The risk of a Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine is taken seriously

Posted Apr 15, 2022 5:04pm

The risk of the Kremlin dropping a nuclear bomb in Ukraine is not one to be taken lightly. That is the chilling warning from CIA chief Williams Burns on Thursday evening.

“It is possible that President Putin and the Russian leadership will sink into despair in the face of the military setbacks to date. Therefore, none of us can take lightly the threat of the possible use of nuclear weapons. […] too weak,” he said during a speech in Atlanta.

The danger of a cornered Putin

Since the invasion of Ukraine began, various analysts have expressed the same fear that Vladimir Putin has “his back against the wall” or has nothing left to lose. James Acton, expert on nuclear issues at the Carnegie Center, is concerned that a militarily defeated Vladimir Putin, humiliated even in front of the Russian people, is using tactical nuclear bombs – a little less powerful than those used in Hiroshima and a thousand times less than so-called strategic weapons, that can glaze an entire region. Goal: “Scare everyone and win the case”.

However, James Acton points out that “we’re not there yet”. “We haven’t seen any concrete signs of change” since Moscow announced it would alert nuclear forces two days after the start of the invasion of Ukraine, says William Burns. Moreover, no public statement by a Russian official has indicated a change in Kremlin doctrine, which views the use of nuclear weapons only as a last resort when Russia’s vital interests are at risk.

The problem is that nobody can define exactly what these vital interests are, for the simple reason that a certain ambiguity “lies at the heart of nuclear deterrence,” points out Admiral Jean-Louis Lozier, an expert at the French Institute of International Relations. “You should never draw a red line, because that would entitle the opponent to do everything under it.” Nevertheless, for a weapon that should never be used to remain a deterrent, it is necessary that its use, skillfully blurred, may be believable remain. Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, recently said that keeping Ukraine in its sphere of influence is one of Russia’s key interests. But is the essential essential to life?


To complicate matters further, Russia also established a doctrine known as “escalation de-escalation,” which would consist of first deploying a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield to terrorize the opponent and gain an advantage in the event of a conflict. This doctrine is intended to apply only in the event of a direct conflict with the Alliance. But could the Kremlin extend it to the war in Ukraine, where the West is involved without being belligerent? Vladimir Putin’s strength, consistent with the “deterring of the mad in the strong” once theorized by US President Richard Nixon, is that he has shown that by invading Ukraine he dared to commit what what few thought possible…

Humanity is already close to the worst

The distinction between tactical weapons with a few thousand tons of dynamite (the power of the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kt) and strategic weapons, said to be too powerful to ever be used, may seem intellectually satisfying, but operationally it is not obvious. Above all, an atomic bomb is still an atomic bomb, and any explosion of this kind would violate the so-called Nagasaki taboo, which has effectively banned its use since August 1945.

Mankind came close to catastrophe in three documented incidents because during the Cold War Moscow and Washington bestowed the power to launch tactical missiles at a surprisingly low level in their military hierarchy. On October 27, 1962, a Soviet submarine nearly fired a nuclear missile at the American fleet threatening it off Cuba. And Colonel Stanislav Petrov had just two minutes one night in 1983 to realize that the thousands of American missiles hurtling towards him were a computer error.

Still, to brandish that threat in this context, as the Kremlin alluded to do shortly after the invasion began, would represent a revolution in the international “grammar” of deterrence: it’s no longer about dissuading another country from invading, it’s about doing so prevents a neighbor and his allies from opposing your own invasion. The deterrence established by nuclear weapons is therefore no longer defensive but offensive. In any case, the Russian nuclear deterrent has already convinced NATO not to send its troops to Ukraine.

Even before the use of nuclear power there would probably be stages and final warnings, for example through the use of chemical weapons or massively thermobaric missiles (up to 0.2 kt, but without radiation).

Why Putin probably won’t dare

Still, using a tactical nuclear bomb in Ukraine would be catastrophic… for the Kremlin, too. First, it would ruin the history of a planned and successful operation. It would also shatter the Kremlin’s myth that Russians and Ukrainians “form a single people belonging to the same historical and spiritual space,” since it would then be a matter of bombing a supposed component of the Russian people themselves. Not to mention the danger of nuclear fallout in Russia itself.

Also, Russia could make the Ukrainian army surrender, but would become an absolute international pariah. In particular, this deeply destabilizing action for the international order would likely cause it to lose the support of its main, and now almost only, major ally, China.

If Vladimir Putin finally decides to “push the red button,” according to the cliché, it would still be necessary for the other two leaders to follow him, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the chief of the general’s staff, Valeri Guerasimov, in sharing the nuclear code him.

The CIA chief’s speech thus seems to walk a fine line for Westerners: to help Ukraine repel the Russian army without bringing the Kremlin to the limit by defeat in good and proper form…

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