Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Russia's Nuclear Option?

As winter arrives in Eastern Europe and the Russo-Ukrainian war approaches the end of its first year, a very serious war will become even more serious.

Both nations are increasingly fully invested in to seeing this to the end. Though on paper stronger, cracks in national resolve in Russia are showing much more than in Ukraine. Wars of choice for conquest – which is what Russia is engaged in – has a much different impact on a nation’s people than an existential war for national survival, which is the war Ukraine is in.

As Russia’s problems in trying to achieve something that looks like victory manifests itself in to the Russian people’s waning support for the war, the rulers of Russia will increasingly find their legitimacy and hold on power under threat. They know this war should have been over months ago. They clearly did not know their enemy well. 

Desperate times can force desperate measures. If the present Russian leadership’s hold on power is seen as weak, what measures might they take to try to hold on to power by forcing a quick end to the war on favorable terms?

Some are looking closer at the nuclear option that Russia has. I think they are looking too hard. A good example of this line of concern was in yesterday’s WaPo by Joseph Cirincione

NB: Before the pull quotes, a fair warning – Cirincione is selling a book titled, Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before it is Too Late, so keep that in consideration;

Russian President Vladimir Putin is losing his war. If the Ukrainians continue to liberate areas of their country from his invading army, would he actually use nuclear weapons as he has threatened? If so, how? And what would the U.S. response be?

It is difficult to put percentages on risk. Nor does it really matter. Given the stakes, if the chances are 10 percent or 40 percent, the response would be the same: Minimize the possibility of nuclear use, and prepare responses in advance.

This is when I remind everyone that "we" are horrible at predicting the next war early enough to prevent them. The track record is simply not very good. However, Cirincione has invested a lot of time and effort in looking at this - so we should give his ideas some consideration;

The next quote reminded me of a little reminder a peer gave me back when I was a NATO staff weenie at the other end of the HQ p-way from him. As a JO, he was on the other side of the wire as an JO in the Warsaw Pact. "Americans may not follow their doctrine very well, but Russians do."
Russian military writings describe in detail how, if Russia is losing a conflict, it could use nuclear weapons to force its enemy to retreat. This “escalate to de-escalate” or “escalate to win” strategy is somewhat controversial, but it is not dissimilar to various U.S. plans for using nuclear weapons first.

Well, sometimes we follow our doctrine. Sometimes the Russians don't...but if you are playing odds... 

I still stand by my belief - and that is a weak thread, I know - that in the next war, nuclear weapons will be what chemical weapons were during WWII. Everyone had them; no one used them.

If nuclear weapons were to appear on the Ukrainian stage, Cirincione does not have this COA as his most likely ... but it is my most likely if one must choose from the "Nuke" basket;

Demonstration shot. One option is for Russia to fire a nuclear weapon over an uninhabited area — say, part of the Black Sea — as a demonstration of its seriousness in hopes that the West will back down. Some scientists involved in the Manhattan Project urged just such a demonstration shot as an alternative to bombing Japanese cities at the end of World War II. While no one would be killed and there would not be physical damage, the explosion would stop the world in its tracks. There has not been a nuclear weapon used in combat in 77 years. No one has even seen a nuclear explosion above ground since 1980.

This is their neighborhood and fallout will drift to their lands if nukes are used. Is anyone going to buy grain downwind? No. Next to underground explosions, explosions high over the water or in the atmosphere create the least secondary radiation effects. Don't underestimate the lingering memory of Chernobyl. I see "Demonstration Shot" of the most likely COA of the least likely Nuke COAs.

As shocking as this would be, Russia would likely reject this option for the same reason U.S. military leaders did in 1945: It is not shocking enough.

Don't agree. Russia believes their own FITREPs, so to speak. The arrogance of their initial OPLAN speaks to this. They hold most of Central and especially Western Europe in contempt. I am sure a nuke over the Black Sea would be shocking enough (and they're right).

