Why Putin won’t use nukes in the war in Ukraine

Commentary

Peter Zeihan

Geopolitical Strategist
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After invading Ukraine in February, Vladimir Putin warned the West not to intervene in Ukraine or face “consequences that you have never encountered in your history.” In a speech to the United Nations, a Russian diplomat said it could resort to nukes in response to “direct aggression” from the West. Nonetheless, the Biden administration has announced another $600 million in military aid to Ukraine to maintain its recent momentum against Russia. 

In an interview on “60 Minutes,President Biden responded to a question about what he would say to Putin if he is considering using chemical or tactical nuclear weapons against the United States, saying “You will change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.” Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan doesn’t believe Putin will resort to nuclear weapons, but also wonders what would happen if he did.

Excerpted from Peter’s Sept. 18th “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

“What about Russian nukes?”

It’s a question I hear in some form or another almost daily while I’m traveling to speak and meet with clients, or in response to my newsletters. My attitude most days is “well, what about them?”

Let’s consider Russia’s strategic aims in Ukraine. Ukraine, as a buffer state, only continues to perform as such if it’s under Russian control. If not, well… your enemies, perceived or in reality, can flood the space with arms and combatants and use it as a launching pad to strike at the heart of the Russian state. More important, Russia needs to regain control of Ukraine so that if (read: when) it’s deemed necessary, Russian forces can move into places like Poland and Romania and occupy the critical geographies used to move troops and materiel overland to invade Russia.

So-called “tactical,” or small-scale, nuclear weapons aren’t great for holding territory. Nuked territory isn’t great for stationing troops. And long-range ICBMs lobbed at the U.S. or London or Paris are even worse for holding territory, or keeping Russian presidents and a socio-politico-economic mafia elite alive.

This is especially true if we consider the state of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. There are some arguments that even if Russian troops and armored transports and planes and tanks and fuel trucks and MREs and intelligence and cyber and logistical capabilities are at levels far below what the world was expecting, they’re still keeping the crown jewels of Russian defense–the nuclear arsenal–in top operating condition. 

I’m less than convinced. The only thing more foolhardy and full of risk than a cornered, losing Russian president trying to fire nukes willy-nilly? The same-such president pushing the red button and having the world witness a failure to launch.

Hi, everyone, Peter Zion here coming to you from Alberta’s Victoria Glacier. Behind me there, you can see the Death Trap. And below me is the Plane of Five Glaciers because Canada is run by white people and white people are awful naming things.

No big transition here, we’re just going to talk about nuclear war and the Ukraine conflict. I’ve always been of the belief that nukes we’re not likely to be used this conflict despite the rhetoric that has been coming out of the Kremlin ever since the war started back in February.

Nukes don’t achieve what the Russians want.

Now, the Russian goal here is to capture all of Ukraine and then push through it in order to secure the access points to the Russian space, specifically the ones in Romania and Poland.

So using tactical nukes on the battlefield in Ukraine doesn’t help because they then have to occupy that space. And that gets messy, and your soldiers get messy very, very quickly.

Also, a strategic strike on the United States wouldn’t help because well, there’s a lot of things we don’t know about the Russian military, but we know its quality is lower than the American one. And that probably includes the nuclear arsenal.

So even a single or limited strike on the United States would generate the end of the Russian system, and specifically the end of the entire Russian elite, Moscow and personally Vladimir Putin.

So that’s never really been on the table either. That just leaves the question of using strategic nukes, city flatteners, in order to prevent Europeans from assisting the Ukrainians in the defense of their own country.

And in that, that’s always where the risk has been, in my opinion. So the Russians would go after the countries who, if they switch sides, either because they fell apart, or because they were intimidated after losing a couple of cities, that would change the strategic balance in terms of weapon flows.

And so that would be in order, Berlin, