Nuclear saber-rattling from both sides, from Russia and from the West, has been steadily increasing over recent weeks as Ukraine has made gains in the east, and is now making a push in the south toward Kherson, on the doorstep to Crimea.
NATO has begun their annual nuclear deterrence drills which run until the end of the month and Russia, as they usually do, is expected to do some nuclear deterrence drills of their own during that time.
For their part, Russia has said that they will use any and all available means to defend their territory, with the implication that this could include nuclear weapons and that this territory would also include the four newly annexed regions, and would most assuredly include Crimea.
Such statements by Moscow are clearly intended to instill fear in Ukraine’s western backers, but perhaps also intended as genuine warnings that Russia truly does not rule out the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons if they consider it necessary to their interests, even if that is not yet the case.
Some analysts and pundits have said that it makes no sense for Russia to use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine as that kind of destructive power would be most effective only against large targets such as massed Ukrainian troop concentrations, of which there are none. As for destroying a Ukrainian city with a nuclear weapon, that would be very bad optics for an already isolated and humiliated Russia, and would surely trigger an extreme response from the West. For these reasons, Putin’s nuclear bluster is broadly panned as nothing more than bluffing.
So why then all the increasingly loud nuclear chest-thumping from the West where talking heads and hawks have already suggested that if Putin uses a tactical nuclear weapon against Ukraine, NATO will use conventional non-nuclear forces to wipe out every Russian military asset within Ukraine, along with their entire Black Sea fleet? Either these hawks think Moscow will simply let this happen and be chastened, or they’re just not quite so eager to talk about what step two of their plan is when Russia starts shooting back, never mind step three and beyond, all the way up the escalation ladder, off the top of it, and into the void.
In either case, these are rather fearsome and unequivocal threats coming from Western mouthpieces who say they’re pretty sure Putin is only bluffing anyway. After Putin made similar nuclear threats in February at the start of his "special military operation" in Ukraine, the US dismissed his rhetoric as bluffing then too and even canceled an ICBM test to avoid playing-in to the tension, making Putin look like every bit the madman for making such threats, so what’s different now?
Over recent weeks, Ukraine has been advancing toward the city of Kherson, the capital of the Kherson region, one of four regions recently annexed by Russia. Some analysts believe that Ukraine may force Russia out within a week or two, particularly if Russian troops collapse there as they have elsewhere. Even the new commander of Russia’s entire force in Ukraine, General "Armageddon" Surovikin, has said that the situation in Kherson has become "tense" and "difficult decisions" will have to be made.
Kherson lies on the west side of the Dnipro river, near where it lets out into the Black Sea. This puts it on the doorstep to Crimea. For Russia, Ukraine taking Kherson and being positioned to continue their advance toward Crimea would be a red line. This would be even more unacceptable to them if Ukrainian forces then manage to secure a bridgehead on the east side of the Dnipro, with retaking Crimea as their primary objective.
From the city of Kherson, Crimea is a scant 80km (~50 miles) away to the southeast. Closer still, starting from farther up the southeast bank of the Dnipro river to the northeast is the canal from which Crimea gets 85% of its fresh water.
On the other side of the Dnipro river from Kherson is the town of Oleshky, but beyond that for 40km (~25 miles) in every direction the terrain is a vast and relatively sparsely-populated expanse of scrubland. There is agriculture there, but much of the region is scrubby and arid, patched with semi-desert areas, including the 15km or 10 mile wide Oleshky Sands, essentially a small desert, and which was in the Soviet and Warsaw Pact era used as an aerial bombing practice range.
Any Ukrainian force that has successfully retaken Kherson, and then attempts to secure a bridgehead on the Oleshky side of the Dnipro river on the heels of a collapsing Russian defense, would find itself on the doorstep to Crimea with many miles of mostly scrubland and semi-desert in all directions. A combat-capable, regrouping and perhaps temporarily concentrated Ukrainian force would be a very tempting target for Russia to use a tactical nuclear weapon, before they can disperse and breakout toward Crimea and its critical infrastructure.
Could it be that the possibility of this developing scenario is what has both sides beating their nuclear drums so much and so loudly recently, while at the same time telling us all that there is zero chance of Russia actually using a tactical nuclear weapon? If the Ukrainian advance on Kherson continues, and especially if it continues past Kherson, we may soon find out.
Downplaying the likelihood of Russia using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, some analysts try to dial down the fear further by saying that, before he can use them, Putin would have to move nuclear munitions from their storage depots, and that this activity would almost certainly be detected by the West. Maybe it would be detected and maybe Putin would want to make sure that activity was detected, but what of nuclear munitions that may already be present aboard Russia’s naval assets, including those ships and submarines currently deployed in the Black Sea?
While it may currently seem like a dangerous card for Putin to play, compared to the scenario shaping up as Ukraine advances on Kherson, and toward Crimea, a demonstration nuclear test by Russia in the arctic, or in the Black Sea has been postulated as a possible gambit to raise the stakes. This could and certainly should help frighten all sides into talking, and into using some strategic empathy to resolve this disaster before the spiral of escalation accelerates into a self-sustaining chain reaction that no one can stop.
A Russian nuclear test would represent a huge escalation and give the world a dizzying glimpse down from a much higher step on the escalatory ladder into the apocalyptic abyss than where we currently stand. These are frightening days indeed when a Russian nuclear test, however escalatory, may turn out to be Putin’s second least crazy choice if he believes that, without such a dramatic display, his next and only remaining choice, besides accepting defeat or at least the loss of Crimea, probably his leadership and maybe even his life, might require using a nuclear weapon on advancing Ukrainian forces.
The longer this crisis continues, the more chances there will be for mistakes and miscalculations to be made by all sides, and the greater the risks of escalation, whether deliberate or unintentional.
After more than eight months since Russian troops crossed into Ukraine and more than eight years since they annexed Crimea, and indeed more than thirty years since NATO started their expansion all the way to within one inch of Russia’s border, no one on either side is even talking about talking.
It took cool heads and strategic empathy from all sides over the course of those fearful two weeks in October of 1962, exactly 60 years ago, to bring the world back from the edge of the abyss that was the Cuban Missile Crisis. The stakes were high then and they’re at least as high now but, terrifyingly, there are no cool heads in charge this time.
Christopher Lawless is from Toronto, Canada and has been a lifelong self-taught student of geopolitics and the Cold War since first learning as a child in the early 1980’s about the dangers they present to the world and to civilization.