Backed Into a Corner

( Read Part I here.)

Yet while the nuclear threats are directed against NATO countries rather than Ukraine, Ukraine is the reason why Russia is in trouble and which now seems to offer the most troubling scenario. Colin H. Kahl, under secretary of defense for policy, said in a statement to The New York Times that ‘Ukraine’s success on the battlefield could cause Russia to feel backed into a corner, and that is something we must remain mindful of.’ This point was reinforced by the deputy director of the CIA, David S. Cohen, urging not to ‘underestimate Putin’s adherence to his original objective, which was to control Ukraine’ or ‘his risk appetite.’

One can note that Russia is not truly backed into a corner. At the moment there is no existential threat to the Russian state, even if one might be developing to Putin’s personal position, and that the way to get out of any corner is to cross the border back home. And if he wants to escalate he has other options. To quote the New  York Times again:


“more indiscriminate bombardment of Ukrainian cities, a campaign to kill senior Ukrainian leaders, or an attack on supply hubs outside Ukraine — located in NATO countries like Poland and Romania — that are channelling extraordinary quantities of arms, ammunition and military equipment into the country.”

More might be done against critical infrastructure or Ukrainian government buildings.

Yet these are all things he has either done to a degree, tried and failed to do, or simply not attempted because they are too difficult. If the option was there it would have made no sense to wait to interdict the weapon supply lines from the western borders into Ukraine, but Russia has not been able to do this. Attacking Poland or Romania would invoke NATO’s Article V. Russian leaders are well aware of this for they refer to it often. This is how nuclear deterrence works in the other direction and keeps the conflict contained.

Ukraine Says Situation in East Has 'Deteriorated Significantly'
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Ukraine Says Situation in East Has 'Deteriorated Significantly'

Worrying news from the front in Ukraine's Donbas.

So, if initiating a direct war with NATO is too dangerous, and the value of deterrence lies in limiting the forms of assistance provided to Ukraine, what about using such weapons against Ukrainian targets?


There is a view that Russian forces might hold on until the winter and recreate the sense of stalemate and mutual attrition that was felt last summer while the battle for Luhansk was underway. Another view is that their army is in a shambolic state and will be unable to regain any grip on the situation. Should the Ukrainians start moving against Russian position in the Donbas or capture the large number of Russian troops defending territory in Kherson and cut off from new supplies, then Putin would face calamity. In the face of such calamity would nuclear use be of any value?

Two possible roles are identified: first, to affect the course of the fighting on the ground, and second, more coercive, to threaten to raise the stakes to terrifying heights, including attacks on cites, persuading the Ukrainians to give up. To a degree this second role is inherent in the first. Once the nuclear threshold has been passed then the barriers to further escalation has been reduced. How might this be done?

Options range from a demonstration shot at one end of the spectrum, perhaps against a significant but currently uninhabited site (Snake Island has been mentioned) to make the point that a process has been set in motion with an unpredictable end, to direct strikes against Kyiv at the other end, with battlefield nuclear use in the middle.


The problem with a demonstration is that the message may be unclear. It will show that Russia is ready to ignore the strong normative prohibition on any nuclear use yet is still cautious on making the most of the explosive power. When a similar option was discussed in 1945 prior to the decision to target the city of Hiroshima one concern was that while this could show that the US had a new weapon of unprecedented power, and do so without killing large numbers of people, unless the Japanese could see its destructive effects directly it would make no impression on their leadership.

Another issue was whether the bomb would work. It would be embarrassing to encourage the Japanese to watch and then for the spectacle to turn out to be a dud. It is possible that this could be a non-trivial consideration in any Russian deliberations: while missiles are regularly tested this is not the case with their warheads. The last such test under the Soviet Union was during the early period of the Cold War. As we have seen with other weapons that have been bought out of storage they have not always been well maintained and do not work as advertised.


Another decision made in 1945 was not to warn the Japanese in advance what was coming. Because this would be a lone aircraft they did not want the Japanese to make an effort to shoot it down. As it was, although the air raid sirens sounded over Hiroshima, the absence of a large raiding force meant that it was turned off, and so many people were outside when the bomb exploded.

Presumably the Russians would want to add to the shock value of a strike, and to reduce the risks of it being caught by air defences, by keeping it a surprise. This would mean that any coercive value would have to be extracted after the event, using it as a warning of more to come.

What sort of event? It is assumed, but who can know, that the aim would be to combine any coercive value with a direct military value. This is why the focus is on the short-range low-yield ‘battlefield’ weapons, sometimes mistakenly described as ‘tactical’ (any nuclear use has strategic repercussions). This is where the analysis gets tricky.

The Russian armed force have thought long and hard about nuclear strategy. A detailed and subtle analysis by Michael Kofman and Anya Loukianova Fink shows that at least in theory the Russian military do not believe that limited nuclear use necessarily leads to uncontrolled escalation. The potential targets for limited nuclear strikes are those already identified for conventional strikes –critical infrastructure more than cities. How far this would be taken once the first threshold had been passed would depend on the opponent’s reaction.


Russian thinking on the matter, however, is geared to great power conflicts, and not an attempt to crush a supposedly weaker and smaller neighbour. Moreover, this is the sort of escalation that Putin was talking about in his Uzbekistan press conference for which he does not need nuclear weapons to have the desired effect.

That leaves the question of using the weapons to affect the ongoing battles underway on the ground. Here it is worth noting the issues that surround any attempt to use these as if they were normal weapons of war. In this role they can be seen as uniquely powerful versions of conventional munitions – from bombs, depth charges, shells, and mines, with the added ingredient of radiation. In this regard they are best employed against large targets, for example a gathering of troops preparing for an offensive.

