Will the Escalation lead Putin to Use Tactical Nuclear Weapons?
By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi | October, 2022
|Photo: Kremlin.ru | CC BY 4.0|
Approximately five months ago, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the U.S. Senate that Putin could use his nuclear arsenal if he perceived an existential threat to the Russian state or regime. The recent developments in the war, primarily Ukraine’s successful counterattack, and the Russian annexation of the four regions, as well as Moscow’s warnings during it, are feeding the West’s fear of the realization of such a scenario. The aim of the present paper is to examine the reasons that led Putin to declare the annexation and mobilize reserve troops – two steps he has refrained from taking for some time – and how they will affect the rest of the campaign.
What motivated the annexation and reserve mobilization?
The extreme steps taken by Putin, namely the announced annexation of the four regions; insinuated willingness to use nuclear weapons; decision to partially mobilize reserve troops (for the first time since World War II), the damage that seems to have been caused to the Nord Stream I and II pipelines and lately the attacks against infrastructure facilities throughout Ukraine demonstrate the depth of the distress encountered by the Russian president. This follows the successful Ukrainian counterattack that has led to the reclaiming of large areas in north-eastern Ukraine, as well as the growing concern that, over time, the Russian Army will struggle to defend the territories it now occupies (especially in the south around Kherson), and will certainly be unable to take over new ones. The backdrop for these developments is the high cost being paid by the Russian military (according to various reports, over 50,000 officers and soldiers have been killed; many weapon systems have been destroyed; their morale is low, and command chains flawed), and the fact that the Ukrainian Army is being supported by the West in the form of a constant flow of advanced weapons and quality intelligence.
Putin further realizes that the Ukrainian successes have far-reaching implications on the strategic level, and may impede Russia’s efforts to weaken Europe’s determination to continue this campaign by using energy as a weapon. Ukraine’s reclaimed territories have rekindled the hope that the Russian Army could be defeated after all. In addition, the atrocities uncovered in the liberated areas have once again fueled the discourse on the war crimes perpetrated by Russia since the war has begun. Thus, the West sees no other way except continuing to fight, and no option for negotiations over a ceasefire as long as the Russian Army refuses to withdraw from the areas it has been occupying. Furthermore, open criticism now emerges within Russian borders, some of which is even being voiced by circles close to the regime against the army’s performance, including that of Defense Minister Shoigu.
All of the above has led Putin to decide that, at present, the key, and perhaps only way of making a change and curbing the Ukrainian momentum is a combined effort of political (annexation), military (mobilizing reservists) and energy-related escalation (sabotaging the supply of gas) coupled with deterrence (nuclear weapons) and destroying infrastructure facilities. These recent steps aimed to convey the message whereby Russia is preparing for a long and ongoing war of attrition, and is willing to employ all means available to it to ensure achievement of the goals it has set out for itself during this campaign, in the hope that the fear over possible miscalculation and deterioration to use of non-conventional weapons, alongside the growing energy distress as winter progresses, will ultimately crack western cohesion, leading the West and Ukraine to exhibit greater flexibility, and seek out an arrangement that would end belligerence.
It is noteworthy that during the seven months of battle, Russia has been threatening to use its nuclear capabilities to deter the West from direct involvement in the campaign. Thus, Russia has made operative use, like no country has done before, and more than once, of hypersonic missiles to which a nuclear warhead may be attached. Moreover, when the war began, Putin had raised the level of readiness in the Russian Army’s nuclear unit (although no change in the forces’ conduct was permitted in practice).
The campaign developing into broad escalation
The annexation of the regions aimed to shape a new state and security reality, whereby these regions belong to Russia and form an integral part of it. As expected, the announced Russian annexation was immediately rejected by Ukraine and the West, although the resolution condemning it promoted in the UN Security Council was vetoed by Russia (whereas China, India and Brazil abstained). President Zelensky even went as far as to announce that Ukraine sought to take the fast track to becoming a member of NATO, although this statement was primarily intended as a publicity stunt, because Ukraine joining NATO would mean that the other members of the alliance would have to offer it help when attacked beyond the supply of weapons, as per section 5 of its convention.
Under the current circumstances, the abyss between Russian and Ukrainian positions seems to loom larger. Ukraine has also enacted a law that prohibits conducting any negotiations with president Putin himself. The immediate repercussion being that Ukraine will increase its efforts to continue its counterattack, while attempting to regain control of areas occupied before winter progresses, whereas Russian activity would be accelerated both on the battlefield and in the war over energy against Europe and elsewhere (cyber, space, food).
Although, at present, the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons is still perceived as an extreme scenario, it is now more likely than it has been since the war began. It is noteworthy that, according to the Russian national security doctrine, Russia can use nuclear weapons when addressing threats to its security and territorial contiguity. There is therefore a significant difference between the warnings given by Russia in recent months in an effort to deter the West from direct involvement in the fighting on Ukrainian soil, and those given following the annexation that are essentially designed to deter the Ukrainian Army and West from continuing to attack the regions occupied, which, in Russia’s view, are now considered Russian soil.
President Kennedy cautioned six decades ago that nuclear powers "avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating defeat or nuclear war”. The magnitude of the steps Putin would be willing to take directly depend upon the depth of distress and concern over military defeat, which could project not only on his legacy, but his remaining in office. According to this perception, the greater and more tangible the danger will be, and the greater the domestic pressures he will face will be, the more extreme the steps and risks he will be willing to take will be, including using tactical nuclear weapons.
For now, it is evident that the threats from the US and its allies about the devastating consequences for Russia, including hints of a willingness to act directly against Russian forces, are succeeding in deterring Russia, although this is a fragile deterrence. The warnings given by the Russian Minister of Defense, Shoigu, in the unusual phone calls held with the defense ministers of the United States, Great Britain, France and Turkey, about the possibility of Ukrainian use of a "dirty bomb" to create a provocation and place the blame on Russia, resurfaced fears in the West that Russia might carry out a "false flag" operation, and put the public blame on Ukraine. This, similar to the method of operation it took on the eve of the war, when it accused Ukraine of the explosions that happened in the eastern provinces and was one of the reasons for its invasion.
In any event, in view of Ukrainian and western determination, and the mighty response expected on Russia’s side, it appears that a substantial escalation in the fighting will take place in the foreseeable future before winter time.
Recommendations for Israel
An escalation in the war in Ukraine would require Israel, more than ever before during the last seven months of fighting, to embrace a cautious approach and political wisdom. Israel should continue to actively protect its strategic goals and security interests by deepening its alliance with the United States while maintaining freedom of action in the northern arena. Concretely, Israel should draw a distinction between the political and security aspects. While continuing to align with the West and voicing its objection to Russia’s attempts at annexation both publicly and when casting votes in international institutions, it should exhibit sensitivity in all matters associated with the security assistance provided to Ukraine (certainly with regard to any aid with public visibility) that may be perceived by Russia as Israel meddling with the war and helping Ukraine’s military efforts.
From a broader perspective, the Russian attempts to use its nuclear capabilities as means of deterrence harbor the potential of projecting onto other countries in the global (Japan, South Korea) and Middle-Eastern (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey [Turkiye]) arenas that are looking, to some degree or another, into the possibility of acquiring nuclear capabilities, with the prospect of another nuclear experiment by North Korea hovering in the background. Israel, for its part, should try to integrate into any international effort to prevent the use of nuclear weapons during the war in a way that would “normalize” the use of such means and lead to a nuclear arms race.
Authored by Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
If you wish to receive the weekly brief regularly, please follow the link to register.