GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan: Ukraine – What is going on and will Putin go nuclear?

The world is dangerously close to nuclear war.  Yesterday, there was a pause in conventional operations, one that was predicted.  The Russians are over-extended and currently unable to develop offensive operations.  The invasion force is tired, their advance is being held and they need time to regroup, rearm and rest.  

The peace talks are a likely a ruse, buying time for Russian forces to reconstitute and prepare for their next operation.  This may be a deliberate attack on Kiev, however yesterday’s nuclear rhetoric opens up other possibilities.  Three pieces of information stand out, Putin’s move to a fortified bunker in the Urals, Russian nuclear forces moving to higher alert and Belarus allowing nuclear weapons on their territory.

In the West we are not used to the ‘Cold Warrior’ mentality that Putin is demonstrating, our world is peaceful, reasonable and interconnected.  Putin’s is a world of danger and sacrifice.  He was brought up hearing stories of millions of glorious Russian deaths defending the Motherland at places like Stalingrad and Leningrad during World War Two. He served as a KGB agent during the height of the Cold War, watched Regan fill Europe with nuclear weapons and bluff the Soviet regime with the ‘Star Wars’ anti-nuclear missile defence system, actions that crippled the Soviet Union economically as they tried to compete.  The United States won that Cold War and the old Soviet Union was split into pieces creating the new ‘weaker’ Russia.  

Forged in history like that he is may be a man prepared to go to extreme lengths to achieve his goals against Russia’s long-standing enemies.  If he really is in a bunker in the Urals, it is likely that he is considering nuclear options.  

In the West, we see use of nuclear weapons as not only abhorrent but inconceivable. We argue on economic grounds that the cost of a nuclear war is too high.  Putin may not think that way, he is an ‘idealist’ he doesn’t care about economic concerns.  He cares about demonstrating the strength and power of ‘his’ country.

 In the 1980s and 90s nuclear strategists started developing theories for tactical use of nuclear weapons including escalation. At this time a theory developed called ‘Broken Back War’, that argued nuclear war was survivable and that nations should prepare government and military infra-structure to keep fighting a low intensity ‘broken back’ war after a catastrophic nuclear exchange.  This idea has not gone away and in fact with the diminishing size of nuclear arsenals has become more reasonable.  

Escalation of nuclear force was always an option for Cold War military planners, a tactical nuclear exchange demonstrated a party’s resolve to escalate to a full nuclear exchange.  Traditionally, theorists thought that this escalation was most likely at sea where events can be controlled more easily and there is less civilian damage.  Something like using nuclear depth charges or attacking a naval task group with nuclear weapons.  It was seen as a way to demonstrate resolve by showing your enemy that you were willing to use nuclear weapons but doing so in a controlled and damage limiting way. 

Recent, Russian discussions of nuclear strategies broached the idea of ‘escalation to de-escalate’, or using tactical nuclear weapons early in a conflict to shock an enemy into rapid capitulation.  This theory is based on the assumption that the ‘weak’, Western democracy would not have the stomach for a nuclear war and that this action would immediately stop their intervention.  

Combined with this context, Belarus offering to host Russian nuclear weapons is a very dangerous development.  Belarus expands the staging area for a tactical nuclear attack either into Ukraine or into NATO countries.  

A nuclear escalation is most likely to involve use of a small number of tactical nuclear weapons probably in a less populated part of Ukraine targeting a military unit.  An airbase would make a good target and if it happens it will be a surprise, perhaps during ceasefire negotiations. Putin has demonstrated time and again that we cannot trust his word, and the aim of a nuclear escalation is to scare the West using shock and surprise so that the West does anything to de-escalate.

The Soviet Union, planned extensively to fight in a post-nuclear environment and probably had the world largest and best equipped Chemical, Biological, Radiation and Nuclear (CBRN) military capability. A capability inherited by Russia, who are not scared to fight in that environment having trained for that contingency for about 70 years. 

The unfortunate problem is that if Putin does use this tactic the West is faced with only one option.  Matching the escalation and demonstrating its resolve to ‘go all the way’.   If NATO doesn’t then Poland, Finland or the Baltic States are next on Putin’s list.  

So at the end of D + 5 let’s look at our predictions:


  • Regime change is Putin’s objective and Kiev remains the decisive point in the campaign.  The question is what effect negotiations could have on these objectives. It is unlikely that there is an amicable solution and the negotiations are likely to be a ruse, a tactic to buy time.  Time that is required to either develop the conventional combat power for a major offensive on Kiev, or to plan nuclear escalation. 
  • The Russians will continue to concentrate conventional combat power for a major attack on Kiev.  However, the nuclear rhetoric makes that attack uncertain, there is a risk that instead of a conventional attack there will be a nuclear show of force.  A demonstration designed to ‘scare off’ NATO and international support.  If this happens it will either be soon during negotiations or after an unsuccessful major attack on Kiev.    
  • NATO’s only response is to match that escalation and where the escalation stops is very uncertain.  
  • Continue to expect a slowdown in Russian activity across the remainder of Ukraine as Russian Forces consolidate, reconstitute and dig-in.  
  • If the reports of Belarus sending troops are true it indicates just how over extended the Russians are and adds further weight to a nuclear escalation being a good option for them to ‘win’ this war.  It is hard to imagine that Putin wants Belarus troops on the ground, their presence indicative of the fact that the Russian army is failing. In his mind it may be better to use nuclear escalation to ‘win’ rather than share the spoils with Belarus publicly acknowledging his army’s failure.
  • Finally, there will be furious behind the scenes negotiation between NATO and Russia. General’s and diplomats using their personal networks and relationships to reach out and manage the situation.  Hopefully, this will allow other options to emerge and help us avoid nuclear escalation.


In summary, NATO needs to prepare for the worst.  We hope the nuclear rhetoric is bluff, but there is a good chance that it isn’t.  Looking at history, we can see the romantic image that Putin has of Russia.  That romantic image includes a distinctly Russian trait, sacrifice. In the 19th century they thwarted Napoleon’s invasion by driving the Russian peasantry off their land and burning their crops.  Napoleon’s Grande Armee could not find the supplies they needed and when winter came were forced to withdraw.  In the 20th century the Soviet’s used the same tactics against the German invaders.  The Soviet Union lost millions of people defending cities like Stalingrad and Leningrad rather than surrender them to the Germans.  Putin is willing to accept sacrifice and probably sees himself as one of long line of Russian statesmen willing to sacrifice millions of his people to protect the Motherland. 

Further, Putin is politically relying on his tough image to retain power at home.  A defeat in Ukraine is unacceptable, he needs to win for his own political survival. If it can’t be achieved conventionally then perhaps, he is willing risk nuclear escalation to make sure he gets his win.  Hopefully, not and there is evidence that he is open to parley, he has spoken to French President Macron and a number of other countries in that last twenty-four hours. 

In the coming days NATO leaders may need to make some very tough decisions.  It could be argued that Putin is product of years of weak United States Presidents reinforcing his perception that the West is weak and unwilling to sacrifice, in his mind allowing a ‘hard’, ‘tough’ Russia to operate with impunity.  Remember Obama’s ‘red line’ in Syria?  Or the Trump presidency?  President Biden’s tenure will be defined by this conflict and unfortunately, he may soon be in the position of considering a nuclear escalation.  


Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.

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