GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan: Ukraine – What’s Happening and Will Putin Go Nuclear?

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The world is dangerously close to nuclear war. Yesterday there was a pause in conventional operations, the one that was planned. The Russians are overstretched and currently unable to develop offensive operations. The invading force is fatigued, their advance held back, and they need time to regroup, rearm, and rest.

The peace talks are likely a ruse, buying Russian forces time to rebuild and prepare for their next operation. This may be a deliberate attack on Kiev, but yesterday’s nuclear rhetoric opens up other possibilities. Three pieces of information stand out, Putin’s move to a fortified bunker in the Urals, Russian nuclear forces going on higher alert, and Belarus allowing nuclear weapons on its territory.

In the West, we are not used to the “cold warrior” mentality that Putin exhibits, our world is peaceful, reasonable and interconnected. Putin is a world of danger and sacrifice. He was brought up hearing stories of millions of glorious Russian deaths defending the homeland in places like Stalingrad and Leningrad during World War II. He served as a KGB agent during the height of the Cold War, watched Regan fill Europe with nuclear weapons and bluff the Soviet regime with the “Star Wars” anti-nuclear missile defense system, actions that crippled economically the Soviet Union as it tried to compete. The United States won this Cold War and the former Soviet Union was broken into pieces, creating the new “weaker” Russia.

Forged into history like this, he is perhaps a man willing to go to great lengths to achieve his goals against Russia’s longtime foes. If he really is in a bunker in the Urals, chances are he is considering nuclear options.

In the West, we view the use of nuclear weapons as not only heinous but inconceivable. We argue for economic reasons that the cost of nuclear war is too high. Putin may not think that way, he is an “idealist”, he does not care about economic concerns. He cares about demonstrating the strength and power of “his” country.

In the 1980s and 1990s, nuclear strategists began to develop theories for the tactical use of nuclear weapons, including escalation. Around this time, a theory called “Broken Back War” developed, which held that nuclear war was survivable and that nations should prepare government and military infrastructure to continue waging low-intensity “broken back” war after a catastrophic nuclear exchange. This idea has not gone away and in fact, with the decrease in the size of nuclear arsenals, it has become more reasonable.

Escalating nuclear force was always an option for Cold War military planners, a tactical nuclear exchange demonstrated a side’s determination to move to a full nuclear exchange. Traditionally, theorists believed that this escalation was most likely at sea where events can be more easily controlled and there is less civilian damage. Something like using nuclear depth charges or attacking a naval task force with nuclear weapons. It was seen as a way to demonstrate your resolve by showing your enemy that you were ready to use nukes, but doing so in a controlled, damage-limiting manner.

Recent Russian discussions of nuclear strategies have touched on the idea of ​​“escalation for de-escalation,” or the use of tactical nuclear weapons early in a conflict to bring about a quick capitulation from an enemy. This theory is based on the assumption that the “weak” Western democracy would not have the stomach for nuclear war and that this action would immediately stop their intervention.

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Combined with this background, the fact that Belarus is offering to host Russian nuclear weapons is a very dangerous development. Belarus is expanding the staging area for a tactical nuclear attack either in Ukraine or in NATO countries.

A nuclear escalation will most likely involve the use of a small number of tactical nuclear weapons, likely in a less populated part of Ukraine, targeting a military unit. An airbase would be a good target and if it happens it will be a surprise, maybe during the ceasefire negotiations. Putin has demonstrated time and time again that we cannot trust him, and the goal of nuclear escalation is to scare the West by using shock and surprise so that the West will do everything to defuse.

The Soviet Union largely planned to fight in a post-nuclear environment and probably had the largest and best equipped chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) military capability in the world. A capability inherited from Russia, which is not afraid to fight in this environment after training for this eventuality for some 70 years.

The unfortunate problem is that if Putin uses this tactic, the West will have only one option. Adapt to escalation and demonstrate determination to “go all the way”. If NATO doesn’t, Poland, Finland or the Baltic states are next on Putin’s list.

So at the end of D+5 let’s look at our predictions:

  • Regime change is Putin’s goal and Kyiv remains the crux of the campaign. The question is what effect the negotiations might have on these objectives. There is unlikely to be an amicable solution and negotiations are likely to be a ruse, a tactic to buy time. The time needed either to develop conventional combat power for a major offensive on Kiev or to plan a nuclear escalation.
  • The Russians will continue to concentrate their conventional combat power for a major attack on Kiev. However, the nuclear rhetoric makes this attack uncertain, there is a risk that instead of a conventional attack there will be a show of nuclear force. A demonstration intended to “frighten” NATO and international support. If that happens, it will either be soon during the negotiations or after a major unsuccessful attack on Kiev.
  • NATO’s only response is to deal with this escalation and where the escalation stops is highly uncertain.
  • Continue to expect a slowdown in Russian activity in the rest of Ukraine as Russian forces consolidate, rebuild and entrench.
  • If the reports that Belarus is sending troops are true, it indicates how overstretched the Russians are and adds further weight to a nuclear escalation being a good option for them to “win” this war. It’s hard to imagine Putin wanting Belarusian troops on the ground, their presence revealing that the Russian military is failing. In his mind, it might be better to use nuclear escalation to “win” rather than share the spoils with Belarus publicly acknowledging its military’s failure.
  • Finally, there will be furious negotiations behind the scenes between NATO and Russia. Generals and diplomats use their personal networks and connections to reach out and manage the situation. Hopefully this will allow other options to emerge and help us avoid nuclear escalation.

In short, NATO must prepare for the worst. We hope the nuclear rhetoric is bluffing, but chances are it isn’t. Looking at history, one can see Putin’s romantic image of Russia. This romantic image includes a distinctly Russian trait, sacrifice. At 19and century, they thwarted Napoleon’s invasion by driving Russian peasants off their land and burning their crops. Napoleon’s Grande Armée could not find the supplies it needed and, when winter set in, was forced to withdraw. In the 20and century, the Soviets used the same tactic against the invading Germans. The Soviet Union lost millions defending cities like Stalingrad and Leningrad rather than handing them over to the Germans. Putin is willing to accept the sacrifice and probably sees himself as one of the Russian statesmen willing to sacrifice millions of his people to protect the homeland.

Moreover, Putin relies politically on his badass image to retain power at home. A defeat in Ukraine is unacceptable, he must win for his own political survival. If that can’t be done conventionally, then maybe he’s willing to risk nuclear escalation to ensure victory. Hopefully not and there is evidence he is open to talks, he has spoken to French President Macron and a number of other countries over the past twenty-four hours.

In the days ahead, NATO leaders may have to make very difficult decisions. It could be argued that Putin is the product of years of weakness by US presidents, reinforcing his perception that the West is weak and unwilling to sacrifice, allowing in his mind a “tough”, “tough” Russia to operate with impunity. Do you remember Obama’s “red line” in Syria? Or the Trump presidency? President Biden’s tenure will be defined by this conflict and unfortunately he may soon be in a position to consider nuclear escalation.

Ben Morgan is a weary Gen Xer with an interest in international politics. He’s TDB’s military analyst.

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