Putin’s take it or break it strategy in Ukraine and his perilous nuclear options


March 26, 2022

Ten things to know about the war in Ukraine, including Putin’s potential use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine

  1. Time is now an ally of Ukraine. With Western logistical support, time is now on Ukraine’s side. Until recently time was viewed as something that worked against Ukraine. Given Russia’s superior numbers, the defeat and occupation of Ukraine was widely viewed (myself included)  as just a matter of time. The stout Ukrainian resistance combined with Russian Army and Air Force arrogance and incompetence have now, however, turned time into a Ukrainian asset. Absent substantial help from China, or Putin’s use of tactical nuclear weapons (for political purposes his most viable WMD option) the war has devolved into one of attrition that gives a constantly resupplied Ukraine a fighting chance.

2. Putin’s WMD reasoning. A war of attrition increases the potential that Putin will resort to the use of a tactical nuclear weapon. How likely is it that Putin might pursue a nuclear option? If Putin is irrational then rational analysis will not yield medium or high confidence assessments of his potential decisions, but one way to approach this problem is to assess negative outcomes a rational Putin might weigh in deciding whether to use a nuclear device.

3. Perilous options. Should Putin attempt the use of a tactical nuclear weapon, he not only faces the prospect that (1) subordinates may not follow orders, but also (2) that a nuclear weapon fizzles. If either of those things happen, it is the end of the Putin regime.

4. A military plundered by corruption. How much confidence does Putin have in his command and control? Putin’s recent shake ups of his military and intelligence show he is worried about discontent and loyalty in the ranks. Given the underwhelming performance of the Russian Army and Air Force, the emerging “country plundered by oligarchs” narrative that allows Russian army officers to save face may be the biggest threat to Putin staying in office.

5. How potent is the Russian nuclear threat? There is also great uncertainty regarding the state of Russian nuclear weapons. Given the state of Russian military infrastructure and performance, it is questionable whether the Russian have adequately maintained and replenished enriched uranium or plutonium stocks. Nuclear weapons also depend on other components that degrade with time.

6. Putin’s gambit to force Zelenskyy’s government to flee so that he could install a puppet government has failed. It has become apparent that given the stout Ukrainian resistance, Putin is highly unlikely to think he can militarily occupy Ukraine. Accordingly, some form of Ukraine will remain free. The lessons of recent history are stark and,  given his deployment of forces, it is increasingly clear Putin will keep the separatist provinces, Crimea, and perhaps other southern port territories. It is likely these gains will be a component of any ceasefire and/or political settlement.

7. What Putin can’t have; he will break. Putin is now destroying infrastructure he would need to govern Ukraine. It is increasingly apparent his strategy is to leave it broken and impoverished so that perhaps over time, a desperate Ukrainian people will more likely accept a puppet, or at least Moscow-friendly government.

8. Putin will seize and/or destroy critical research and energy infrastructure. More specifically Putin will attempt to seize or disable Ukrainian’s nuclear and electrical infrastructure. If he can’t seize it, he will destroy it. Under the manufactured guise of protecting Russia from alleged Ukrainian ambitions to WMD, Putin will destroy Ukraine’s research and energy infrastructure (e.g., the shelling of a neutron generator at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, and seizure of nuclear plants).

9. Putin’s attempts to disable Ukrainian communications and energy infrastructure with cyberattacks has thus far failed. If Putin resorts to a nuclear option, the politically safest use would not be directed at a Ukrainian city where civilian casualties would irrevocably render Putin a pariah on the international scene. It is more likely that use would be directed against military, communications, and or energy infrastructure or perhaps a “demonstration” that would also create an EMP intended to destroy or substantially cripple Ukraine’s communications and energy infrastructure.

10. Rebuilding Ukraine. While the war is still hot and its outcome uncertain, Western government and business leaders must construct a plan to rebuild Ukraine, including its energy infrastructure.

Whatever  Ukraine emerges from this conflict will need substantial Western aid to rebuild and simultaneously resist Moscow’s attempts to win politically what it could not win militarily.

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