28 April 2022   Leave a comment

One of the more unsettling aspects of the Russian war on Ukraine is the extent to which Russian authorities, including President Putin, have referred to nuclear weapons. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has produced a timeline of such statements and there were several statements that I missed when they were made. References to nuclear weapons is gratuitous: no state forgets that another has nuclear weapons when a conflict occurs. The question is why the Russians are making sure that no one forgets that there are Russian nuclear weapons.

The Russians introduced a new strategic doctrine in June 2020 entitled “On the Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence“. That document made reference to circumstances in which Russia may choose to use nuclear weapons in a conventional war. That reference is generally referred to as an “escalate to de-escalate” option. Both the US and Russia have developed tactical (or “battlefield”) nuclear weapons with explosive capabilities that can be lower than some conventional bombs. The BBC describes these weapons:

“Tactical nuclear weapons vary enormously in size and power.

“The smallest can be one kiloton or less (equivalent to a thousand tonnes of the explosive TNT) – the larger ones perhaps as big as 100 kilotons.

“The effects would depend on the size of the warhead, how far above the ground it detonates and the local environment.

“But as a comparison, the atomic bomb that killed around 146,000 people in Hiroshima, Japan, during World War Two, was 15 kilotons.”

The BBC article goes on:

“US intelligence say Russia has a theory called “escalate to de-escalate” if it is in a conflict with Nato.

“This involves doing something dramatic – such as using a tactical weapon on the battlefield, or as a demonstration somewhere – or threatening to do so.

“The idea is to frighten the other side into backing down.

“The concern is that if Putin feels cornered and that his strategy in Ukraine is failing, he could use tactical nuclear weapons as a ‘game changer’, to break a stalemate or avoid defeat.

“But the situation would likely have to get worse in Ukraine – or back in Russia – for him to consider this.

“James Acton, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Pace in Washington DC, says: ‘I am legitimately worried that in that circumstance Putin might use a nuclear weapon, most likely on the ground in Ukraine to terrify everyone and get his way. We are not at that point yet.'”

“Dr Heather Williams, nuclear expert at Kings College London, says one problem is that it is unclear what ‘winning’ in Ukraine would look like for Putin – and thus what might drive Russia to use a nuclear weapon.”

This doctrine treats nuclear weapons almost like they are similar to conventional weapons. The exception rests in the eyes of the rest of the world–the Russians rely on shock and fear to accomplish their aims and are less interested in the actual damage done by a nuclear blast. I think that the Russians are completely mistaken in their projected reactions. It may be the case that conventional weapons can cause more damage than some tactical nuclear weapons, but that disregards the profound psychological and political reactions, not only on the part of the rest of the world but also within the Russian domestic population.

There is, however, another aspect to this strategy which troubles me a great deal. The Russians are making these nuclear threats in order to prevent substantial help to Ukraine from other powers. What is unknown is the level of help that would trigger the use of tactical nuclear weapons. This ambiguity has two effects. The first is to introduce a high level of restraint on the allies of any attacked state. This outcome could be the intended effect of the threat, depending on how risk adverse the allies are and how high the stakes to the allies actually are. But there are very few objectives that warrant the risk of a nuclear attack so the level of restraint is probably high. This condition gives the attacking state a veto over alliance cohesion and compensates for any disadvantage the attacking state may have in conventional power.

The second consequence of the ambiguity is is increases the risk of miscalculation. Does a tank tip the balance? A jet fighter? Even the leaders of the attacking power do not have a clear idea of what the tipping point may be. Introducing the prospect of a fuzzy “red line” only makes the situation more unstable.

Posted April 28, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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