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Why Putin would be a fool to go nuclear in Ukraine

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 02/10/2022 Lewis Page
Why Putin would be a fool to go nuclear in Ukraine - Thomas Broom for The Telegraph © Thomas Broom for The Telegraph Why Putin would be a fool to go nuclear in Ukraine - Thomas Broom for The Telegraph

Back during the Cold War there was always a question facing the nations of Nato, as they confronted enormous Soviet tank armies in Europe.

In the event of a conventional war going badly, at what point do we go nuclear?

The answer might have been: not until Soviet troops entered France. This kind of problem is why nukes didn't make conventional forces obsolete.

Today it is Vladimir Putin who has a conventional war which is going badly. He still holds large areas of Ukrainian territory, but his troops are falling back.

Putin may be able to mobilise at least some of the huge reserves of manpower which are theoretically available with a full Russian call-up, though this appears to be going extremely badly so far. Even if a useful mobilisation can be conducted without overwhelming domestic opposition, Russia will struggle to equip its unwilling cannon-fodder and supply them for a long-term war.

The new conscripts will be facing determined Ukrainians who are fighting to save their people from murder, rape, torture and mass disappearance into the gulags. Ukrainian troops have already stopped Russia’s best, the “kontraktniki” professional soldiers who began the invasion, literally dead in their tracks.

Worse still, as long as some Western nations remain resolute, the Ukrainians will be well armed and supplied from effectively inexhaustible resources of money and materiel. The West in general does not maintain huge stockpiles of munitions and there may well be hiccups in the supply chains. Nonetheless the US in particular has shown during recent wars – for instance in Syria when shortages of surgical smart weapons occurred – that it can crank up new production very quickly when it wants to.

So Putin is under pressure. But he is not in the situation that Nato might have been in a hot 1980s war, reeling back towards France. Putin is not back from his start line, but still well forward of it.

Heads I win, tails I go nuclear

Even Russians should be able to see that seizing territory and then going nuclear if it’s taken back is not something the rest of the world can possibly accept. And bogus gunpoint referendums clearly don't make Ukrainians into Russians. Russians know this too, as they didn't get a vote on whether they would like to be Russian, or on anything else.

So what happens if the Ukrainians keep retaking territory?

Let’s think about a Russian nuclear option. If there was a practical objective – as opposed to just letting off a nuke somewhere to frighten European politicians – the goal would probably be to destroy or cripple the Ukrainian fighting forces rather than just blowing up cities. So far the Russians have tried, at least somewhat, to mostly hit military targets. Nuking cities would put them clearly, horrifyingly in the wrong while at the same time doing relatively little damage to Ukraine’s ability to wage war.

So, problem number one. Vladimir's nuclear briefcase, the “Cheget,” is not directly hooked up to any nukes. Its function is to confirm that attack orders have been issued by the President.

The President’s Cheget-authenticated orders pass to the Russian General Staff, the high command of the Russian armed forces, who then direct action by nuclear weapon units. Putin needs agreement from the General Staff to carry out any nuclear strike.

Honour of a Russian officer

The head of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov - Mikhail Metzel/TASS © Provided by The Telegraph The head of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov - Mikhail Metzel/TASS

The Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Valery Gerasimov, is a soldier by background rather than a former KGB operative like Putin. Gerasimov has been in post for 10 years and probably has a solid power base. He may have his own view of the Ukraine war.

One might surmise this because back in 2000, during the Second Chechen War, Gerasimov personally arrested a rogue Russian colonel named Yury Budanov. Budanov had murdered and probably raped a teenaged Chechen girl.

The arrest of Budanov, amid his own troops, was apparently tense. Some reports have it that the murderous colonel was later charged with threatening a superior officer with a weapon, as well as his other crimes. Others suggest that at least one shot was fired and Budanov was injured when taken into custody.

Budanov’s partisans suggested that his arrest was a matter of turf disputes among the almost universally corrupt Russian commanders in Chechnya, but more credible observers disagree. The famous and astonishingly brave Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, an outspoken critic of Putin and Russia’s war in Chechnya, stated that Gerasimov had “preserved his honour as an officer” during the Chechen war – not something that could be said of many.

