Ukraine’s gains in its counteroffensive against Russia have raised questions about whether Vladimir Putin might turn to nuclear weapons in a desperate bid to wrest back the initiative following significant losses of troops, equipment and territory.
On Tuesday Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky said his forces have recaptured more than 3,100 square miles of Russian-held territory amid reports of towns in the northeast Kharkiv region being liberated all the way to Russia’s border.
Even Kremlin cheerleaders on state television are critical of the latest setbacks, with Moscow’s war effort seeming far removed from the gleaming medals and pomp of Red Square parades.
However, along with question marks over his ability to change strategy on the ground without the manpower and equipment to further escalate, are fears over what a cornered Putin could do next.
“I think we are all concerned that if he is pushed to the edge, he might respond in what you would consider a horrific way, making use of a weapon of mass destruction,” Rose Gottemoeller, NATO’s deputy secretary general from 2016 to 2019, told Newsweek.
This could be “not only a nuclear weapon, but also a chemical weapon, or possibly even a biological weapon. So I do think that it’s a worry among experts. It’s a worry among government officials as well. Nobody knows exactly what he will do and how he will react,” she said.
Soon after the start of his invasion on February 24, Putin put his nuclear forces on “high alert,” adding a sinister specter to a conflict in which Western leaders were already wrestling with whether to give the Russian leader an off-ramp to avoid an even greater calamity.
But reports of Russian atrocities in Bucha and Irpin as well as strikes against civilian targets have hardened Western resolve to provide Ukraine’s forces with support, both moral and military.
Experts are divided over the likelihood of Putin resorting to nuclear weapons. The historian Thomas Ricks tweeted he believed there was a “25 percent chance” the Russian leader would, because “his back is to the wall.” This message was retweeted by the retired US general Barry McCaffrey, who said there was “clearly a danger” of a tactical nuclear strike by a “desperate Putin.”
Justin Bronk from the London think tank the Royal United Services Institute said while the Russian military “don’t appear to have any good options for how to respond” to Kyiv’s counteroffensive, there is “little potential benefit” for Putin to turn to tactical nuclear weapons.
“Contrary to popular belief, they are not hugely effective battlefield weapons beyond their symbolic shock value, and would have to be used in quite large numbers to materially affect the balance of power on the battlefield,” he told Newsweek.
“Ukrainian forces and Russian forces are generally fairly close to one another, so fratricide would be difficult to avoid if [nuclear weapons were] used near a frontline position, and the nuclear fallout produced would inevitably contaminate other countries including Russia itself,” Bronk said.
“Furthermore, a nuclear use by Russia against Ukraine would force China to abandon even tacit support of the Putin regime, which would be crippling for Russia in the medium to long-term.”
Brent M. Eastwood, Defense and National Security Editor for Washington, DC foreign policy magazine [1945 believes the use of a battlefield nuclear weapon by Putin “is plausible but not probable.”
“The one thing I could see Putin doing on the nuclear side is to order a test of a low-yield weapon,” he told Newsweek. “This could warn the Ukrainians and the world that he is willing to do the unthinkable.
“This test could create time for the Russians to re-deploy forces and improve morale to retake the initiative. Hopefully, the Russians see that the nuclear option is not something they would seriously consider.”
He believes that the best thing Russia could do militarily is identify where the Ukrainians have advanced past their supply lines creating salients, bulges in the frontline, where Putin’s troops could stage counterattacks to cut off Ukrainian forces.
“The Americans are advising the Ukrainians and are likely warning them not to advance too far or too fast in order to ensure that they can be re-supplied and avoid encirclement. Russia will eventually re-group and attack again, but when?” Eastwood said.
Gottemoeller said that a humiliated Putin could turn to other measures such as plunging Ukraine into darkness over the winter, or stepping up strikes on civilian targets—a tactic the Kremlin has repeatedly denied it has undertaken, although international assessments assert the opposite.
“We can already see that they are using their missile superiority to attack critical infrastructure inside Ukraine,” she told Newsweek“including power infrastructure, the power plants, transmission lines and all related infrastructure in order to try to keep Ukraine in the dark.
“I expect that they will continue to strike civilian targets, apartment buildings and so forth in large cities, in order once again to try to drive the Ukrainian morale in a negative direction.”
The Rat Is Cornered
General Sir Richard Shirreff served as the deputy supreme allied commander Europe between 2011 and 2014. He lauded Ukraine’s “brilliantly executed” counteroffensive to recapture a significant chunk of territory which has “utterly humiliated Putin personally and demonstrated the complete inadequacies of the Russians.”
“It’s not unlike the Iraqis in 1991 when we cut right through them. The Russian army is on the same sort of level as Saddam Hussein’s motley crew,” he told Newsweekreferring to the Iraqi leader who invaded Kuwait to start the Gulf War.
“However, they are still deadly, as we have seen with the missiles and artillery raining down on Kharkiv. They could still reorganize and stabilize the line. And so that’s what Ukraine’s got to be careful of.”
Shirreff said that “of course there is a danger” Putin might resort to nuclear weapons, “but we should not take counsel of our fears.”
“I think it is unlikely, but nevertheless, the rat is cornered and you have got to be prepared for the worst case,” said Shirreff, who is now executive vice president of Sigma7 Global Risk Outcomes. “This is unlikely because firstly, it’s a double-edged sword.”
This is because the use of chemical and nuclear weapons in a fast moving fluid battlefield “could be just as much of a hindrance to Putin, particularly if the prevailing wind is from the West as it could be for Ukrainians on the receiving end.”
“I think it requires a degree of coordination and command and control, which at the moment, the Russians are not demonstrating that they’ve got.”