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Putin’s armageddon: where and why Russia may strike with nuclear weapons

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The shift to a strategy of intimidation

The threat of using tactical nuclear weapons by Russian President Putin is real, stated US President Joe Biden.

These words were spoken by the head of the White House after the Kremlin initiated a new psychological attack, threatening the world with atomic armageddon by deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus and threatening to launch a nuclear strike not only on Ukraine but also on Western countries. This time, the role of the harbinger of the impending apocalypse was not played by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev but by the honorary chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Sergey Karaganov.

In the article A Difficult but Necessary Decision, the expert writes about a new strategy of intimidation: for the “West to simply “detach” and not hinder Russia and the world from moving forward,” “in order to prevent sliding into a global thermonuclear war,” Russia must deliver a “preventive retaliatory strike” on a hypothetical target city, Poznan.

“This is a morally terrifying choice — we will use the weapon of God, dooming ourselves to severe spiritual losses. But if we don’t do this, not only Russia may perish, but most likely, the entire human civilization will come to an end,” prophesies Karaganov.

His article appeared at a time when Russia’s strategy of “escalation for the sake of de-escalation” ceases to work, and the West pays less and less attention to the “red lines” outlined by Moscow. Against this backdrop, Karaganov’s call demonstrates that Russians have shifted from a strategy of containment to a strategy of intimidation, with Moscow raising the stakes and lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons.

Psychological warfare: Russia’s nuclear threats

Both in Ukraine and in the West, they cannot ignore the threats of “delivering a nuclear strike to prevent a nuclear war.” Even if the Kremlin makes reassuring statements immediately after threatening with a nuclear club.

Speaking at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Putin reiterated the principles of Russia’s nuclear doctrine: “Nuclear weapons are created to ensure our security in the broadest sense of the word and the existence of the Russian state. But, firstly, we do not have such a need (to use it). Secondly, the very fact of contemplating on this topic already reduces the possibility of lowering the threshold for weapon use.”

However, if Putin is not lying and indeed sees no need to use nuclear weapons at present, why then does an expert close to the Security Council threaten the West with a preemptive nuclear strike? Did Karaganov write this article on his own initiative or at the request of the Kremlin? There is no definitive answer to this question.

According to one version, Karaganov created this text specifically for Putin.

“The article reflects the opinion of the circle surrounding Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, who presents Putin with a difficult choice: either take responsibility for a decisive step — the use of nuclear weapons, which will make the world fear Russia and enable the achievement of goals in Ukraine, or not dictate conditions to soldiers that they would be willing to end the war,” Ukrainian National Institute for Strategic Studies expert Oleksii Yizhak suggested in a comment for ZN.ua (news website).

According to another version, the article is part of Putin’s strategy of blackmail: in the face of the ongoing Ukrainian offensive and on the eve of the NATO Summit in Vilnius, it aims to pressurize the West by intensifying its fear of a nuclear war. The fear, on the one hand, is intended to compel the US and EU to negotiate with Russia, and on the other hand, to limit military assistance to Ukraine. This, in turn, is meant to push Kyiv towards negotiations with Moscow, leading to a potential freezing of the armed conflict or signing a peace agreement on Russian terms.

Analyst Keir Giles from Chatham House views Russia’s discussions of a nuclear strike as a method of psychological warfare that the Kremlin resorts to when facing difficulties on the battlefield.

“The problem for Moscow and its talkative heads is that nuclear threats have long lost the ability to shock, which they once had, due to their frequent use,” noted the expert in an interview with Meduza.

According to his opinion, in order for their warnings to be taken seriously, Russians are making them more realistic.

“The threat of Russia using nuclear weapons against NATO is minimal. As for Ukraine, I assess it slightly higher since the country is not protected by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and does not possess its own means of nuclear deterrence,” noted Mariana Budjeryn, a researcher at the Belfer Center of the Harvard Kennedy School, in a comment to Zn.ua.

However, the expert also believes that Putin lacks moral “stop valves” when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons.

Oleksii Yizhak also believes that Putin is psychologically prepared to give such an order.

“But it is very difficult to imagine that a person who hides in a bunker and is so concerned about his own safety would give an order to launch a nuclear strike without being confident of his survival. In my opinion, the likelihood of Russia carrying out a tactical nuclear strike against Ukraine today is similar to that of last spring: slightly above zero,” asserts the expert of the Ukrainian National Institute for Strategic Studies.

