The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts have noticed this an increase in anxious talk on the possibility that Russia may use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine as a means of turning its fortunes on the battlefield. Given that the use of such weapons would erase a 77-year-old taboo against their use, even a small increase in this option justifies greater attention.
The thing is, I’m far from sure that the actual probability has increased at all. To understand why, let’s take five different cuts on this question.
The first and most obvious cut is that the Russians certainly seem talkative about nuclear escalation. Last month, Russia sent a diplomatic demarche to the United States, emphasizing “unpredictable consequences” if the United States increased its arms supplies to Ukraine. This could not deter the Biden administration. Last week, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that everyone underestimated the likelihood of nuclear war: “The danger is serious, real. And we must not underestimate it.” A few days later, Putin warned of “lightning-fast” reactions to any country intervening in Ukraine, and the potential use of nuclear weapons has been everywhere on Russian television.
During the Korean War, China warned the United States not to cross the 38th parallel as North Koreans were about to topple. General MacArthur and the Truman administration ignored the warnings and were caught flat-footed when the Chinese intervened. So it is worth considering whether the Russians mean what they say.
The other way to look at it is that using tactical nuclear weapons makes no tactical sense in Ukraine:
As a thought exercise, try to find a viable target for a Russian nuclear weapon in Ukraine. What target should be nuclear weapons that can not be attacked with conventional ammunition. I have not yet come up with anything. https://t.co/YACX59xIjP
– Aaron Stein (@ aaronstein1) April 29, 2022
Tactical nuclear weapons would pose risks to the Russian people if used near the Ukrainian border, and endanger Russians in Transnistria if used near the western border. Why risk nuclear escalation – a step that cannot be undone – for a military option that has little tactical added value?
The third cut is that the tactical situation is meaningless: Putin believes that the use of nuclear weapons would create a strategic advantage. Putin’s greatest bargaining chip during his tenure has been the widespread perception that he has escalating dominance. However, the war in Ukraine has raised these expectations. Russia’s conventional military power looks hollow, while US-led economic sanctions look more potent. The use of tactical nuclear weapons would be one way to confirm the escalation dominance.
There are widespread reports that Putin views this conflict as an existential struggle with the West. If so, Peggy Noonan may be right when she writes, “For [Putin], Russia can not lose to the West. Ukraine is not the Middle East, a sideshow; it is the main event. I read him as someone who will do anything to not lose. ” Or like Patrick Porter tweeted, The purpose of using nuclear weapons would be “to inflict psychological shock and fear of further escalation.”
The fourth cut is that using nuclear weapons does not make much strategic sense either – unless NATO escalates. Even Noonan acknowledges that Putin knows that the risks of such a use would be significant. Countries that have stayed on the sidelines or provided support to Russia would think twice if Putin was the first to use nuclear weapons. The uncertainty of retaliation would also give Putin a break. Even his domestic status suffers when cracks appear in Russia’s elite.
This seems clear when looking more closely at Russian comments on nuclear weapons. All of Russia’s statements, from Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov to Lavrov to Putin, make it clear that the threat of escalation is conditioned by NATO actions. Peskov stressed that there was no real change in the criteria for using nuclear weapons from before the war. Lavrov said something similar in a recent interview that everyone will remember for different reasons. And Putin stated that any response was conditional on “if anyone intends to intervene in what is happening from the outside and create unacceptable strategic threats for us.”
It all acts as a code for NATO forces that do not intervene directly in the conflict. And as it turns out, it has also been the Biden administration’s red line. Despite the lack of diplomacy between NATO and Russia, a tacit arrangement seems to exist. Russia will not launch an attack on NATO soil, and NATO will not send forces into Ukraine. As Lawrence Freedman noted“[Putin] has a very clear red line – no direct interference from NATO – which is respected. “
(There is also the risk that Russian nuclear forces, like Russian conventional forces, will prove less effective in their operation. To put it another way: If Russia launches a nuclear weapon and misses its target, hoo boy.)
The final cut is the simplest: Putin has other ways of escalating without the use of nuclear weapons. As RUSI’s Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds note: “the propaganda narrative and local initiatives to gather support seem to create an environment where May 9 can be used as a focal point to mobilize a much larger force. It seems more and more likely, that instead of using it to announce victory, the Russian government will instead use May 9 as the day on which the ‘special military operation’ is officially framed as a ‘war’. ” The British Secretary of Defense agrees with this assessment.
Watling and Reynolds end their analysis with a warning:
The Russian decision to double is a high stakes effort. If Russia mobilizes and eventually overcomes Ukrainian resistance, NATO will face an aggressive, isolated and militarized state. If Russia loses, then President Putin has now begun to radicalize the people in the pursuit of policies he will fight to deliver. Failure to defeat the Ukrainian state after relentlessly comparing it to the Nazi regime could have serious consequences for Putin and those around him. To portray a conflict as existential and to lose it must necessarily question the suitability of a leader among Russia’s political elites. NATO states therefore need to consider how to deal with the escalation paths that will follow if Russia not only defeats the Donbas but finds its newly mobilized and poorly trained troops, with few remaining stocks of precision ammunition, unable to to deliver a victory in the summer.
My assessment is that Putin, Lavrov, et al. does not consider the use of nuclear weapons except in response to direct NATO engagement. It is highly unlikely that this will happen. What NATO, however, needs to start worrying about is what happens if Putin escalates to a general mobilization a week from now.