In the past several months I have written much about the war in Ukraine. Since then, the Ukraine’s masterful use of NATO supplied precision munitions (especially US supplied HIMARS missile systems) and their own ability to deceive the Russians as to their intent on the ground have resulted in significant tactical victories in several distinct areas of Ukraine. These successes have caused Putin to make veiled threats about the use of nuclear weapons. Many in Washington and elsewhere are voicing concern over these threats. Iodine pills to treat against radiation poisoning have been procured by the US and several NATO allies. The real question is why should Putin use nuclear weapons? Does their use prevent a defeat? Can their use lead to negotiations? Is there a strategic advantage to be gained?
Biden argues that Putin is irrational, a madman of sorts, pressed into a corner facing imminent defeat in Ukraine—and, with that, the likelihood of regime change. But nothing could be further from the truth. Putin is not facing “defeat” in the Ukraine. Defeat implies the end of the Russian Bear as a threat to the rest of Europe. The tactical loses and the demonstration of the technical failures of Russian weaponry does more to demonstrate that Russia is not the 10 feet tall that we used to think that the Soviets were. This week’s news is on the Russian use of Iranian drones to attack Kiev due to the lack of weapons of their own and closed production facilities. T 62 mid cold war tanks are now being refurbished as crews are are being created through forced mobilization throughout Russia. Are these the signs of a huge threat? Putin can retreat to stable pre-invasion lines in the Donbas and elsewhere with little more than egg on his face—nothing close to defeat. However nuclear weapons would change the equation.
Some argue that the face of defeat would be regime change resulting from a defeat in the Ukraine or as a result of the catastrophic reaction to the use of nuclear weapons. Putin owes nothing to whatever Russian public opinion exists around him, and his pals in power, the so-called oligarchs, have (minus a yacht or two) plundered mightily off sanctions. The Russian people have not been allowed to forget their own sacrifices of World War II and have a defense of the motherland drilled into them from birth.
The primary reason for Putin to avoid a nuclear escalation is that it would bring the US and / or some subset of NATO “boots on the ground” deeper into the Ukrainian war zone, and this is something Putin would fear. Indeed, depending on how much force is applied, it could lead to a full-on “defeat” in Ukraine. One is reminded of General (ret) Petraeus’s suggestion that almost in an afternoon the Russian Black Sea fleet and forces on the ground in Western Russia could be destroyed by conventional weaponry, as the Ukrainians are now demonstrating on a relatively small scale.
The U.S. and NATO have been preparing to fight Russia on the plains of Ukraine for some 70 years. In such a short war endless U.S. precision air and missile strikes into those long Russian columns or massed supply bases would destroy the Russian forces in the western areas abutting Ukraine and its neighbors. The last thing Putin should want is to engage NATO directly over chunks of the Ukraine, instead of fighting the current weaker opponent (Ukraine).
Nuclear weapon use leading to negotiations
Through either tactical use against a massed military target, destroying a city like Kiev, an attempt to decapitate the Ukrainian leadership, or a demonstration nuke– sea-level low-yield blast outside Odessa designed to rattle the windows, maybe shut off the lights, but otherwise cause little damage. Each of these are strikes to demonstrate resolve and thus might lead to negotiations. However, almost all of the same effects could be caused by conventional weaponry.
Obviously, the Ukrainians are not presenting massed targets or the Russians cannot detect them and engage them in a timely manner. Nuclear weapon use does not overcome the target acquisition failures of the Russians. Why would the Russians want to contaminate an area that they want to capture?
The current drone strikes against urban sites must be seeking to undermine the Ukrainian people’s resolve to resist Russian aggression leading them to call for negotiations. One only need to remember the anti-war movement in this country causing LBJ to seek negotiations with North Vietnam. Would the Russians want to worry about the world outcry over a city’s destruction by nuclear weapons? The vote of condemnation against Russia in the UN over its invasion of Ukraine had 35 nations abstaining and 5 voting against the motion. Does Putin want to risk that support?
A decapitation strike against the Ukrainian leadership could in fact be counter-productive. In addition to probably destroying an urban area the leadership that is waiting in the wings could be even more hawkish with their demands for revenge. In short, a total backfire against the sought-after goal of negotiations.
A demonstration strike might raise fears among the faint hearted, but more likely would be cause for the Petraeus conventional attacks.
In short, a nuclear strike is highly unlikely to result in negotiations.
Strategic advantage to be gained by the use of nuclear weapons?
The short answer is NO! The above discussion shows that there is nothing to be gained by the use of nuclear weapons. EXCEPT the fear quotient that has been voiced by leaders in many western capitals in response to the threats of their use. To the extent that these leaders have displayed weakness in the face of these veiled threats they have provided the Russians some leverage. How much is problematic. The fear that has caused folks like Elon Musk to support meeting some Russian demands in exchange for negotiations is demonstrative of this point.
This whole discussion suggests that there is a need to find a way to terminate the Russia Ukraine conflict. Nuclear weapons are not the answer! A long cold winter may lessen Western European resolve, but the Russian Expeditionary Force could dissolve. Potentially, it will take the cold European winter to test resolve. It may be that the Russians simply melt back into mother Russia and begin the long rebuilding process in doctrine and weaponry for Russia to re-emerge as a non-nuclear military power on the world stage. Think about how Generals Abrams and DePuy rebuilt the US Army after Vietnam.