Geoff Roberts: A grim vision of nuclear warfare in Ukraine

If some commentators are right that nuclear warfare is a real possibility, that’s all the more reason to stop treating the Ukraine war as a zero-sum game

Cross-posted from John Menadue’s Public Policy Journal

Picture by Nicolas Raymond

The Harvard-based website, Russia Matters, recently published an article by retired Brigadier-General Kevin Ryan with the alarmist but accurate headline ‘Why Putin Will Use Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine’.

According to Ryan, who served as a US defence attaché in Moscow, Putin’s use of tactical nuclear weapons is all but preordained because Russia does not have the conventional military power to defeat Ukraine.

In support of this supposition, Ryan recycles the well-worn mantras of western wishful thinking about the military situation in Ukraine: Russia is running out of materiel, its troops are of poor quality and Kiev is going to launch an offensive that will decisively turn the tide of the war in its favour.

As Bakhmut falls and Ukraine reels under successive waves of Russian missile strikes on its infrastructure, air defences and ammunition dumps, Ryan’s words ring more than a little hollow.

Most observers see Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling as an instrument to deter and limit direct western involvement in the war, but Ryan construes it as evidence that Putin is preparing to use tactical nukes to defeat Ukraine’s coming offensive.

While Ryan is right to emphasise that Western decision-makers underestimate the chances of nuclear war in Ukraine, it is their own escalatory policies that constitute the main risk, not the possibility that Putin might decide to authorise the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

Ryan rightfully points out that Putin has defined Russia’s proxy war with NATO in Ukraine as existential for the Russian Federation. But does that mean battlefield defeat or the loss of occupied territories in Ukraine will prompt him to press the nuclear button?

Putin has defined the existential threat to Russia as Western aspirations to break-up the Russian Federation and subjugate its peoples. That is the outcome he is pledged to do everything in his power to avert, even if it means risking strategic nuclear war.

Ryan also finds foreboding Putin’s appointment of his General Staff Chief, Valery Gerasimov, as overseer of the ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine, together with the heads of Russian ground and air forces as his deputies. This is worrying, says Ryan, because these three officers control Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons, though he concedes that they can only use them at Putin’s behest. Even so, as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis showed, the risk of unauthorised use of tactical nuclear weapons by local commanders is not to be lightly dismissed.

In the absence of a Stavka (HQ) headed by a military-political Supreme Commander – as was the case with Joseph Stalin during the Great Patriotic War – the aforementioned high command structure is only logical, especially when Gerasimov is also the country’s leading military strategist.

Gerasimov and his team must surely be willing and able to use tactical nuclear weapons should Putin consider it necessary, but their conduct of the actual war signals no such strategy or intention. The low risk, force-conservation grind of Russia’s attrition tactics are, if anything, indicative of a concern to restrict the war to the use of conventional weaponry.

The very real danger of nuclear escalation in Ukraine arises not from a putative Putin decision to win on the battlefield at any cost, but from the West’s constant crossing of its own red lines on military aid to Ukraine. NATO states began by sending large quantities of ammunition, small arms and defensive weaponry, then came long-range howitzers and HIMARs followed by air defence systems, tanks and armoured vehicles. Britain has now supplied Ukraine with long-range missiles capable of hitting a multitude of targets deep in Russia. Next will come F16 fighter jets, flown, perhaps, by western as well as Ukrainian pilots.

Western weapons, technicians, trainers, military planners, intelligence gatherers and special forces have killed or contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers. At some point Putin may well decide to retaliate by stepping on to the escalatory ladder himself, with who knows what consequences if his spilling of American blood leads to a tit-for-tat response from would-be two-term President Joe Biden.

We will know soon enough if Ryan’s prognostications about the future course of the war are correct. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, he is right and that facing defeat in Crimea or the Donbass, Putin would go nuclear. Surely that means we should redouble efforts to end the war as soon as possible? What sense does it make to continue a proxy war with Russia that, according to Ryan, is leading to Ukraine’s nuclear obliteration?

Pessimism and passivity are the natural allies of Ryan’s alarmism. Far from advocating restraining Ukraine so as to avoid nuclear escalation, Ryan is content for the West to simply “anticipate a nuclear weapon will be used.” And since, according to him, the use of nuclear weapons by Putin is inevitable, the West needs to prepare for a world in which they have been normalised as a weapon of war.

Ryan seems to discount the possibility that the United States would respond to Putin’s use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine by radical escalatory action of its own – a dubious assumption given Professor Joseph M. Siracusa’s recent report from the NATO-funded Tallinn Security Conference, where a high-ranking American official claimed it would be met by a massive US conventional attack on Crimea and on Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

According to Perth-based political scientist, Siracusa, the numerous Western hawks at the conference were gung-ho for throwing gasoline on the fires of the Ukraine war.

Siracusa’s reporting reveals that the true danger of nuclear escalation stems not from what Putin may or may not do, but from the inscribed logic of the western hardline view of the war as a zero-sum game in which either Russia or the West must triumph.

It is not clear to what extent Ryan supports such extremism but his grim vision of a new age of nuclear warfare is the natural counterpart of the western hardliners’ march of folly towards the nuclear brink.

Thankfully, there is an alternative, one that has been possible since the very beginning of the conflict and now has growing support among Western publics: a peace for land deal in which Ukraine concedes already-lost territory to Russia in exchange for security guarantees about its future as an independent, sovereign state. Such a deal would be a bitter pill for Ukrainians to swallow after so much sacrifice, but it would be far better fate than becoming the nuclear wasteland envisaged by General Ryan.

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