High Anxiety as Nuclear Threat Grows in Ukraine
Author: Greg Valliere
October 3, 2022
ODDS ARE BELOW 50% that Russia would resort to using even a small tactical nuclear weapon, U.S. officials believe; they cite two reasons: First, Putin’s generals, opposed to such a move, might refuse to carry out such an order. Second, if Russia used a nuclear weapon, Moscow would become a global pariah for years to come, facing even greater sanctions.
BUT FEAR OF THE NUCLEAR OPTION spiked higher on Saturday following the publication of a sobering article in the New York Times. For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, explicit threats have prompted U.S. officials to game out scenarios for a limited nuclear conflict, the article stated.
NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT INTERCONTINENTAL MISSILES with thermonuclear payloads. The Russians have hinted that they would use tactical nuclear warheads, which are small enough to fit in individual artillery rounds, though they can still devastate and irradiate a few blocks, or a single military base, the Times said.
IF RUSSIA DETONATED a tactical nuclear weapon on Ukrainian soil, the options
for the West include totally unplugging Russia from the world economy or some kind of military response — though one that would most likely be delivered by the Ukrainians with Western-provided conventional weapons, the Times said.
THE THREAT OF SUCH AN ESCALATION has prompted U.S. officials to intensify diplomatic overtures to China and India, two countries that have expressed reservations about Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and, theoretically, could lean on Russia.
PUTIN IS NOT LIKELY to use a nuclear weapon immediately. His initial steps,
according to officials, would probably involve a sabotage campaign in Europe,
attacking Ukraine’s energy infrastructure or targeting senior officials in Kyiv, the
Times reported, adding that some officials wonder if the attacks on the Nord Stream pipeline may have been a first step — though it is not clear Russia was behind that sabotage.
PUTIN’S GOALS INCLUDE scaring the United States and NATO from considering direct intervention in Ukraine. A second goal is to force the West to back off supporting Ukraine at all, or perhaps forcing the Ukrainians to the negotiating table in a disadvantageous position.
PUTIN ALSO HAS TO CONVINCE his wavering hard-line supporters that Russia will
prevail, but he has lost the backing of young Russians, many of whom have fled. And he faces mass defections by retreating Russian troops.
FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY DIRECTOR H.R. McMASTER said yesterday that “I think the message to [Putin] is: If you use a nuclear weapon, it’s a suicide weapon. And the response from NATO and the United States doesn’t have to be nuclear.”
FORMER CIA DIRECTOR and retired Army Gen. David Petraeus said if Russia used a nuclear weapon, NATO “would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea.”
BOTTOM LINE: The great irony is that the more Ukrainian troops advance, the more dangerous Putin will become. He believes that four annexed provinces are now part of Russia, even though Ukrainian forces are advancing rapidly to reclaim them. Putin is cornered on the battlefield and in Moscow, which makes him even more unpredictable.
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