It would be interesting to know what Gerasimov privately thinks about the reports out of Bucha and elsewhere.

In this context it’s also worth noting that Putin issued a public executive order in 2020. The document presents four scenarios in which Russia might use nuclear weapons. These are: use of nuclear weapons or WMDs against Russia or its allies; launch of ballistic missiles against Russia or its allies; any attack which could undermine Russian ability to make a nuclear strike; or conventional attacks on Russia “when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy”.

That last one is where the debate lies. Previous Russian doctrines have put it slightly differently, allowing for nuclear weapons use “in response to large-scale aggression utilizing conventional weapons in situations critical to the national security of the Russian Federation”.

This is where the so-called “escalate to de-escalate” idea comes from, the suggestion that Russia – finding herself under conventional attack, and losing – could go nuclear, much as Nato probably would have done at some point before being overrun in the 1980s.

Never give an order unless it will be obeyed

The question Putin would ask before popping open the Cheget briefcase would be: will Gerasimov and the General Staff agree with me that the situation in Ukraine is indeed “critical to the national security of the Russian Federation” or that “the very existence of the state is in jeopardy”?

Obviously, people who contradict Vladimir Putin in today’s Russia usually suffer gruesome fates. Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006, and other Putin critics have recently fallen from high windows.

But Gerasimov and the General Staff are not ordinary Russians. Even a dictator like Putin has to think carefully before moving against the military high command. There are already coup rumours swirling in Moscow, and once you have defenestrated a certain number of generals the others may decide to finish you while they still can.

Putin needs to be sure that his orders will be obeyed before he issues them, or he may find his own life in danger.

But let's say Gerasimov and the high command agree to a limited, tactical nuclear campaign in Ukraine, probably focused on trying to destroy the Ukrainian combat forces. Curtains for the Ukrainians?

Maybe not so much. A nuclear bomb is just a very powerful bomb, in many respects. Used against a built-up area, with unprepared people packed closely together among fragile flammable buildings, it does of course cause a horrific death toll. The bombs which hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki were only of 15 and 20-kiloton force – they would certainly be seen as tactical rather than strategic weapons today – but the two cities were gutted and deaths were in five figures.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be kept in context, however. A single pass by conventional US bombers over Tokyo, Operation Meetinghouse, killed more people and destroyed more urban areas than both the 1945 nukes combined.

It’s a kiloton war already

Kiloton-range tactical weapons used against dispersed troops in the field, probably dug in or otherwise protected, are likely to be a very different story. Normal conventional artillery, used on the scale it is being used in Ukraine, also delivers kilotons of ordinary munitions every week. Those big guns could throw kilotons every day if the ammunition was there: and this is not even to account for all the other kinds of weaponry being used.

It’s a war of kilotons already, and this has failed to disable either army. 

There’s more. Normal artillery or other conventional bombardment does not suffer from concentrating all its kilotons in just one spot as a nuke does. To deliver total destruction across the entire area occupied by – say – a dispersed Ukrainian armoured division would require not just one tactical nuke but many.

The US government has estimated that Russia may have from 1,000 to 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads. Considering other Russian military equipment, it’s likely that a lot of these are unserviceable. So this would not be the sort of operation that could be kept up forever: especially given reported shortages of suitable delivery systems to carry the warheads.

What about radiation and fallout?

Here it’s important to remember that tactical nukes are intended to be used where friendly forces will be present, to win a battle: not to render the battlefield uninhabitable and impassable. If the nukes are set to burst well above the ground, which will help to maximise the destruction they cause on the day, radiation danger in the area afterwards will not be serious.

Yes, really. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hit by multi-kiloton air bursts, are thriving cities today. They have been inhabited without interruption since they were nuked. Average lifespan among residents who survived the strikes and their immediate aftermath was reduced by only a matter of months.

