On the ground the situation is critical for Russia with the Ukrainian army continuing to advance. This is what the world risks in the event of a nuclear attack by Putin.
“For the first time since the Cuban missile crisis, we face the real threat of the use of nuclear weapons.” These are the words expressed by US President Joe Biden during a dinner to raise funds for Democratic candidates in the next mid-term elections of November.
The American president added that he knows his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin “well enough” and therefore believes that he is “not joking” when he talks about the possibility of using weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, tactical, biological or chemical), given that, at the moment, “its Armed Forces, so to speak, are significantly lower” in Ukraine, compared to the Ukrainian army.
At the same time, Biden noted that it is impossible to start using nuclear weapons, even if ‘only’ tactics, without ending up directly in the nightmare of nuclear “Armageddon”, or the risk of a devastating nuclear war between the two world superpowers.
Biden’s new claims came after Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly threatened (albeit without directly naming him) the use of nuclear weapons after the outbreak of war in Ukraine.
The last time was during his speech on 21 September, when he announced the annexation of the occupied Ukrainian territories and the “partial mobilization”. On that occasion, Putin explicitly said that the Russian Federation is ready to use “all available means … in the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country, to protect our people”.
But how likely is the Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons and what might such use actually entail? Let’s see it together.
Nuclear will only become an option if mobilization fails
At the moment, the situation on the ground remains extremely critical for the Russians, with the Ukrainians continuing to advance in at least two directions – in the north of the Luhansk region and in the north of the Kherson region, where there have been movements in the last weeks.
Furthermore, according to various sources, the Ukrainian command is preparing to open a new front in the Zaporozhye region with the aim of freeing Melitopol and Berdyansk and thus cutting in two the land corridor linking Crimea to the Russian Federation. If successful, this would be a real knockout blow for the Russian chances of maintaining control of the occupied and recently illegally annexed territories.
For its part, while waiting for the mobilization to lead to some concrete results, the Russian command hopes for the “Great Mud” to come, which should make future Ukrainian advances much more complex as the fields and roads will become more difficult at that point. to be traveled with armored vehicles.
But the weather also seems to be on the Kyiv side: the rains will not start before October 20 in the direction of Kherson, and no serious rains are expected before 19 even in the Svatovo area in the north of the Luhansk region. So the Ukrainians still have an adequate time window to use to continue the offensive.
The goal of the Ukrainian command is twofold: in the south to liberate the entire Kherson region on the right bank of the Dnjepr, including the city of Kherson, and, in the north-east, to liberate all settlements of the Luhansk region occupied after February 24, to say Svatovo, Starobelsk, Shchastye, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.
This would allow the Ukrainians to achieve a very important result: to reach the old line of contact before February 24 and at the same time eliminate all the territorial gains obtained in the Donbass by the Russians at great cost during the summer offensive.
To try to stop the Ukrainian advance before the arrival of the “Great Mud”, the Russians immediately began to send part of those who have been mobilized in recent weeks to the front line in Luhansk. Since in many cases these are soldiers sent to the front with virtually no training, the cases of surrender have also multiplied.
The point is that the effectiveness of these new troops in combat, to put it mildly, is at least highly questionable, and these desperate tactics are unlikely to allow the Russians to improve the situation quickly.
The fact is that, at the moment, Ukraine has a resource at its disposal that Russia desperately lacks: 400,000 combat-experienced and well-armed soldiers already deployed in the field, plus many others undergoing training in the West ready to be deployed to the front as reserves if necessary to strengthen the ability to penetrate enemy territory.
This favorable situation in Kyiv, at least theoretically, may not last long: Russia, in fact, has a much higher potential for mobilization than Ukraine, if only for its military-age population.
As Igor Kurtukov, a Russian military historian, states, from a strictly military point of view, “if Russia were truly capable of deploying and arming a force three times higher, the Ukrainians would have very little chance of succeeding. The only hope, which however is not unfounded, is that Russia will not be able to do so ”.
