This is a re-post of an op-ed I wrote for Channel News Asia on possible Russian nuclear use scenarios in the Ukraine war.
I continue to be pretty skeptical of this, at least at the moment. As I argued on Twitter, it is just not clear to me what target in Ukraine is so valuable and big that it merits the huge geopolitical blowback risk of this dramatic step. For example, is the Ukrainian army so massed together that it would be justify this much force? Not that I know of. Is there an infrastructure target in Ukraine which is so large and so strategically significant that a nuke would be worth the risk? Again, I don’t think so. Most of what Ukraine has which is worth striking can be attacked with conventional weapons.
The one possible option is a ‘counter-value’ nuking of a Ukrainian city – to shock Ukraine into surrender, and even wipe out the Ukrainian leadership in one stroke if the target were Kiev. But this would kill so many people that it would look like nuclear genocide. Russia’s friends would all abandon it, and NATO might well openly enter the war.
I cover a lot of this in the CNA essay. Here is the original, pre-edited version:
Russian President Vladimir Putin is in a tight spot. His invasion of Ukraine is flailing. He expected a quick victory when he launched his February attack. A blitzkrieg would allow him to replace Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with a Russian stooge. This puppet would block Ukraine’s drift toward the West and allow the Russian army to withdraw. Similar to Putin’s rapid absorption of Crimea in 2014, the Ukraine war would be over before the West had a chance to respond.
Instead, the war degenerated into an expensive stalemate. The Russian army took territory in the south and east early on but has been unable to make major gains since then. Putin’s best units have already been committed to the war and are degraded after months of combat. Ukraine has fought back ferociously and launched a counter-offensive earlier this month which retrieved about 20% of Putin’s initial gains.
Putin has panicked, declaring a massive mobilization of Russian reservists. But there is widespread suspicion in the analyst community that these forces will not win the war, just drag it out. Russia does not have the logistical capability to deploy, train, or kit these new forces properly. Stories are already emerging of these newly impressed reservists being sent to Ukraine with no training. The sheer size of Russia’s mobilized army may slow down Ukraine, but it is unlikely to change the long-term outcome – Russian exhaustion and withdrawal.
Please read the rest here.