Could Ukraine’s Conflict Threaten the Wisdom of Nuclear Deterrence?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine under the banner of what he calls “denazification” is clearly not going according to plan; and to believe or suggest otherwise is to systematically live in the bubble of modern disinformation.

The military campaign – which some US military officials and no doubt its Russian counterpart have said will last about three days – is now entering its fifth month. Far from abating, the fighting is still raging, if not more intense. Some British and US officials are now saying the conflict could last for months or even years. Worse, some fear it could escalate into a nuclear confrontation.

This is clearly not the situation that the Russian leadership envisioned and prepared for. On the contrary, it’s exactly the scenario they were hoping to avoid. As they deployed and stationed over 100,000 troops with massive columns of tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery and self-propelled multiple rocket launchers along the border ahead of the offensive, their calculation was that such a shocking display of force would break the Ukrainians’ resolve to wage a bitter struggle, and that it would be over long before EU and NATO countries had a chance to intervene and materially alter the course and outcome of the offensive.

Warhawks in Moscow can only agree with the assessment. Based on the Crimean experience, that Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014 with little resistance, it’s easy to argue that Kyiv, with the second most powerful military in the world armed to the teeth on its border, in all likelihood needs appeasement and cooperation would choose resistance instead of stubbornness; and with Kiev’s presumed complicity secured, there is practically little reason or justification for the EU and NATO to interfere in the conflict. Should they decide to do so, their efforts would be in vain without Kiev’s willingness anyway.

As it turns out, this optimistic assessment is proving to be hugely illusory. Russian leaders have evidently misjudged not only the sheer patriotism and undaunted determination of Ukrainians to fight, but also their willingness to fight, from top leadership to frontline foot soldiers.

Moscow is now finding out the hard way that Ukraine learned the lessons of Crimea and has since upgraded its military capabilities and prepared well for the possibility of full-scale armed conflict with Russia. As noted on the first day of the Russian attack, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy promptly signed a general military mobilization order banning all men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country, effectively ensuring that ample manpower was available to defend the country country are available. He himself reportedly declined the US offer to evacuate, saying: “The fight is here; I need ammo, not a ride.”

The West is hearing Zelenskyy’s pleas loud and clear, and is responding benevolently with a speed not seen in recent times. Within the next hectic days after the Russian offensive, both NATO and non-NATO EU countries quickly begin to pour large amounts of military aid into Ukraine – setting the stage for the start of a potentially protracted armed conflict.

The newly arrived military aid packages, which include the RB 57 Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapons (NLAW), the FGM-148 Javelins missiles and the Switchblade 300/600 drones, have enabled Ukrainian forces to drastically cripple Russian ground forces and to slow down a creep while inflicting them heavy casualties, both personnel and equipment. In mid-May, the Ukrainian General Staff reported that nearly 28,000 Russian soldiers had been killed since the conflict began.

In some ways, the fighting is about more than defending Ukrainian sovereignty against Russian aggression. For NATO, and in particular the US European Command (USEUCOM), this is an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the lethality and effectiveness of their latest tank killer arsenal against powerful conventional tank warfare in European open terrain and urban environments; and perhaps more importantly, to reassess their own conventional armored warfare doctrine and tactics in anticipation of the future proliferation of such effective and inexpensive weapons.

They also see it as a perfect moment to test the cohesion and readiness of their pan-European alliance; contingency measures for crisis response; command, control and communication structure (C3) and interoperability; logistics and transport capacities; and last but not least, collecting and sharing information in real time.

For Russia, independent military analysts and veterans say that the conduct of the military campaign so far could not be worse in a number of areas – from military logistics to battlefield coordination and troop morale to countermeasures against combat drones and vulnerability to enemy signals intelligence (SIGINT).

In short, the campaign has greatly embellished Russia’s immense military prestige. It has exposed the limits of the country’s armed forces‘ ability to engage in large-scale conventional warfare, once dominated by its predecessor (USSR) against powerful adversaries. Friends and foes alike characterize the campaign performance as a disappointment and embarrassment for Moscow, especially given the epic victory of its mighty Red Army in World War II.

