Will Russia use nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

20 April, 2022

Launch of an Iskander nuclear-capable missile on February 19 as part of the Russian maneuvers that preceded the invasion of Ukraine.
Launch of an Iskander nuclear-capable missile on February 19 as part of the Russian maneuvers that preceded the invasion of Ukraine.

Will Russia end up using nuclear weapons in Ukraine? Can the Ukrainian war end in a nuclear confrontation? Is NATO banking on it?

Table of Contents

The highly improbable: a nuclear war between blocs

Cover illustration in last week's Spiegel.
Illustration that made the cover of last week’s Spiegel.

The US Chief of Staff makes no secret of it: the risk of a direct confrontation between the US and its allies on the one hand and China and Russia on the other is steadily growing. In fact, even before Ukraine, the scenarios used by the US military maneuvers in Europe end in atomic conflict with Russia.

In other words, the horizon of a nuclear war between powers is open. Nobody denies it. That is why 70% of Americans fear nuclear war again. Moreover, as of today, “nuclear terror” is an attractive argument to win support for the government within the US and to put even more pressure on European allies. No wonder war propaganda uses it.

For its part, the Russian government has played both sides. On the one hand it declared a nuclear alert at the start of the invasion of Ukraine to signal that it would not allow direct NATO intervention. On the other hand, it has rejected the possibility of using atomic weapons in its “special operation” time and again, recalling that its military doctrine reduces the use of nuclear weapons to four cases that supposedly should not occur in Ukraine. Here the ambiguities begin and the fear begins to be justified.

We have a special document on nuclear deterrence. This document clearly indicates the reasons why the Russian Federation has the right to use nuclear weapons. There are a few of them, let me remind you:

Number one is the situation when Russia is hit by a nuclear missile. The second case is any use of other nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies.

The third is an attack on critical infrastructure that would cripple our nuclear deterrent forces.

And the fourth case is when an act of aggression is committed against Russia and its allies, which endangers the existence of the state itself, even without the use of nuclear weapons, i.e., with the use of conventional weapons

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev quoted by The Guardian

The irremediable question is whether a defeat in Ukraine would be categorized by the Russian establishment as an existential danger to their state and therefore as a legitimate scenario – according to their own terms – for the use of nuclear weaponry.

With each passing day of war the danger of a social mobilization against the regime increases. It will not come from the petty bourgeoisie and its impotent antimilitarism, of course. Massive crackdowns have sent it into mass exile and its absence is already noticeable even in the chains of command of the companies and among the most qualified technological personnel (heads of development, etc.).

The danger for the regime comes from the still small but growing number of wildcat strikes which, from slaughterhouses to transportation, are beginning to spread throughout the country… and which will hardly stop if the war continues for another year.

However, the idea that the Russian bourgeoisie, frightened by the internal social effects of a defeat in Ukraine, would give Putin a free hand to start a full-scale nuclear war is highly improbable. Not least because even militarily he has a few nuclear options to use first.

The scenario of the future, but now unlikely: small nuclear weapons.

Low-yield bomb, first tested during the Obama administration. Low-yield nuclear weapons are not present, as far as we know, in Ukraine.

The least likely of these, though the favorite of military and intelligence analysts, is the use of low-yield nuclear weapons. Although the press routinely confuses them with tactical weapons, they are not exactly the same thing. They are much smaller, “precision-guided” nuclear weapons with a much smaller radioactive cloud.

They were incorporated into the US military under Obama and their doctrine has been consolidated over the last few years. Both China and the US thought of them as “useful” with an eye to a war on the Korean peninsula or Taiwan, territories with heavy investments in fixed capital that, in principle, the contenders themselves would not want to endanger.

As far as is known, Russian aviation does not have the kind of guided missiles that would be necessary to use these weapons, which are designed for “quick” wars aimed at avoiding the siege of cities and industrial zones.