Putin could set his nukes for ground burst, which would indeed throw large amounts of radioactive material into the sky and produce a fallout plume downwind. This would reduce the destructive footprint of the weapons, however, and make it much more difficult to occupy and conquer the country. Winds can change, too, possibly scattering fallout all over Russia or Belarus. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

So Russian use of tactical nukes would change the military picture, but not by nearly as much as one might think. If the Ukrainian army – perhaps advised by US intelligence – managed to be in the right positions and postures it would be hard to inflict a disabling result on it, even with quite profligate use of tactical nukes.

De-escalation without escalation

Putin, centre, flanked by Gerasimov, right, and Defence Minister Sergei Shogu, left - Mikhail Klimentyev/Pool Sputnik Kremlin © Provided by The Telegraph Putin, centre, flanked by Gerasimov, right, and Defence Minister Sergei Shogu, left - Mikhail Klimentyev/Pool Sputnik Kremlin

Against this potentially quite unimpressive military payoff, there is the certainty of a US response. The Biden administration, without offering details, has said that use of nukes would mean “catastrophic consequences” for Russia.

The US has many options here. It could ramp up supplies, financing and weapons to the Ukrainians. There are economic and diplomatic cards yet to play.

But the options most definitely include conventional force action to negate any Russian nuclear advantage. Call it de-escalation without escalation.

Some have speculated that there could be conventional strikes deep inside pre-war Russia, but that might play into Putin’s hands. It would give credence to the idea that Russia is in peril.

The US and its allies might instead restrict themselves to the present theatre of conflict.

To start with there is the US Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), a stealthed cruise missile which can be launched from US or Polish jets.

The longer-ranging JASSM variants could hit targets in occupied Ukraine and nearby parts of Russia without the launching planes leaving NATO airspace. Backed by US intelligence and electronic-warfare capability, JASSM and other weapons allow the US to destroy targets across the theatre pretty much unanswerably.

Lockheed Martin's JASSM missile - Wikipedia © Provided by The Telegraph Lockheed Martin's JASSM missile - Wikipedia

A bridge too far for Putin?

One obvious target would be the two bridges from the Crimean peninsula to Russia, built by the Russians after they seized Crimea eight years ago. These bridges are the main supply line and escape route for Russian troops on the peninsula. The Ukrainians have been trying to destroy them for some time.

The US could also hit other chokepoints, weapon systems, supply dumps and suchlike key military targets – all without sending one airman over Ukraine. This on its own, done well, could hamstring Russia’s invasion army.

The US and its allies also possess large numbers of shorter-ranged standoff air weapons and other specialist missiles and technology, designed for what’s called Suppression (or Destruction) of Enemy Air Defences: SEAD or DEAD. This was carried out very effectively during the Iraq invasion and the allied air campaign over Libya. Surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and air defence radars on the ground were remorselessly hunted and destroyed from afar, without ever really having a chance.

Once SEAD/DEAD was achieved across Iraq and Libya, the US and allied air forces could operate with almost complete freedom provided they stayed above say 10,000 feet or a little more: the maximum ceiling of portable, shoulder-fired SAMs. This dominance of the skies meant that the US-led allies in both wars could seek out and destroy Saddam Hussein’s and Muammar Gaddafi’s heavy ground forces – their tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery – unanswerably, from above.

Russia is no longer a “near peer”

Russia’s air defences and forces ought to be a bit more serious than those of Saddam and Gaddafi, but it turns out they aren’t really. Nobody any longer thinks that Russia is a “near peer” adversary, able to give the US and its friends a serious conventional airspace fight.

The feebleness of Russian airpower has been exposed by the total failure of the Russian air force to achieve anything like SEAD/DEAD against the Ukrainians, who ought to have been crushingly overmatched. This failure was a surprise to most military analysts, including many senior Western officers. It is a fact nonetheless.

Rather than attempting to dominate and operate in the Ukrainian skies, it appears that Russia simply threatens Ukraine’s airspace from afar with its long-ranging heavy SAMs, the S-300 and S-400. Russian pilots fear being shot down by untouched Ukrainian SAM batteries – or perhaps by their own – forcing them to fly very low just as their Ukrainian opponents do.

