Posted on April 15, 2022 at 17:04
The risk of the Kremlin dropping a nuclear bomb on Ukraine should not be taken lightly. This is the chilling warning issued by CIA chief Williams Burns on Thursday night.
“President Putin and Russian leaders may be desperate, given the military setbacks they have suffered so far. Therefore, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by the potential use of nuclear weapons. […] powerless,” he said during a speech in Atlanta.
The danger of a cornered Putin
Several analysts have already expressed this same fear since the beginning of the invasion in Ukraine, at the idea that Vladimir Putin sits “with his back to the wall” or has nothing to lose. James Acton, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Center, is concerned that a Vladimir Putin, militarily defeated in Ukraine, even humiliated in front of the Russian people, is using tactical nuclear bombs – slightly less powerful than those used in Hiroshima and a thousand times less than the so-called strategic weapons that can vitrify an entire region. Objective: “Terrorize everyone and win the case.”
However, James Acton is careful to point out that “we are not there yet.” “We haven’t really seen any concrete signs of change” since Moscow announced the alert of nuclear forces two days after the start of the invasion of Ukraine, William Burns abounds. Furthermore, no public statement by a Russian official has hinted at a change in the Kremlin’s doctrine, which only considers nuclear use as a last resort, if Russia’s vital interests are in danger.
The problem is that no one can strictly define what these vital interests are, for the simple reason that some ambiguity “It is at the heart of nuclear deterrence,” underlines Admiral Jean-Louis Lozier, an expert at the French Institute of International Relations. “A red line should never be drawn because that would authorize the adversary to do anything below it.” For a weapon that is never supposed to be used to remain a deterrent, its use still needs to remain believable in certain circumstances shrouded in skillful vagueness. Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev recently considered keeping Ukraine in his sphere of influence one of Russia’s essential interests. But what is essential is vital?
To complicate matters, Russia has also theorized a doctrine known as ‘escalation de-escalation’ which would involve first using a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield to terrify the adversary and regain the upper hand in the event of a conventional conflict. This doctrine is supposed to apply only in case of 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, according to “the madman in the fort deterrence” once theorized by US President Richard Nixon, is to have shown that by invading Ukraine, he dared to commit what few thought possible…
Jonathan Littell: “The grammar of nuclear deterrence since the 1960s has been based on a certain level of rationality on the part of the actors. The moment you introduce irrationality into the system, the grammar becomes unreadable.” #le79Inter pic.twitter.com/OZZkqa0wxn
— France Inter (@franceinter) March 7, 2022
Humanity has already approached the worst
The distinction between tactical weapons, a few thousand tons of dynamite (the power of the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kt), and strategic weapons, supposedly too powerful to be used, may seem intellectually satisfying, but it is not operationally obvious. A nuclear bomb remains first and foremost a nuclear bomb, and any explosion of this nature would violate the so-called Nagasaki taboo, which has effectively prohibited its use since August 1945.
Humanity came close to disaster in three documented incidents because, during the Cold War, Moscow and Washington placed the power to fire tactical missiles surprisingly low in their military hierarchy. A Soviet submarine was about to fire a nuclear missile on October 27, 1962 against the US fleet that threatened it off Cuba. And Colonel Stanislav Petrov had just two minutes in front of him one night in 1983 to establish that the thousands of American missiles hurtling towards him were a computer error.
Still, brandishing this threat in this context, as the Kremlin did it allusively immediately after the start of the invasion, it would constitute a revolution in the international “grammar” of deterrence: it is no longer about dissuading another country from invading you but about preventing a neighbor and its allies from resisting your own invasion. The deterrence established by nuclear weapons is no longer defensive but offensive. In any case, the Russian nuclear deterrence has already convinced NATO not to send its soldiers to fight in Ukraine.
There would probably also be stages and final warnings before the use of nuclear energy, for example through the use of chemical weapons, or, massively, thermobaric missiles (up to 0.2 kt, but without radiation).
Why Putin is unlikely to dare
Still, the use of a tactical nuclear bomb in the Ukraine would constitute a catastrophe… also for the Kremlin. First of all, it would ruin the story of an operation going according to plan and successfully. It would also destroy the Kremlin myth according to which Russians and Ukrainians “form a single people belonging to the same historical and spiritual space”, since it would then be a question of bombing a component supposedly of the Russian people itself. Not to mention the risk of radioactive fallout in Russia itself.
Furthermore, Russia could get the Ukrainian army to surrender, but it would become an absolute international pariah. In particular, this deeply destabilizing action for the international order would probably cause it to lose the support of its main, and now almost only great ally, China.
Finally, if Vladimir Putin decided to “push the red button”, according to the cliché, it would still be necessary for the other two leaders to share the nuclear code with him, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and the head of the ‘Staff General, Valeri Gerasimov, follow him
The CIA chief’s speech therefore seems to draw a narrow summit line for Westerners: help Ukraine repel the Russian army without pushing the Kremlin to the limit through a proper defeat…