Will Putin use nukes in Ukraine?

We’re now coming up on two months of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and by a lot of measures, Ukraine appears to be winning. Kyiv and most major cities remain in Ukrainian hands, and the Russian military’s attempt to conquer Kyiv appears to have been repelled, at least for now.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is still alive, still giving orders, and still asking the world for more help. The key port city of Odessa has been bombed, but not invaded and occupied by the Russian forces offshore. Perhaps most humiliatingly for the Russians, the missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, is at the bottom of the ocean.

Ukraine claims that about 20,000 Russian soldiers have been killed; if true, that number would be higher than U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the Persian Gulf War, the War of 1812, and the Revolutionary War combined. Back on March 23, NATO estimated that Russia’s total number of killed, wounded, captured, or missing added up to more than 40,000.

The Ukrainian military also contends that it has destroyed or captured 163 aircraft, 145 helicopters, 762 tanks, 1,982 armored personnel carriers, 371 artillery systems, 125 rocket-launch systems, 76 fuel carriers, 138 unmanned aerial vehicles, 1,438 other vehicles, eight boats, 66 anti-air missile systems, and four short-range ballistic-missile systems.

A Russian invasion that was allegedly meant to stop the expansion of NATO has spurred Finland and Sweden to publicly announce an interest in joining the international group.

But all of this has come at enormous cost to Ukraine. This weekend, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost more than 3,000 soldiers, a figure that is as likely to be an undercount as the Ukrainian estimates of Russian losses are to be an overcount. As of Friday, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights had recorded 4,633 civilian casualties in the country: 1,982 killed and 2,651 injured — but that is an undercount, as the ability to count the victims in the middle of the war is severely hindered.

But the U.N. “believes that the actual figures are considerably higher, as the receipt of information from some locations where intense hostilities have been going on has been delayed and many reports are still pending corroboration. This concerns, for example, Mariupol (Donetsk region), Izium (Kharkiv region), Popasna (Luhansk region), and Borodianka (Kyiv region), where there are allegations of numerous civilian casualties. These figures are being further corroborated and are not included in the above statistics.”

In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday, Zelensky made it sound like the city of Mariupol — which had a population of 430,000 before the war — is largely wiped out:

There are two components. No one knows how many people died among the civilian population. If anyone gives you a figure, it would be a total lie. Hundreds of thousands were evacuated. Several thousand, tens of thousands were forced to evacuate in the direction of the Russian Federation. And we do not know where they are.

They have left no document trail. And among them are several thousands of children. We want to know what happened to them, whether they’re in good health. Unfortunately, there just isn’t any information on this.

And regarding what population has remained there, we also don’t have a definitive answer. One day, they say there are 50,000 or 60,000 left there. And then another day, someone says 100,000. And now we have information that perhaps 10,000 people have died there, all civilians who stayed. We’re talking about civilian deaths, not military.

The United Kingdom’s Defense Ministry stated Saturday that, “Road infrastructure in conflict affected areas of Ukraine has sustained significant damage. Russian troops have exacerbated this by destroying bridges, employing land mines and abandoning vehicles along key routes as they withdrew from northern Ukraine. . . . Damage to Ukraine’s transport infrastructure now presents a significant challenge in delivering humanitarian aid to areas formerly besieged by Russia.”

An invasion that the Russians expected to be quick and easy is turning into a long and bloody slog, with a devastating impact on the Russian economy and probably irreparable destruction of Russia’s reputation on the world stage. But we in the West are facing something of a catch-22: We want Russia to lose, if for no other reason than to discourage any other autocrat with delusions of grandeur from launching a war of territorial conquest. But the more Putin loses, the more desperate he may become to save face — and the more willing he may be to do something even more horrific than the ongoing war crimes Russian forces already appear to have committed.

Putin is approaching a deadline in the form of May 9, Russia’s Victory Day, celebrating the country’s triumph in World War II. Putin announced a “special military action” — not a war, in the eyes of Russian state-controlled media — against “Nazis” like the Jewish Zelensky — and now, nearly two months later, he’s going to stand in Red Square, in front of a big military parade, having failed to deliver a victory?

The wildly overconfident Putin thought Ukraine would be conquered by now. He desperately needs some sort of symbolic victory in the next three weeks. Even state-controlled media were shaken by the implausible government tale of the Moskva sinking because of a combination of ammunition catching on fire and bad weather. When an autocrat promises grand and glorious victories on the field of battle, he needs to be able to point to something as the fruits of that victory — particularly when Russians can see and feel the bad economic consequences of the invasion.

CIA director William Burns spoke at the Georgia Institute of Technology on Thursday, and in response to a question from former senator Sam Nunn, he stated that:

Russian military doctrine holds that you could escalate to deescalate — in other words, that faced with an overwhelming conventional military threat that you could resort to a first use of tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons. So in that circumstance, what some Russian leaders have talked about is a circumstance in which, you know, NATO would intervene militarily on the ground in Ukraine in the course of this conflict, and that’s not something, as President Biden has made very clear that’s in the cards. But you know, given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks that they’ve faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons. We don’t, while we’ve seen some rhetorical posturing on the part of the Kremlin, about moving to higher nuclear alert levels, so far we haven’t seen a lot of practical evidence of the kind of deployments or military dispositions that would reinforce that concern. We watch for that very intently. It’s one of our most important responsibilities at CIA.

Back on March 16, this newsletter did a deep dive into tactical nuclear weapons and the risk of Putin’s ordering the use of one. The effects of a smaller-yield tactical nuke can be quite different, depending upon whether the weapon is detonated underground, at ground level, in the air, or at a high altitude. As one U.S. strategic thinker envisioned, “One course of action could be a so-called demonstration strike with a single low-yield nuclear detonation in Ukraine or over the Black Sea to serve as a dramatic warning that resistance to Russia’s military campaign must be ended, backed by the compellent threat of further tactical nuclear attacks.”

No doubt Zelensky has every incentive to make Vladimir Putin appear as irrational as possible. But when asked about Russia using tactical nukes, he spoke as if it was a real possibility:

ZELENSKY: I think, all over the world, all the countries have to be worried, because . . . when they began to speak about one or another battles or involve enemies or nuclear weapons or chemical, some chemical issues, chemical weapons, they should do it — they could it. I mean, they can.

For them, life of the people is nothing. That’s why we should think, not be afraid, I mean, that not be afraid. Be ready. But that is not a question for — to Ukraine, and not only for the Ukraine, for all the — for all the world. I think so.

There is a possibility of them using these weapons. Nobody expected there to be a full-scale invasion of Ukraine from the Russian Federation. No one expected there to be a war in 2014. And now that there will be a full-scale invasion and killing of civilians, nobody expected them to invade the areas where there’s no military equipment and just kill and shoot dead a civilian population.

If the U.S. and its NATO allies want to deter the use of a Russian nuclear weapon in Ukraine, they would be wise to clearly spell out the consequences of a nuclear strike now.

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