Russian MiG fighter jets would not stand much chance against Western planes - Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images © Provided by The Telegraph Russian MiG fighter jets would not stand much chance against Western planes - Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Despite having hundreds of apparently powerful combat planes deployed to the region, Russia sends only handfuls of them at a time over Ukraine. Western analysts are coming to believe that this is because Russian pilots do not fly enough and do not train for complex missions involving large numbers of aircraft. Russian command and control, too, cannot conduct such operations.

It has thus become clear that US-led conventionally armed Western air forces could achieve SEAD/DEAD above Ukraine, or something close to it. This would involve using JASSMs and other advanced weapons to knock out the S-300s, S-400s and other dangerous SAM systems, probably on Russian and/or Belarussian territory. Less troublesome shorter-ranging SAMs inside Ukraine or near it would be comparatively simply dealt with. 

Russian fighters, unless they are somehow hugely better than the rest of the Russian air forces have turned out to be, would not stand much chance against advanced Western jets with Western weapons and hardcore Western pilots – and advanced US SAMs already in Ukrainian hands.

Saddam, Gaddafi … Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin - Alexei Nikolsky/Pool Sputnik Kremlin © Provided by The Telegraph Russian President Vladimir Putin - Alexei Nikolsky/Pool Sputnik Kremlin

With freedom to operate above Ukraine, Western air forces could do the same thing to the Russian army that they did to the Iraqi and Libyan armies: destroy pretty much every tank, armoured vehicle or artillery piece that dared show itself. This work, once the airspace was opened up by the various standoff cruise weapons, could mostly be done by cheap and simple drones.

The Russian army would be wrecked, and the Ukrainians would advance to any line that the US might draw: probably the pre-2014 border.

No Nato boot would touch Ukrainian soil, far less Russian. Very few Nato airmen would need to fly even above Ukraine, far less Russia. A few SAM batteries and radars would be hit within Russia itself.

Compared to Putin’s possible nuclear escalation outside his own borders, the West would barely have done anything. De-escalation without escalation, truly.

So there’s a spectrum of conventional military options open to the US and its allies: ranging from a few pinpoint long haul strikes, all the way up to full SEAD/DEAD and the Russian invasion army shattered beneath hostile skies.

The US-led West can ensure that any tactical nuclear escalation by Russia would lead not to success but to further reversals or to total military defeat in Ukraine – pretty much no matter how effective Russian nukes might be. This would require only conventional weapons, only from the air and almost entirely within Ukraine.

General Gerasimov and his comrades know all this. It will not be easy to persuade them that provoking such a response is a good military idea. Rather than “escalating to de-escalate”, Putin would have escalated to achieve guaranteed conventional defeat: all without the enemy needing to use nukes at all.

Thank goodness for British nukes

What could Putin do then? Escalate again, as he and his spokesmen have threatened, and use strategic megaton-range nukes against Nato targets – London, for instance?

London would be a particularly bad choice. The UK, thank goodness, is a nuclear armed nation and all of Russia would shortly cease to exist without the need for the rest of Nato to do anything. Russia’s cities would not survive like Hiroshima and Nagasaki: strategic megaton weapons are a different ball game.

Maybe Putin might seek to back down the West by hitting some other, non-nuclear Nato nation: but Nato responds to an attack on one as if to an attack on all. There are various ways that could play out, but it would probably end the same way as a strategic attack on the UK: with no more Russia.

Gerasimov and other powerful men in Moscow know all this. They also know that if Putin orders and they disagree, they must kill him before he kills them.

They know, too, that it is Putin who would carry the can for Russian defeat in Ukraine, not them.

Going nuclear could work out better for Vladimir Putin than this, especially if the US didn't react effectively. Nonetheless it's a plan which puts his personal survival at severe risk. If he's thinking straight he will do almost anything else.

Lewis Page is editor-in-chief at capital.com. He is a former Royal Navy officer and author of the book ‘Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs: Waste and Blundering in the Military’.

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