Much skepticism remains, in fact, about the possibility that the mobilization announced by Putin will really be successful. Not a day goes by that the deaths of some soldiers mobilized “by suicide” in the various training camps of the country are not reported. Furthermore, videos continue to circulate of soldiers mobilized in difficult situations, forced to sleep on the ground or complaining of a lack of food and basic necessities.
All this, of course, can only negatively impact their morale even before they are deployed on the battlefield. It is not for nothing that Ukraine has decided to take advantage of this situation by setting up a special hotline to allow those who have been mobilized to be able to surrender immediately as soon as they are deployed in Ukraine. The hotline in question has a name that alone is a program: “I want to live”.
If the situation continues to worsen despite the “partial mobilization”, before reaching the nuclear weapons Putin would still have other options available: for example, he could also declare total war and a real general mobilization, putting the entire economy of the country at the 24/7 war effort service.
After all, this is what the Soviet Union did back then in 1941 when it was invaded by the Nazis. But now the situation is very different: it is the Russians who invade another country. Consequently, it is extremely difficult to achieve the same degree of popular mobilization conducted by the Soviet Union during what the Russians still refer to today as the “Great Patriotic War”.
One of the problems that the Russian Federation would face in this last case is, moreover, the impact that the immense mass of mobilized people would have on the political stability of the country: “This mass of people needs to be fed, transported. Continued mobilization is precisely what led to revolutions in Russia in the early 20th century, ”notes Kirill Mikhailov of Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT).
All this inevitably leads to a conclusion: if the mobilization (partial or general) does not work, and without the possibility of further expanding its military capacity with conventional methods, Moscow would open the possibility of using the nuclear card as an extreme method for change the situation on the battlefield in his favor. However, this does not mean that it will necessarily happen.
The Russian nuclear doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons
The main public document on Russian nuclear doctrine is the “Fundamentals of Russian State Policy on Nuclear Deterrence”, which defines the conditions under which Russia might decide to use nuclear weapons.
This use is foreseen in two cases in particular:
• A nuclear retaliatory attack, for example in response to the launch of ballistic missiles against Russian territory and / or an allied country, the use of nuclear weapons in those territories, and in general to any attack, even non-nuclear, that could jeopardize Russia’s ability to use its nuclear arsenal;
• A nuclear response to a non-nuclear war, defined in the vague formulation of “aggression against the Russian Federation with conventional weapons, in which the very existence of the state is threatened”, which leaves the widest margin of interpretation, ie hands free to the authorities Russian to determine when this case can be invoked.
In both cases, the decision to use nuclear weapons always rests in the last resort with the Russian President.
Nuclear weapons are generally regarded by Moscow as a fundamental part of the country’s overall military doctrine, unlike the United States. The Russian army, in fact, considers the nuclear arsenal (mainly the tactical and non-strategic one) as the main trump card to use against the high-tech weapons of the West.
In Russian military doctrine, the main factor in the use of nuclear weapons is considered the psychological impact on the enemy, that is, the demonstration of determination to escalate to the cessation of a hypothetical aggression against Russian territory, or the conclusion of a peace. “on conditions satisfactory for Russia”.
Given these premises, the direct use of nuclear weapons to achieve military objectives takes a back seat. It is the very threat of their use that is the first step in the so-called “deterrence ladder”, which Putin has already begun to climb with his recent threats.
It must be recognized, however, that the interpretation of what is described in the official documents (for example the “Fundamentals” mentioned above) must be done with extreme caution, since such documents are written mainly to intimidate potential adversaries and hide more than they mean.
It should also be added that the whole system, as conceived by military strategists, is based on a defensive war scenario – where there is no doubt as to what an escalation target is or is not.
It is not clear how such a defensive strategy can be “redesigned” in a war of aggression involving the conquest of new territories, such as that in Ukraine. Nor is it clear how the Russian leaders intend to interpret the Russian nuclear doctrine exactly in this new reality.