Russian Use of Nuclear Weapons and Response rgd Ukraine

Note to all - I’m putting this here as it’s inherently subjective (at this time) and not quite a fit for P&E. I also noted and thought about bumping “Imagine you are president and Putin nukes Kyiv” that @Hari_Seldon started, but find the situation is quite different 6 months down the line.

Specifically two recent articles made me re-examine my prior skepticism on if even Putin would use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine theater. For the record, I still lean towards unlikely, but I’m far from my earlier ‘nightmare’ scenario and have entered ‘horrified to see as plausible’ mode. The articles in question, in no particular order.

And as Zelenskyy opined, I don’t think he’s bluffing.

What informs my opinion largely is a quote from the second article -

On Telegram Tuesday, Dmitry Medvedev, who is now Russia’s Security Council chief, criticized US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Liz Truss, and the wider NATO alliance.

He said those leaders “constantly threaten us with ‘terrifying consequences’ if Russia uses nuclear weapons” and accused Truss of being “completely ready to immediately begin an exchange of nuclear strikes with our country.”

Medvedev said Russia’s laws around the use of nuclear weapons meant it could retaliate with them if it’s hit with nukes or attacked with conventional weapons that threatened “the very existence of our state.”

Now, the main reason I’m not drinking myself into a stupor yet is that I think we’re seeing Putin, via Medvedev (as well as his own statements) sending up a trial balloon on their new stance, especially in light of the hasty and fixed sham referendums in the captured and breakaway territories. To wit, that within a week or so, they will be formally annexed by Russia, and that despite all international protest, Russia will act going forward as if they are Russian territory. Therefore, if Ukraine attempts aggression on those borders, they will point to the above and use nuclear weapons (hopefully tactical) to protect said borders.

Putin cannot be seen as having lost, or backing down, but his military cannot deliver what he had previously declared. And especially if he dumps the majority of the 300k new draft into those areas, he can use any major loss or massacre of those troops as his fig leaf, while preserving the (slightly) more effective active military.

Okay - so now you know why I think it may well happen, feel free to agree or disagree, but I’m going to move on to the second part, the response. And sadly, they all pretty much assume that there will be no major change on the international front - because if Putin goes with said plan, I think while India may back out of any major support, they’ll probably still continue to buy energy due to their own needs, while speaking out against the horrible tragedy. And as for China, they will likely do that same, but as the above scenario once again paints Russia as merely defending it’s borders from NATO/Ukraine aggression, I think they’ll continue to sit back.

In that case, I see three main scenarios, which I’m putting in order of most to least likely IMHO.

  1. Outrage followed by non-nuclear response. Basically, lots of talk about how the unthinkable has happened, but refusal to escalate the situation when there is that much on the line. I expect, as a matter of realpolitik that while there will be no direct response, that Ukraine will be fast tracked into EU/NATO but the de facto new borders will remain. So that if Russia does anything else in terms of the border, it’ll be a mandatory NATO full retaliation. We’ll be back to full on Cold War with a new wall going up in the occupied territories.

  2. Measured retaliation as a statement that unilateral nuclear attacks cannot be allowed, followed by a nuclear demonstration on a Russian Military Target. A military base / supply depot far from associated civilians will be targeted and destroyed with a nuclear weapon. Probably with enough warning to prevent a full consequential Russian launch and maybe even time to evacuate the personnel, just not the equipment.

  3. An attempted tactical strike (nuclear or not) on Putin himself. In that he will be held directly responsible, and that as per two above, the international community can and must punish those who would use nuclear weapons as active political tools to support changes of borders.

NOW TO BE CLEAR, I still figure something like an 80% chance of (1), with the other two splitting the difference, but I never thought I’d bee seeing this as even issue and the need for response as vaguely plausible.

Okay, now for adult beverages, and to desperately try to get to get “Eve of Destruction” to stop playing on auto-repeat in my mind.

ETA - I’m trying to keep this a narrow topic rather than any of our more general Ukraine war threads, as this is, well, just that important.

I still don’t think that Putin will use nukes, because I don’t think he’s that insane. But I’ve never been nearly as confident in that as I’d like, because he’s not entirely sane, either.

And the reason why he’d have to be insane to use them is because the only rational response to him using nukes is the immediate obliteration of him, his government, and his entire military. And the rest of the world needs to make it perfectly clear that we know that that’s the only rational response, because us making that clear just might make him less likely to use them.

