the survival of your machinery and troops could prove more decisive than your tactical genius. It might turn into a preservation operation where you need to have a very clear overview of what you’re using, where and how.”

Because of this troops stuck in the field for any length of time need to be able to cope with harsh conditions. It is not just a matter of staying warm. Equipment becomes harder to maintain and operate. Fuel demands go up to keep generators going. Mines may be hidden under the snow. Quantities of white paint are needed to camouflage vehicles.

Nato has made this a major priority in its resupply effort. Canada is providing nearly half a million sets of winter gear. Other countries, including Finland and Estonia, with experience of these conditions are also contributing. On the Russian side there are doubts about what will get through to the front. Given the miserable conditions about which draftees are already complaining, which see them left without proper kit and supplies, and left to their own devices by absent commanders, it is hard to imagine how they can survive unless there is a comparable effort. The war began during the last winter, and then Russian troops suffered frostbite. And that was before mobilisation. Pentagon officials do not believe that it is “possible for Russia to adequately scale up its logistical operations before winter hits”.

For Ukraine the front-line troops may be able to cope while many civilians at home struggle without electricity and water. Residents of Kyiv are being told to prepare for blackouts of four hours a day. Elsewhere hospitals, transport and critical social infrastructure are being given priority. Concrete slabs and sand are being brought in to protect important energy sites. In the west of the country preparations are being made to accept more internal refugees from the east as mass evacuations may be unavoidable. No one pretends that this winter will be anything other than miserable, but there is no evidence that it is making the people of Ukraine any less determined to win the war.

From the start Putin has relied on coercive pressures to achieve the political victories that he has failed to achieve by military means. For all the suffering he has caused in Ukraine he has yet to succeed. The resilience of the Ukrainian people will certainly be tested by the freezing weather, as will that of Russian soldiers, away from home, poorly led, often cut off from supplies and in exposed positions. The key question for this winter season is how many of the troops ordered to hold their positions at its start will be there at the end.

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

[See also: Could China stop Russia going nuclear?]

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