Issued by CEMO Center - Paris
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The West must know this — if Putin faces defeat, he may go nuclear

Sunday 07/August/2022 - 02:12 PM
The Reference

Vladimir Putin had hoped for a swift and overwhelming victory, the capture of Kyiv and the crippling of Ukraine as a functioning state. But six months after his tanks rolled over the border, the war has been neither quick nor decisive and he and his enemies are settling in for the long haul, with costs and risks not seen in Europe for a generation.

The red mist has descended on both sides: neither is likely to give up.

What comes next? Can a Ukrainian counterattack in the south succeed? A broader Ukrainian offensive and mobilisation expected as soon as next spring could lead to battlefield successes and the liberation of land seized by Russia. This might create other risks. If Putin senses defeat, will he be tempted to use tactical nuclear weapons to change reality on the battlefield?

Next month, Russia is expected to formally annex occupied territory in Donbas. This will signal the determination of its forces to stay put. It will also redouble the determination of Ukraine and its supporters to eject them, ensuring this war will probably continue for years.

The offensive stumbled badly in the early phases, but Russia may try again to take Kyiv next year or the year after. This ought to be one of the fundamental lessons drawn from the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Wanting the fighting to stop for humanitarian or economic reasons will not be enough.

Ukraine’s counterattack around Kherson is causing Russia to reduce resources in Donbas, probably slowing its advance there. Ukraine’s objective is to throw the Russians back onto the eastern side of the Dnieper river.

This would reduce the military risk to Odesa and create a harder Ukrainian defensive line for the coming winter. It jeopardises control of the freshwater supply to Crimea and threatens the security of Russian supply lines. Above all, though, the Ukrainian offensive is intended to buttress hope among the people and send a vital message to Ukraine’s international supporters that this war will one day be won and not go on forever.

A wider offensive

A successful counterattack, though, is not same as the strategic nationwide offensive across the 1,000 miles of front line needed to eject Russia from Ukraine.

To do that, Ukraine talks of creating an army of up to one million. Russia is likely to have about 100,000 personnel committed in Ukraine, with many more supporting in Russia. A successful Ukrainian offensive will require force ratios of about five to one at the key points of attack, and the ability to sustain operations.

Deciding on what terrain Ukraine should try to reconquer will be complicated: there are occupied areas vital to its future, others inhabited mainly by people who support Russia. Some parts are only winnable at a cost that may outweigh any objective value. Ukraine will decide, and expect its supporters to agree, but the debate will be a tough one.

Building an army

Creating a million-strong army means more than mobilising Ukrainian civil society: there is only failure and sorrow in feeding willing but insufficiently trained and equipped volunteers to Russian artillery.

Every new soldier will need the basics: uniform, body armour, a weapon and ammunition. They will also need other equipment to be an effective part of an attacking force: aircraft, missiles, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, machineguns, mortars, artillery, radios, night-vision equipment and so much else — especially thousands of tons of ammunition.

Then there is the logistic and maintenance support they will need to sustain fighting over months, as well as a medical system to manage fatalities averaging at least 100 a day, and seriously injured numbering three times that. Casualties of 10 per cent in a million-strong army equates to the size of the British Army.

The onset of winter will significantly slow military operations. It is likely to take until next spring at the earliest to be ready, though the war will continue along the front line as both sides try to create advantage. A long, bitter winter looms.

For Ukraine’s supporters in the West, the big demand now is the transition from providing support from the inventory of our armed forces and industry to the industrial mobilisation (including in Ukraine) needed to produce the volume of equipment and ammunition that offensive operations will require. This will be a significant bill for taxpayers.

Ukraine requires about £5 billion a month to sustain itself now, and the rearmament it needs will be on top of that. Time will be a big factor: some of the industrial lead-times to produce new weapons and ammunition from scratch will take deliveries well into 2024.

Logistics will drive strategy. The vital point here is that the West is facing a crucial choice: either provide the money and material to match Ukraine’s manpower to create the offensive military power that throws Russia back, or falter and so end the war with Russian annexation and the prospect of further rounds of aggression against Ukraine and elsewhere.

Against a dire economic backdrop, this is not a position anybody wanted to be in, but it is where we are. Enabling Ukraine to fight Russia is still a much better smaller, more sensible ask than mobilising Nato in a general war with Russia.

A threat of catastrophe

Wars need to be thought through to the end. When the fighting stops, there are always enormous consequences to deal with. Geography does not change. The West needs to think about the shape the fighting may now take and to include in that the prospect of catastrophic success for Ukraine: if Russia is thrown back to the extent that Putin senses strategic defeat, he is likely to employ tactical nuclear weapons.

Russian nuclear thinking accepts the use of small nuclear weapons to impose unacceptable damage on an opponent as a means of coercion, particularly in circumstances where the existence of the state is in question. Before the end of this year, Russia will have declared areas of occupied Ukraine part of the Russian state. So should a Ukrainian offensive roll over this new self-declared border, the use of nuclear weapons to break up the attack will be on the table. This is not unthinkable — it is only unpalatable.

We need to be clear what sort of nuclear weapon is in mind here. It’s not the 1,000 kiloton bomb that could be targeted at Washington or London, resulting in total devastation. Hiroshima saw up to 146,000 fatalities from a weapon of 15 kilotons. The Russian Iskander missile used in Ukraine has a range of 300 miles and can deliver a conventional or nuclear warhead with a selectable yield.

A nuclear warhead can be made to detonate on the ground (which results in greater nuclear radiation hazard) or — more likely — in the air. To give an example, using online tools such as Nukemap, a 10 kiloton warhead detonated 2,200ft over a town the size of Kramatorsk in the Donbas would produce a fireball with a radius of around 500ft, a fatal radiation dose out to about 0.6 miles, blast damage enough to collapse buildings and cause third-degree burns a mile away. It would break windows 2.6 miles away.

Detonated over a Ukrainian brigade advancing on a key town, it would certainly break up the attack and create a great sense of peril there and around the world. But it would not physically touch areas beyond the borders of Ukraine. It would be the first use of nuclear weapons for 77 years, breaking an enormous taboo, but this is not inconceivable to Russians if the ends justify it in their eyes.

These weapons exist for just the sort of circumstances the war in Ukraine may lead to, so nobody should claim total surprise if they are used. Events since 2014 have established that neither hope nor denial are sound approaches to dealing with Russia today.

How should the West respond to a tactical nuclear weapon being used? Would such use mean that the removal of Putin and his inner circle became a matter of vital western security — and if so how would that be accomplished?

A Nato offensive? At the very least it should mean Russia being isolated by the West, no matter what the cost in energy supplies — but what would China and India do? The answer could be not very much. Would it mean Ukraine joining Nato immediately to fall under article 5 and the alliance’s nuclear umbrella? More broadly, it would seem unlikely to lead necessarily to strategic nuclear war. But it would change how nuclear weapons are viewed in other confrontations such as that between India and Pakistan.

Few of these questions should be left to be answered in the heat of the moment. They require careful judgment and communication to eliminate the potential for catastrophic miscalculation — perhaps as soon as next spring.