How the Russia-Ukraine War could escalate into a nuclear confrontation

How the Russia-Ukraine War could escalate into a nuclear confrontation

Updated: 14 days, 6 hours, 56 minutes, 20 seconds ago

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Despite its recent minor successes in eastern Ukraine, the war is not going Russia’s way

Simon BennettWith the Russia-Ukraine War about to enter its second year and President Vladimir Putin increasingly frustrated at the demonstrable ineptitude of his army, navy and air force, the world community, whose members appear to be in denial about the risks that lie ahead, faces the possibility of a dramatic escalation.

With the Russia-Ukraine War about to enter its second year and President Vladimir Putin increasingly frustrated at the demonstrable ineptitude of his army, navy and air force, the world community, whose members appear to be in denial about the risks that lie ahead, faces the possibility of a dramatic escalation.

During his late December address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky presented lawmakers with a Ukrainian flag. The flag, signed by soldiers fighting in Bakhmut, symbolized Ukrainian resolve and citizens’ gratitude to western powers supportive of Ukraine’s cause.

One can only imagine Putin’s reaction to Zelensky’s warm reception. Despite Russia’s recent minor successes in eastern Ukraine, the conflict has ossified. As happened in the Great War, both sides are constructing elaborate trench systems, stringing barbed wire, installing tank traps and laying minefields.

In the meantime, a media-savvy Ukraine continues to hit prestige targets. Consider the successful attacks on Crimea’s Kerch Bridge, the prestigious Engels airbase (twice attacked) and a crowded barracks in Makiivka (that may have killed 400 Russians). Most spectacularly, Ukrainian missiles sank the pride of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the guided-missile cruiser Moskva.

Putin finds these reversals intensely irritating, responding with missile barrages of Ukrainian cities, threats to use nuclear weapons and the humiliation and demotion of senior commanders.

Let’s look at three scenarios as to how the war might escalate into a nuclear confrontation between Russia and NATO. There are more, but space is limited. The most likely will be considered first.

1. A misreading of manoeuvre

In its 1981 Defence White Paper (dubbed the ‘Nott Review’), the British government announced the withdrawal of HMS Endurance from the South Atlantic. Convinced that Britain’s commitment to the Falkland Islands was waning, Argentina invaded. Britain responded with a Task Force that, after much loss of life, ejected the invader.

When tensions are high, as they were throughout the 1980s, military dispositions may be interpreted as a prelude to war. Regional conflicts, such as the Russia-Ukraine War, make it more likely that battlespace manoeuvre, or a near-miss, incident or accident will be interpreted as an attack, raising the possibility of a retaliatory response with low-yield tactical nuclear weapons.

As the Russia-Ukraine War proceeds, the number of near-misses, incidents and accidents will rise. In November 2022, two Poles were killed by missile debris near the Ukraine border. Ukraine claimed the missile had been launched by Russia. Probably it had been launched by Ukraine in defence of Lviv. Poland is a NATO member.

Missiles have landed on Moldovan territory on three occasions. While Moldova is not (yet) a NATO member, the country participates in NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, has agreed to an Individual Partnership Action Plan with NATO, contributes to the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo (KFOR) and benefits from the Alliance’s Defence and Related Security Capacity Building Initiative. NATO maintains a Liaison Office in Chișinău, Moldova’s capital.

Within Moldova lies the breakaway pro-Russian enclave of Transnistria. Russia may use Transnistria as a pretext for invading Moldova. How NATO would respond is unclear (an example of strategic ambiguity?).

2. Implementation of Russian military doctrine

To date, America’s warning that any use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine would invite ‘catastrophic’ consequences has prevented the conflict from going nuclear. That may change in 2023.

Despite limited recent successes, Russia’s battle plan to seize Kyiv, install a puppet government and create a pro-Russian totalitarian state hostile to the West has failed. Should Russia continue to fail in achieving its war aims, Putin may be tempted to fully implement Russian military doctrine by using nuclear munitions to shape the battlespace in favour of Russian forces.

Russia may already have seeded occupied territory with nuclear landmines (known in military circles as atomic demolition munitions, or ADMs). If Russia has seeded Ukrainian territory with ADMs, then any significant Ukrainian breakthrough may see them detonated. Should the battlespace go nuclear, the West would, at the very least, consider using tactical nuclear weapons to support remaining Ukrainian formations.

3, A decapitation strike

On Jan. 19, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned that Russia’s defeat in Ukraine could provoke a nuclear exchange. Said Medvedev: “It doesn’t occur to any of the wretches [sic] to draw the following elementary conclusion: That the loss [by] a nuclear power [of] a conventional war could provoke a nuclear war …. Nuclear powers have not lost major conflicts on which their fate depends. And this should be obvious to anyone …. Even a Western politician with any trace of intelligence”.

Medvedev’s bellicose rhetoric raises the possibility of a first strike by Russia – an eventuality for which western countries are woefully unprepared. Britain, for example, has dismantled the majority of its Cold War civil defence infrastructure. The words deluded, myopic and irresponsible spring to mind.

Finally, Princeton University’s model of how a conventional European war could morph into a nuclear war is well worth watching.

Dr. Simon Bennett directs the Civil Safety and Security Unit at the University of Leicester. He’s interested in the organizational, social, economic and political origins of risk. He has worked with the Royal Air Force and U.K. National Police Air Service on human factors issues. His latest book, Safety in Aviation and Astronautics: A Socio-technical Approach, was published by Routledge in 2022.

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