In Kyiv, they are confident that Russia will not launch a nuclear strike against Ukraine.

“As the head of intelligence, I can say directly that this will not happen. Despite my dislike for Russia, there are not so many idiots in their leadership,” stated the chief of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine Kyrylo Budanov, in a comment to The Economist.

Furthermore, in Washington, as mentioned by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, there are currently no signs indicating that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons.

See also: Blowing up the Kakhovka Dam: Russia’s announced crime

However, while in the current situation, the probability of a nuclear strike is minimal, tomorrow it cannot be ruled out, as Russians have moved nuclear weapons from the political plane (as a deterrent) to the military format. Theoretically, there are several options for Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons, primarily on the territory of Ukraine, but not NATO member states. Putin could make such a decision if the Ukrainian Armed Forces are very successful in their offensive.

Scenarios for the use of tactical nuclear weapons

The first scenario is a demonstrative explosion in an uninhabited territory, for example, on Snake Island.

“This scenario is the least likely because, by crossing the nuclear threshold, aside from a horrifying image that people will see on messengers and television screens, the Kremlin gains neither political nor military advantage,” believes Budjeryn.

The second scenario is the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield. According to Budjeryn, this scenario is also unlikely due to several factors. Firstly, the close engagement between Ukrainian and Russian forces on the battlefield. Secondly, the current incapability of Russian forces to operate in areas where nuclear weapons are deployed.

“A single tactical nuclear warhead is not enough to change the situation on the battlefield. It would require several dozen warheads. This goes beyond demonstration and forces NATO countries to react to a war in Eastern Europe involving the use of nuclear weapons,” said Oleksii Yizhak.

Finally, the third and, according to Budjeryn and Yizhak, the most likely scenario for the use of tactical nuclear weapons is to deliver a nuclear strike on a densely populated Ukrainian city that includes major industrial plants and military depots. Examples of potential targets mentioned by the experts include Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia, and Mykolaiv. Budjeryn also believes that “a tactical nuclear weapon strike on a city would likely be accompanied by Russia’s demand for Ukraine’s capitulation, and in case of refusal, a threat of a massive strike on Kyiv.”

Deterrence and consequences: response from the West

Therefore, the best way to defend against or deter such a strike is to provide Ukraine with modern missile defense systems and air defense systems. As demonstrated by the actions of Ukrainian Air Force, Patriot missile systems effectively cope with the main carriers of nuclear warheads, such as Iskander and Kinzhal missiles, as well as with advanced cruise missiles.

What can deter Putin from future use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine and Western countries? Primarily, the threat from the West to deliver a nuclear strike in response on military targets or to target Russian objects with overwhelming conventional forces, followed by economic and international isolation of Russia.

Perhaps someone in Moscow considers Western leaders to be “weaklings.” The lack of a serious Western response to the blowing up of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant may seem to reinforce such assessments. However, events in the past 16 months have demonstrated the determination of the Western establishment to restrain the Kremlin. Therefore, it is unwise to underestimate Washington’s resolve to carry out its undisclosed warnings to Moscow that any use of nuclear weapons in the war against Ukraine will have catastrophic consequences for Russia.

If Biden’s words mean anything, there will be a response from the United States. However, it would be a response that avoids triggering a nuclear war, which is feared in the West,” believes Oleksii Yizhak.

Furthermore, the Kremlin must also consider the reaction of its partners who maintain a positive-neutral position towards Russia in its aggression against Ukraine — China and India. Previously, Chinese and Indian leaders sent Putin an unequivocal signal about the inadmissibility of using nuclear weapons. Beijing and Delhi fear that Russia’s use of nuclear weapons would destroy the regime of nuclear deterrence and remove all barriers to the emergence of new nuclear states.

Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons will make it a rogue state. And it is not at all clear that such a step would allow the Kremlin to achieve its political and military goals in relation to Ukraine and the West. But by using nuclear rhetoric and being “frostbitten”, the Russian leadership is expanding the Overton window. For Ukraine, it is important that the West remains resolute and does not flinch before the Kremlin’s nuclear blackmail.

Originally posted by Volodymyr Kravchenko on Zn.ua. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

See also: Words and actions of Rafael Grossi. Whom does the Director General of the IAEA serve?

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