Moreover, the phase of the war when they would have made military sense has already passed. The Russian army underestimated the endurance capacities of the Ukrainian army armed by NATO first and its own logistical capacity later and got bogged down in eternal and bloody sites like Mariupol or Kharkov. It is highly doubtful that after long weeks of artillery and missile shelling, when it already sees a triumph with conventional weaponry close at hand, it would want to escalate in order to have to deal later with fallout and its effects.

The real danger: “escalate to de-escalate” using “tactical” nuclear weapons inside Ukraine

Russian Iskander are the model for the 'tactical' nuclear weapons that could be used in the Ukrainian war
Russian Iskander are the model for the “tactical” nuclear weapons that could be used in the Ukrainian war.

This week, Russian government spokesmen declared that the war has entered a new phase. Russian operatives will concentrate, it seems, on the Donbass and consolidating their grip on southern Ukraine and the Sea of Azov.

The lowering of expectations implies the recognition of a partial defeat in the face of a Ukrainian army endowed by NATO and its allies with more than $10 billion in state-of-the-art weaponry. Hence the Russian “warning” against new arms shipments from Europe and the US and hence also the real nuclear danger.

The Russian bourgeoisie is focusing on the Donbass and raising the stakes by mobilizing more and more troops, in search of something to claim as victory… fearing that if the arrival of NATO armaments continues, it could be faced with a catastrophic defeat, a contemporary equivalent to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which would whip up internal opposition to an unbearable level for them.

This is the scenario that the current CIA director, who was formerly US ambassador to Russia, has been warning about. According to him the “potential desperation” to obtain the appearance of a victory in Ukraine would push Putin to “send a signal” by launching a tactical nuclear missile against the Ukrainian rearguard.

This is the famous “escalate to de-escalate” strategy that the European press insists is part of Russia’s nuclear doctrine. Russia would thus show its determination not to accept defeat and its determination to take the war further in order to force the US and its allies to allow it an “honorable military exit”. It would not only be a matter of avoiding or minimizing the internal social backlash, but of staying in the European and Central Asian imperialist game with “authority”.

The point is that nobody knows very well where Russia’s limit is. The strategists of the US military itself acknowledge it. But by the same token they recommend further fueling of the Ukrainian military apparatus. Other analysts in the USA join the recommendation, warning, however, that if Russia escalates the war with a limited use of atomic weapons, the USA and NATO should not respond immediately, as they did not do during the Cold War after the invasion of Hungary or Czechoslovakia.

Simulations and “war games” prove them right. Princeton University recently presented a simulation in which Russia conducted a “warning nuclear launch” and NATO’s limited response opened a war that, in a matter of hours, produced more than 90 million casualties. Not that it matters much to either side, but everyone recognizes that it is still “too early” to reach such levels of conflict and that the “main enemy” remains China.

Will we see a tactical nuclear weapon go off in Ukraine?

Russian 'Iskander' tactical missiles with nuclear capability in an exercise.
Russian “Iskander” nuclear-capable tactical missiles in an exercise.

Everything seems to indicate that the US and its allies are determined to win the war in the Donbass by sending equipment and giving technical advice to the Ukrainian military. Earlier today EU vice-president for security and external action Borrell urgently called on EU member countries to send more military aid to the Ukrainian army in Donbass. Yesterday the US confirmed the delivery of fighter jets and $800 million in additional military aid.

In other words, it is quite possible that sooner rather than later we will reach that famous critical point where the Russian army, after raising the stakes and sending more and more troops, will see the inevitable defeat if NATO does not reduce its participation in the conflict.

No one can know today whether it will be the trigger for the launching of a tactical nuclear weapon against the Ukrainian rearguard. Neither the Ukrainian government nor NATO, although as we have seen they fear the possibility, intend to do anything to prevent it. And from the Russian bourgeoisie and its political elite we cannot expect the slightest humanitarian consideration. The reason why they do not drop the bomb is that it is not profitable in their calculations.

So today the chances of seeing a triggered nuclear explosion in Ukraine are far from a certainty but they are already significant. There is no looking at the governments on one side or the other. They have done nothing but create and fuel a slaughter from day one. And this will not change.

The only option that can stop this madness, and those that follow, is the workers’ war against war everywhere.

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