See, the problem is YOU think that, and I think that, but I don’t think the Russian’s agree. While I’m no apologist, I think we’ve learned that both in terms of threat and ego the majority of us don’t fully understand how Russia is going to react.

I would have bet long odds prior to the war starting that Putin was going to stage a propaganda coup and pointedly demand that Ukraine give up it’s EU / NATO ambitions. But I was wrong.

I would have sworn that the largely solid agreement across the West towards sanctions, barring of international assets and the like would have made Putin reduce the scale of his aggression, and I would have been wrong again.

And I look at what the west has and has NOT done, and think to a statement made by Medvedev in the BI article above -

Medvedev said that if Russia did strike Ukraine with a nuclear weapon, NATO member states would put their own security ahead of protecting “a dying Ukraine that no one needs.”

And I’m not sure he isn’t right.

The thing is, securing ourselves against a nuclear Russia means an immediate retaliatory strike with our full arsenal so as to minimize the impact of their response against us.

While I think overall you provided a pretty cogent analysis, I don’t agree with major aspects of your “most likely” scenario #1. The absence of an overwhelming military response to a Russian nuke is inconceivable because it would embolden Putin to continue such attacks with impunity. Fast-tracking Ukraine into NATO is meaningless at that point since we will already have clearly demonstrated that we’re going to do nothing in response to nuclear attacks on Ukraine. Besides, admitting into NATO a country with massive ongoing border disputes is fundamentally against NATO principles.

So, again, the only possible response to a Russian nuclear attack is a massive international retaliation with conventional weapons as well as total sanctions. Putin would have to be insane not to recognize that this would be the end of Russia as we know it, and the end of him personally. And even if he is that insane or that desperate – and not even our top analysts can claim to know the mind of Putin – I doubt that the insanity prevails down the whole chain of command.

If Putin has to resort to nukes he will have lost the support of the Russian military. It will be obvious that he let Russias military might become a joke under his tenure. They will turn on him before he gets the chance to do so because they do not want to rule in an isolated state. China will distance from them as well, its not part of their plan.

The miltary and oligarchs enjoy spending their ill gotten fortunes in a free world, they do not want to go back to worst than USSR conditions.

I absolutely hope you’re right and I’m wrong. (how often do we get to say that here?!) I actually considered that, but the reason I stepped away from it was in my scenario, we aren’t going to GET total sanctions. IMHO as long as it’s in defense of ‘Russian territory’ China isn’t going to comply.

Let me repeat, I hope I’m wrong.

I do think that in that scenario, we will see Western powers give Ukraine the air cover they’ve always wanted, and ongoing and continued financial and material support, and likely even build friendly rear support bases. The whole ‘we’re going to make sure you don’t do it AGAIN’ - but I don’t think, in light of China’s lack of support, there will be an effort made to directly recover the lost territory.

And this is the part you misunderstand.

Medvedev (doubtless saying what Putin told him to) said

  1. Russia will respond to nukes used against them with nukes used back.
  2. Russia will resort to first use nukes when “the very existence of our state (Russia)” is threatened by conventional attacks.

OK, number one is bog-standard doctrine of every nuclear country, including the USA. And is not a change from avowed Russian practice dating back to Kruschev when the Soviet Union first obtained nukes.

As to number two, there’s one hell of a jump from “somebody fired conventional artillery over the border into the sham-annexed newly declared Russian oblast of Donbas”, and “The very existence of Russia is about to be extinguished.”

And you made that jump without even noticing. IMO that’s silly.

The nuclear danger to the world comes when Putin is in danger of being deposed. Until then it’s just an unwinnable war for both sides that can’t quite settle down to a mere frozen conflict like e.g. Abkhazia.

We may have 5 more years that resemble 1917 on the Western Front. No, not trenches & mud, but a constant meat-and-machine grinder that exchanges small amounts of territory back and forth repeatedly for vast amounts of blood and treasure. But not so much blood or treasure in any given day or week that it forces either side to throw in the towel even as they get slowly bled white. The frog is simmered very very slowly.

In the best case, Putin wakes up dead one day, and the Russians take a page from the US playbook, loudly declare victory then go home to try to recover from their self-inflicted 5+ year bender.