The alternative would be a strong defensive position. Ideally this target would be some distance away from Russian troops. (The Americans famously developed a nuclear gun – the Davy Crockett – which had a lethal radius greater than its range).


Given the nature of the fighting in Ukraine this is not at all straightforward. There are rarely massed formations operating in either defence or attack. Units tend to be dispersed. Consider an account (from a Russian source) about the offensive in Kherson. It notes that the Ukrainians have made their impact by messing with the Russian supply lines while advancing not by armoured thrusts (unlike Kharkiv) but instead by using small groups of infantry ‘creeping’ forward over watery ground, for this is an area cut through by irrigation canals.

Finding a useful target for nuclear use in such circumstances would be difficult, and, given how little it might achieve, a strange way to start a nuclear war. Moscow has shown no great care for the populations of Luhansk and Donetsk, but as their liberation is supposedly at the heart of Russian war aims it would also be strange to mark this by nuclear detonations.


There is no evidence for now that weapons are being moved into position or being prepared for such strikes. US intelligence, which has been extraordinarily precise so far can be expected to pick up any details (or at least the Russian would need to assume that). No effort has been made to explain to the Russian public why such strikes might be necessary. After all Putin still insists that this is a limited operation and has refused to put the country on a war footing.

As we have seen Russian figures talk garrulously about scenarios for nuclear use against NATO countries but not Ukraine. We can also assume that neither of Putin’s recent interlocutors – Xi and Modi – would be enthused. This is a scenario largely generated in the West trying to anticipate contingencies that have yet to be reached.

It is true that the prospect of nuclear use might engender panic in Ukraine and NATO. It is also hard to imagine that the news would be greeted calmly in Russia. It could intensify opposition in Moscow to Putin. He would of course need a compliant chain of command to implement an order to go nuclear, especially as part of a complex military operation on the ground. If the wind catches radioactive dust close to the borders it could fall on Russian territory.

Even if use did make a difference the fundamental political problem would still be there: how to pacify a hostile population with a depleted army. Meanwhile nuclear threats do serve an important purpose for Putin, in deterring more direct NATO engagement.

Should he use nuclear weapons in a limited and possibly futile way, the threshold would still have been crossed and all bets would be off in terms of a NATO response, which might well include doing exactly those things Putin was trying to deter. This would also be true of possible Ukrainian moves against Belgorod and Crimea.

There is one qualification to this analysis, which is Crimea. This territory was seized from Ukraine in 2014 and Ukraine wants it back. Militarily this would be even more challenging than the other acts of ‘de-occupation’ that Ukraine wants to achieve. There are ways of making the Russian hold on Crimea more difficult without a military assault, and Zelensky has spoken of this as a problem that might require a diplomatic solution, although if Russia shows no interest in a negotiated withdrawal his forces will keep on going.

Rather than fretting about some future craziness, efforts might more usefully be put into preparing for the moment when Putin realises that he has lost and may seek to hold on to Crimea. At this time all the issues connected with ending this war – sanctions, reparations, war crimes, prisoner exchanges, and security guarantees – would need to be addressed. We may find it difficult to imagine that Putin can lose, and wonder about how well he will cope with his failed aggression, but it is entirely possible that at some point he will run out of options, and have to look failure in the eye.


After this post was first published, Putin made a speech (on Sep. 21) in which he announced military mobilisation. His description of the origins of the course of the war can be left to another day. It is an extension of the delusional analysis which he has been promoting since the start of this disastrous war.

The mobilisation announced will, I suspect, aggravate rather than solve the problems faced by Russian forces at the front. I will consider these in my next post. His main statement on nuclear weapons, however, is wholly in line, with my analysis. This is what he said (in full)

‘Nuclear blackmail also came into play. We are talking not only about the shelling of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, encouraged by the West, which threatens a nuclear catastrophe, but also about the statements of some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO states about the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons against Russia. To those who allow themselves such statements about Russia, I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction, and in some components more modern than the NATO countries. And if the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. It’s not a bluff.

The citizens of Russia can be sure that the territorial integrity of our Motherland, our independence and freedom will be ensured – I emphasize this again – with all the means at our disposal. And those who are trying to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the wind rose can also turn in their direction.’

This is still about deterrence. It came at the end of the speech as a warning to the West about further escalation. There is an issue as to whether the sham referendums proposed to support the annexation of the various occupied territories will be backed by this deterrent threat. He may be content to leave this ambiguous, but so was the statement on these referendums:

“The parliaments of the people’s republics of Donbass, as well as the military-civilian administrations of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions, decided to hold referendums on the future of these territories and asked us to support such a step. Let me emphasize that we will do our best to ensure safe conditions for holding the referendum. To enable people to express their will. And we will support the decision about their future, which will be made by the majority of residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions.”

No link was made in the speech between this promise and the nuclear threat. Only Luhansk is close to being fully occupied, and that is now being contested again. No new red line has yet to be established here. If he wanted to protect these gains with nuclear threats, before they are taken back by Ukrainian forces, he would need to have made this explicit.

Reprinted from Comment is Freed. See the original here.

Lawrence Freedman is Emeritus Professor of War Studies King’s College London. His
next book is: “Command: The Politics of Military Operations from Korea to Ukraine”
(UK Penguin, US OUP)

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily
those of the Kyiv Post.

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