This is the author's "Most Likely COA:"

Low-yield weapon. Russia could fire a “low-yield” nuclear weapon on a Ukrainian military target. The explosion would kill hundreds or thousands and cause significant damage. Russia could use one of the 10-kiloton warheads it deploys on some of its ground-launched cruise missiles, including the Iskander that has been used extensively in the war with conventional warheads. Although this would be a massive explosion — equal to 10,000 tons of TNT — it would be small by nuclear standards. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was 15 kilotons; most U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads range from 100 to 1,000 kilotons. Some believe that Russia has even smaller-yield warheads, in the one-kiloton range.

I'm sorry, a nuke is a nuke. Any use, however slight, breaks the seal. As mentioned earlier, why go right away with something that will blow fallout your direction and ruin a major cash crop for who knows how many years? No one would want hot-wheat. You'd win nothing but a poisoned challis.  

Once this seal is broken, beyond that line be dragons. I would see a hard split between Western and Central European NATO on a response. Lots of marches with large paper mache puppets, etc. I don't think the author is correct at all in his assumptions.

... it would not require a “response in kind” by the United States, though some would urge that. The likely response, in addition to those in scenario one, would be massive increases in military aid to Ukraine and possibly concerted NATO or U.S. strikes on the Russian units that launched the attack.

As per the split in NATO, there will be no NATO strikes anywhere after such a use. I do not see the USA using nukes either when two European NATO members, France and the UK, have nukes of their own. NATO will not do it, and especially the Biden Administration won't go alone in such a step unilaterally.

In his next two COAs, he treats them as individual events, I don't. Once "Low Yield" goes, unless there is an immediate capitulation to Russian actions, the next two steps will follow rather quickly. This isn't a ladder, this is a chute.

Large-yield weapon. Putin could dial up the explosive force of the attack to the 50- or 100-kiloton range, or about three to six times the Hiroshima bomb. Tens of thousands would die with massive damage and radiation plumes. If the target were Kyiv, it would decapitate Ukraine’s leadership. This would almost certainly trigger a direct U.S. or NATO response, though not likely nuclear. The United States and NATO have sufficient precise, powerful conventional weapons that they could use to devastate Russian forces in Ukraine and command headquarters, including those units responsible for the attack. This would likely be accompanied by large-scale cyber operations.

Nuclear attack on NATO. This is the least likely scenario. Russian first-use doctrine includes the option of striking NATO targets. The attack could be by long-range missiles or air-launched cruise missiles on Central European states. If the yield of the weapon was similar to the previous scenario, it would inflict a level of destruction on a NATO state not seen since World War II. This could trigger a nuclear response. Some would argue a limited nuclear counterstrike was necessary to preserve nuclear deterrence. More likely is an all-out conventional assault to try to eliminate either Putin himself or the weapons he commands before he strikes again.

There is a certain arrogance in thinking that you can control the nuclear genie once it is out of the bottle. I am firmly of the school that you can't ... unless one side buckles. That is why one must be firm. The weaker you are, the more attractive the chute of nuclear use seems.

There is also a Rumsfeldian Known-Known in play here; the US President Joe Biden. He has a history going back decades. As former SECDEF Gates noted, he has a tendency to pick the wrong action on the international stage. He also shows a desire to - at whatever cost to foreign nationals - get the USA out of foreign entanglements involving our forces.

Should the Russians in desperation pull the nuclear card, would the USA do nothing and let the Russians get her way? What precedent does that set? Does anyone think that will stop the Russians from pulling this card again?

Does anyone really think there is a way to control nuclear escalation, that the same people who on the USA side who never saw Kabul collapsing like it did or on the Russians side who didn't see Kyiv standing like it did - that these two groups - have the insight and nuance to steer around and control each step in the "nuclear escalation ladder?" 

If the Russians do an airburst high over the Black Sea, would NATO/USA do a similar airburst over the Arctic? I don't know. No one does. Do you think the Biden natsec team has run this game yet and has a pre-planned response approved and ready to go?

I don't. 

Even with the best of teams on both sides, these are the "B" and "C" teams, not the "A" teams. Neither side has that record. There is no ladder to escalate on, to pause on each step and ponder. No, once the seal is broken, we have a steep and well greased chute. 

Pray for cooler heads, humility, and well secured genies. 

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