Xi is a lot of things, but he’s definitely not insane. A Russia that’s willing to use nukes to get what it wants is a threat to the entire rest of the globe, China included. Right now, China is happy to profit off of being Russia’s sole customer, but the bottom line changes when that profit comes at the cost of an existential threat to China. Especially given that, if it does come to obliterating Russia, a China that takes part in that obliteration could just claim the Russian resources they want as their own.

I was under the impression that Putin doesn’t actually control the nukes, that unlike the US there’s someone in the military below Putin who can countermand the order if he feels its not in the Russian militaries best interest to launch a nuke. At least in the articles I read about that in those leadership roles the Generals are more looking to keep nukes as a last resort as opposed to a first strike weapon.

I think he knows that … and that is part of the risk we are looking at … Will he want to be remembered as:

  • they guy who got thrown out of a window because he put shame on his country losing a war
  • get blown to pieces by a huge retaliatory (conventional) strike by NATO (and/or the western world)

I think his mental structure will opt for the second alternative … his rationale/storytelling: just when he was turning the war around by nuking those nazis to hell, the whole west conspired to kill him … voilá … instant Dolchstosslegende/martyrdom/legend … he has not more to aspire to imho.

that is the main risk I see… he might be able to protect his “name/reputation in history books” better by setting a nuke(s) off … if he takes 100.000 with him to hell is of no relevancy for him.

I also think the west should set a minimum level of strong, pre-emptive rules:

You set off a nuke:

  • 100% sanctions with no exception
  • Sanctions on all countries that do not implement sanctions against russia (china/india)
  • Ukr. will be admitted into NATO and any further nuke will be considered an attack on NATO and have massive retaliatory strikes with potential for millions of dead russians
  • your whole oil/gas/coal/electricity industry and ALL pipelines will be levelled within a week - you will be run back to 1880
  • make sure the russian population learns about the consequences (saturate the big cities with leaflet bombs)
  • something along this line…

I don’t see this scenario at all… the war went from 80:20 (in russia’s favor) to a 65:35 (in Ukr. favor) within 6 months … and I think the russians will fall apart pretty hard (once the Ukr. caps their northern supply lines - and they are a mere 30km away from that) - I see var. rounds of reverse-stampedes in the cards

at the present stage (if true) that’s dead law at best … who in “middle-management” will stick his head out and be the guy who cancelled Putin’s main order? He already moves generals and vice-MOD like peons on a chess board…

The thing that I am most worried about, is the continuous talking about this, is a setup for a false flag nuclear bomb event.
It has happened in the far and near past. ( Not nuclear thankfully )

I don’t think that the national leader in any country actually directly controls the nukes: In every country with nukes, the leader sends an order down the chain of command, probably multiple levels, to the person who actually pushes the button. And in every country, that person is legally obligated to follow those orders. But they might still refuse anyway.

I don’t think NUKEs lend themselves for false flags … the stakes are just too high and the number of countries w/ nukes just too limited. No, I don’t see that happening

Someone who Putin can have assassinated and knows it full well.

Just addressing this. While I agree that ‘somebody fired conventional artillery over the border’ and so forth wouldn’t be considered the extinguishment of Russia, but I do think that attempts to take -territory- that Russia claims as it’s own away, while Russia is unable to contest it militarily MAY.

Note, I say may. From the OP on, I said that I was originally of the faction that this would only happen in a nightmare. I still don’t consider it likely but it’s moved into the realms of horribly, if remotely, plausible. Repeating myself again -

And of course, so far at least, I’m talking about use of a tactical / battlefield level nuclear device, targeted at either a Ukraine military buildup or (considering Putin’s ego) Zelenskyy himself and anything near him as collateral damage.

Again, I’m perfectly happy to be considered the doomsayer, and hope to be proven wrong. But as I stated upthread, I already expected powers that could have influenced Russia to step in long before now, especially China. The fact that they haven’t, despite @chronos fair evaluation, indicates that China may well not intend to unless it gets to that stage…

Or, considering their markedly aggressive desire to protect their claimed ocean / created islands / Taiwan and other extended territories, they may just let the whole thing go. A tactical nuclear usage in the Ukraine is unlikely to affect them directly, and I don’t think the West will sanction them for refusing to sanction Russia for the usage of such things.

