On thinking the unthinkable (with postscript)
I just want to thank Mr. Lawrence Freedman for his article. Truly generous to publish this for free to illustrate the extent of the challenges ahead. Just to show the quality of the people that cares for Ukraine.
Very thorough - thank you. One of the big "unknowns" to me is, on the use of nukes, What has NATO privately communicated to Putin with regard to NATO response if he goes nuclear? It would be very stupid to leave such matters to public comments of our bumbler in chief. And could NATO speak with one voice on this? Also - I'd never heard of the Davy Crocket nuke - reminds me of my nuke sub days, we carried (or should I say, had the capability to carry - we weren't supposed to say whether we had them or not) a couple subrocs - tactical nukes. Speculation was, if we ever used them, would we be committing suicide due to their range.
Thank you for a such a thorough overview. I agree that almost every potential scenario of nuclear use would probably cause Russia more problems than it would solve. A "demonstration" use isn't entirely out of the question but I think even this would be a last resort in the event of something Russia considered disastrous like an assault on Crimea. The Crimean peninsular and Sevastopol Naval base are still the big question mark for me, I just cannot see Russia giving them up, ceding them would be too much of a blow to Putin and the majority of his political supporter's pride. If that "prize" appeared to be under threat I think it could change the calculus in the Kremlin and I hope Western leaders are thinking carefully about how things might play out there.
Dr. Freedman: Suppose Putin detonated a Hiroshima-type weapon on Kiev. The war would be over, would it not? .What exactly would be the response of the West? A full-scale nuclear response? Hardly. A bomb on Moscow? I don’t think so. Biden on a Sunday tv show said something like Russian use of nuclear weapons “would only increase Russia’s international isolation.” As if Putin cares. Is that supposed to be the deterrence? This is a true nightmare scenario.
I don't see any discussion of the risk of accidental Russian nuke deployment based on, for example, false positive ID of incoming nuke attack by the US or any other unfriendly nuclear power. Russia's detection technology is perhaps 20 years behind the US. Their launch technology dashboard (pictured) looks like mid 80s.
I see no evidence that Russian nuclear forces are any better than Russian conventional forces. Given what we have witnessed so far, a demonstration nuke could very well be a dud, or fail at launch, or suffer some other embarrassing mishap, and then all fear of Russia would truly evaporate.
This is very well written and considerate. Thanks a lot.
The only rational for using a nuclear weapon in this conflict is exactly the opposite of rational - the disturbed mental state and completely irrational acting of an autocrat who is ready to sacrifice everything for an idea of power. Of course this reminds one of the last days of Nazi Germany - but I don't think that the kind of apocalyptic state of mind that was prevalent in Germany by the end of the WWII is shared by Russian society (mind you, I don't speak about "Putin's war").
If we think about the usage of nuclear weapons in this context of an irrational individual, then the objections of China and India do not matter. In reality, they probably do.
Lawrence Freedman says no new red line has been established in the last 24 hours. Surely this week's referenda leading to imminent redrawing of the borders of the RF up to, more or less, the current frontline, coupled with a verbal commitment to protect the integrity of those (so-called) borders by any means necessary does equal a de facto new red line.
Conscripting Russian men with national service training is almost certainly not going to change the course of the war conventionally. This isn't WW2 where quantity has a quality of its own. Putin surely knows this. It's hard to avoid the conclusion he is consciously painting himself into a nuclear corner. I'd love to be wrong.
What about bombing the Z. Ukrainian nuclear power plant, pretending it is the feat of the Ukrainian while creating chaos and fear while delaying potentially more nuclear energy adoption in the West.??
Excellent analysis of a very difficult subject.
Here is the problem with Putin's nuclear threat.
1 Nuclear weapons, especially those that are silo'd require constant maintenance, as do the launch systems. Their nuclear bombers are not a threat, except maybe to Ukraine, otherwise they will be shot out of the sky.
2. Thanks to Putin's war we know that the Russian military is woefully in bad repair, primarily because of corruption in the government and the generals siphoning off money for their personal use.
Conclusion, Putin's threat is bluff, oh he would let loose a tactical nuke or two, but the west has a policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) that, for some unaccountable reason, seems to be forgotten or ignored by pundits, media and experts.
Putin may be as insane as Trump, but he is not a suicide bomber, he loves his riches, his dacha's, his yachts and hismistresses too much. If he launched one nuke, and unless Americans are wet their pants cowards, Putin and his dach'as, the Kremlin, Red Square, will become a glass desert and Putin fall out.