The conflict, which continues in the face of Ukraine’s increasingly capable and courageous military and is taking a heavy toll on Russian troops, is not the only major blow to Moscow. Widespread international sanctions have reportedly led to shortages of foreign-made components and bitten into some of its key arms production – severely crippling its supplies to the front lines. As if that wasn’t enough, Finland and Sweden unexpectedly gave up their decades-long neutrality and applied for NATO membership.

This worsening situation is starting to raise the temperature in Moscow, and the latter seems to think something needs to be done. Whether out of frustration, desperation, or both, Russian leaders are publicly raising the stakes in the conflict by raising the chilling specter of a nuclear confrontation.

In April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the West of the increased risks of a nuclear conflict. At the same time, Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev said his country’s nuclear doctrine does not require the enemy state to use such weapons first, British media outlet The Guardian reported. Meanwhile, Russia’s state television channel Rossiya 1 aired a talk show where hosts and guest experts discussed how many seconds it would take for Russian ballistic missiles to land in London, Paris and Berlin.

The Western response to Moscow’s nuclear saber-rattling has so far been mixed. Characteristically, some officials dismiss this as irresponsible or unwise, and cautiously claim that Russia is not the only stockpile of nuclear weapons. Others are more concerned, recognizing that a prolonged conflict in Ukraine will deplete Russia’s smart or precision-guided munitions, while international sanctions are already affecting its ability to replenish them.

The combined effect is likely to deplete Moscow’s conventional strength to an extent that could potentially lead it to rely on its nuclear arsenal, particularly tactical ones. On this point, CIA director Willam Burns reportedly warned in April that Putin’s desperation could lead to the use of tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons.

In fact, Putin already envisioned the possibility that Russia might one day resort to this option while closely monitoring the Kosovo war in the late 1990s, when NATO was conducting high-precision military strikes in Yugoslavia with great success. At the time, Moscow watched the campaign with great concern and felt that its own conventional capabilities were seriously lagging behind its US counterpart. To overcome this delay, Putin, then-Secretary of the Russian Security Council, developed the principle of “escalation to de-escalation,” which was adopted in the spring of 2000 as his country’s new military doctrine. In essence, the new doctrine calls for the use of limited nuclear threats and strikes should Russia face large-scale conventional attacks that overwhelm its defense capabilities. It is effectively a defensive strategy designed to keep the West from interfering in conflicts in which Russia has a strategic interest or significant involvement.

In military jargon there are two types of nuclear weapons – strategic and tactical. The former can travel thousands of kilometers and carries high-yield warheads capable of wiping out an entire city of several million people. According to some estimates, Russia is said to have 6,000 warheads, compared to 5,500 in the US.

On the other hand, tactical nuclear weapons travel a few hundred kilometers and carry low-yield warheads designed primarily to take down large enemy formations, bases, communications networks, and logistics centers on a battlefield. Russia is estimated to have around 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, with various delivery options by sea, air and land, while the US stockpile is estimated at around 200, mostly being B61 ​​thermonuclear gravity bombs intended for dropping from warplanes .

The wide discrepancy in tactical nuclear weapons in Russia’s favor is not the only concern of US military leaders. Some experts point out that unlike strategic nuclear weapons, there has never been a ratified international or bilateral agreement regarding the development and use of tactical nuclear weapons.

For the Russian leadership, the conditions for the use of limited nuclear strikes, as laid down under their “escalate-to-deescalate” doctrine, are solidifying everyone in the current conflict with Ukraine, which they now view and qualify as a NATO proxy war day more and more. Unless the West reduces its military involvement in the conflict, some experts fear Moscow may choose to pre-emptively stage a tactical nuclear detonation over the sea or in the atmosphere to show how far it is willing to push back.

Should Russia choose this path, the West’s reaction is everyone’s guest. For now, the more pressing question for NATO and its allies is how to adequately punish what they call the bad behavior of Putin’s Russia and keep it from subjugating other nations in the future without actually humiliating it.

Davan Long is a foreign-based political analyst. The views expressed are solely his own

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