I -do- think Putin is being foolish to depend on China’s continued forbearance, and using nukes would probably be the fastest path to testing it… but again, I am no longer certain it won’t happen despite all the rational reasons to avoid it.

I am very glad however I remain in the minority opinion on it.

People should realize that NATO has been war gaming this for decades. It just might be possible that they already have some tactical responses in their hip pocket.
I wouldn’t jump to conclusions that US ICBMs will fly as a response to a 1st strike.

Quoting a snip of your intro for context …
Understand and mostly agree w your whole post and it’s more nuanced view. I had not read all you’d written in the previous thread.

The central danger here, or in NK, or in Iran, or previously in Iraq, is that only people w nutty ego- / psycho-issues become dictators, and then they’re surrounded by people telling them at first polite fictions and eventually as things go badly, absolutely whopping lies. Which means that reality eventually has very, very little input into their decisions. As such, outside predictions which depend on ordinary national interest calculations or ordinary psychoanalysis of leadership dynamics are often far from the mark.

Historically the Soviet Union’s military doctrine did not see a huge firebreak between blitzkrieg-style conventional warfare and the same thing augmented by tactical nukes (or chemical weapons). Nukes (and to a lesser degree chem) were just bigger bangs, not a different kind of bang. Their writings always marveled at the weird way the West thought of nukes as different or somehow “unthinkable” (a word I hate for its strong head-in-sand connotation).

Even back when I was in the biz 30+ years ago, this asymmetry really worried me: viewing the enemy’s decision process through your own lens when you already know theirs is different is extremely dangerous and crisis-unstable.

I’ve not studied Russia’s public doctrine recently, but when I last did, their views had not evolved much from Soviet practice.

The Soviet Union ended without even a minor a nuclear exchange, something I’d have given long odds on before I lived through it as we all did. Will we be twice lucky as Putin’s reign comes to an end however it eventually does? Damned hard to say.

Here’s what I think will happen:

  1. If Russia gets humiliated by losing Donbas or Crimea, it absolutely will use a small nuke on a small Ukranian city, rationalizing it as a military target.
  2. The US does not need a nuclear response for a proportionate response. There will be massive salvos and sorties against the launch site (or something we’ll agree to call a launch site) and selected political targets.
  3. If Russia chooses to respond to that, their next target will be the EIS missile defense site in Poland. They’ve already rehearsed this as part of the Zapad exercises.

The downside of Russia attacking Poland is, of course, a civilization-ending nuclear escalation. But the upside for Russia is that if NATO eats it without retaliation, then NATO’s credibility is absolutely broken.

If you look at what Russia has already done to Mariupol, this is indistinct from a 5kt nuclear bomb being dropped on it. People don’t have as strong a response as they would a 5kt bomb because it happened over months, it broke no taboos, and it caused no toxic fallout products.

Russia is ready to break taboos. They care nothing about killing 60,000-100,000 people. And they understand, rightly, that the West will do literally anything to avoid nuclear escalation, including & especially a massive conventional retaliation.

That’s why my expectation is that there are better than 50% odds that Russia will use a tactical nuke on a Ukranian city of about 50,000, and NATO will mount a conventional response that is measured not to invite broader escalation. If Russia doesn’t achieve their aims in Ukraine, they intend to take us into a second age of nuclear weapons use, in which Russia demonstrates they are a madman not to be trifled with. I believe this is not only on the table, but likely.

Very much so. This has been one of my worries to date - the analysts that got blind-sided in the early days seem to believe they’ve re-adjusted their expectations and make predictions with confidence and some minor hand waving as to the other possibilities. But I think that despite all our solid signals intelligence and orbital surveillance, we’re deeply missing out on understanding the human/motivation level. Although considering the slowly changing stance on this particular topic, they may also be making the same grudging, horrified realization.

I do find @HMS_Irruncible 's scenario more likely than @Al128’s (mostly due to the lack of international cohesiveness) - the US is historically prone to see itself as the good-guy (regardless of the darker facts) and won’t want to ‘drop to their level’. But agree that it’s almost certainly doomed to trigger additional retaliation.

Absent an international consensus, it does seem like we don’t have a better option than measured but powerful non-nuclear response, possibly combined with even more extreme sanctions on all Russian shipping / international trade that we can influence (such as the discussed sanctions on those who DO trade with Russia), followed by a new Cold War with periodic threats of another such nuclear demonstration. :nauseated_face: