Monday, 13 May, 2024

Russian roulette: Will Putin use tactical nuclear weapons at NATO’s door?

The Russo-Ukrainian conflict is at a stalemate—which may be more dangerous than not.

For about a month, the armed forces of the Russian Federation have failed to break the Ukrainian defences. The Kremlin, to use good old Clausewitzian parlance, has fallen short of imposing its iron-fist political will on the Ukrainian people and government.

Yet, while the Ukrainian defence has proven to be robust, the current stalemate can lead to a catastrophe. President Vladimir Putin and his Siloviki war-party simply cannot fail in the post-Soviet space—this would exacerbate a direct threat to their throne at home. Simply put, a strategic-level failure in Ukraine can bring about a political chain reaction in Moscow. In fact, this is why we are looking at a very dangerous threshold in Europe.

The tangled stalemate

Until now, Ukraine’s conventional combat formations and mobilised reserves (the territorial defence forces) have shown a solid stand. There is neither a shortage of will nor a pause in the flow of disruptive tactical weaponry. The armed forces of the Russian Federation still enjoy the upper hand in comparative military-strategic balance. However, Putin’s myrmidons have been suffering from rising personnel and material losses in exchange for inadequate territorial gains, especially in the northern sector. Moreover, a notable number ofRussian generals fallen in the Ukrainian territory suggests broader shortcomings in the Russian ranks.

What is happening is that Moscow has not ensured adequate rear-area security, which puts their gains under constant threat. Russia’s infamous regime security apparatus, Rosgvardya, led by Putin’s favourite General Viktor Zolotov—who recentlychallenged the imprisoned opposition figure Alexei Navalny to a fight—has been running a diligent pacification campaign in the captured territories. However, it seems that theSoviet-fashion oppression from security services is falling short of bullying the Ukrainian “human terrain” into a silent surrender. The local populace is still protesting and even carrying on the resistance.

The Ukrainian armed forces have waged a very good example of the “mobile defence” concept, which doctrinally prioritises systematic counter-attacks targeting the adversary’s rear-areas and logistics. For example, while the Russian combat formations were seizing Kherson, the Ukrainian artillerypounded the Russian forward operating bases time and again, inflicting heavy damage on the attack and transport helicopters.

There are various reasons behind the Ukrainian mobile defence achievements. The flow of tactical enablers, such as man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) and anti-tank weaponry (i.e. Javelins and NLAW), into the country has continued uninterrupted. These weapons equip Ukrainian servicemen with critical capabilities.Western satellite imagery has boosted the Ukrainian high command’s real-time intelligence capacity, which remains essential when halting a stronger opponent.

Moreover, analysts can also observe a visibleintegration of Ukrainian artillery and drones, with the latter playing spotter and battle damage assessment roles in addition to kinetic strikes. This synchronisation of land-based fire-support weaponry and unmanned aerial platforms was successfully employed by Türkiye and Azerbaijan last year and is a critical pillar of Turkish drone warfare concepts of operations. At the time of writing, the Ukrainian Air Force and air defences are still operational, preventing Russia from establishing undisputed air supremacy.

Finally, the next batch of US military assistance, due to arrive in the coming weeks, will include the transfer of Switchblade loitering munitions or tactical kamikaze drones. The Switchblades—which include two variants that target light and heavy armour—can badly bleed the Russian armoured and mechanised formations, as well as troop concentrations, especially in urbanised terrain.

Unleashing Russia’s deadly arsenal

Having gradually resorted to the Soviet school’s overwhelming and indiscriminate firepower, the Russian war machine is fast dragging the conflict down a dangerously spiralling path. Thermobaric weapons (TOS-1 thermobaric multiple-launch rocket systems) and hypersonic missiles (Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missiles) were already used. Kalibr cruise missile salvos into the Ukrainian interior, such as those in Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv, have already become a dominant warfighting trend. And the Yavoriv military base, a critical facility along the Polish—Ukrainian frontier used for NATO assistance and training missions, was already targeted by the Russians.

These developments showcase a clear escalation pattern, heading towards a dangerous direction. The Putin administration is signalling a “stay away” warning to NATO. Besides, the Russian military has been, time and again, falling short of decisively cracking the Ukrainian defensive with conventional means.

We now have to re-visit low probability and high impact scenarios, such as the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

Doctrinally, the Russian calculus does not rule out the first use of nuclear weapons in a conventional setting that poses an existential threat to the state’s national security. Given Putin’s2021 article on the “historical unity of the Russians and Ukrainians,” a Euro-Atlantic augmented Ukrainian victory against the Russian campaign could well be interpreted as such a threat by the Siloviki circles. Western writings also conclude that Moscow’s tactical (or non-strategic in the Russian designation) weapons use could extend to “escalate to de-escalate” concepts of operations. So far, there are premature signs of Russian posturing in this respect. Nevertheless, Russian diplomatic rhetoric, accusing Ukraine of developing rogue radiological and biological warfare capacity, seems like setting the stage for the tactical nuclear option.

More importantly, at the time of writing, the United States’ Modern War Institute at West Point has just released an article suggesting that the Russian military could opt fora low-yield and limited nuclear airburst over Ukraine or the Black Sea, as a political signal to NATO nations to end their support for the Zelenskyy administration.

Overall, the present military situation can best be depicted as a stalemate. Stalemates can be dangerous, especially if one of the belligerents opts for winning by all means and at all costs. At some point, the armed forces of the Russian Federation will have consumed all weaponry below the threshold of tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine's defence. Should the Russian military then opt for further escalation, how might things play out in the more dangerous realm? This is the million-dollar question.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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