Then again, trust the west and Americans to be wet the pants cowards.
Ukraine operates nuclear plants. They certainly have the technology for a dirty bomb and can probably reprocess fuel to get enough plutonium for an atomic bomb. A hydrogen bomb is probably out of reach.
They have been dealing with nuclear threats from Russia for quite a while.
It would not be surprising if they have quietly passed the word to Russia that they will
I like the postscript. All the Western commentariat has always been that Russia is losing the war and Ukraine is winning. If that is your presupposition to begin with, you could not see that even Ukraine's victory in Kharkiv, Russian troops were advancing in Bahkmut and Siversk. When the much advertise counteroffensive in Kherson was announced, I had repeatedly stated that there is no counteroffensive in the South because Ukraine does not have manpower to take Kherson because Kherson is not friendly territory for the Zelensky Government. Base on the success of Ukraine in Kharkiv and declaration by Zelensky's general, Kherson was a distraction for the Northeast offensive. This was a good play by Kyiv because a breakout in Kharkiv would have Ukrainian troops moving toward the Russia border threatening to semi-encircle some Russian units in Donetsk while creating insecurity in Belgorod. If Putin was not truly committed to the war this would have been brilliant and would force a negotiation more on Ukraine's term after the sting of the defeat was out of the Russian public mind.
What was not expected from Kharkiv is general mobilization. Russia was fighting this war with its hand tied behind its back. It never had enough troops to accomplish its aims in Ukraine, the only way he would have accomplished that task with so few troops was if the Kyiv government had collapsed. If Ukraine was an existential threat to the Russian Federation as Putin put it, total war against was inevitable requiring some 500,000 troops plus reservists. Medvedev seem to signal this, and this is the worst of both world. By going into total war footing, we know that at least half million troops will pour into Donetsk. Kherson, Zaporhizia, Crimea are already reinforced when Ukraine announced the southern offensive. So a catastrophic battle is inevitable in Kharkiv city and the Northeast where the Ukrainian gains had occur. This decisive battle will occur in about 6 months, Kyiv will not be spared. But Russia' s partial mobilization is not partial and it is a general mobilization for combat along the entire Dnieper river.
Thanks very much, Professor L. Freedman, for the substantiated analysis and for sharing your profound thoughts on one of the most grievous issues of our time. That Vladimir Putin is resorting to nuclear threats is well beyond understanding or even the unacceptable. Indeed, it is, or, rather, continues to be criminal and as such must be held by all thinking beings, including those that remain in Russia. We hear nothing from NATO and that might be good. I only trust that the high commands of the NATO Countries are on strict alert and do not leave the matter to the hands of Mr. Biden. Reading your text is hard, and yet gives me hope. I thank you very much indeed for the thorough and realistic nature of your analysis. I plan to take time to read some of your books as soon as possible.
Examining the history of the nuclear arms race over many decades, it seems that both sides long ago moved away from simple deterrence strategy to the quest for 'counterforce' andt first strike capability assisted by developments in weapons technology, notably missile speed and accuracy.
I do not know what the current state of play is between the US/Nato capabilities and Russia and would be interested to hear form those with knowledge on these matters.
In particular, is the Russian Sarmat missile really the big threat to the West that is claimed, with its exceptional speed and apparent ability to dodge missile defence systems?
I do not think we can simply assume Putin is bluffing. The possible use of 'tactical' smaller yield nuclear weapons on the battlefield is embedded in Russian military doctrine and the fact that they have some 2000 of these warheads appears to demonstrate this.
I've gone through the same exercise and ended up at a similar end - there is no tactical advantage to Putin using nuclear weapons in this conflict. If anything it likely increases the probability of losing it because there would certainly be a conventional NATO response that easily destroys Russia's invasion force in the Ukraine at the very least. There is no strategic advantage either because China would almost certainly disapprove of such a step and India would likely go even further and join the sanctions placed on Russia (for fear that this sets a precedent for Pakistan in the future). Russia would be all alone in the world and Putin would be wanted globally for war crimes more formally. The nuclear signaling is merely a way to discourage more direct NATO involvement in the conflict.
If he's truly gone crazy and orders a strike and if that order was somehow acted upon by entire chain if command the most effective response by the west should be to decapitate the Russian government. A mass attack on leadership targets in Moscow could be accomplished and power is so centralized in Putin's Russia that such a move would operationally paralyze the state.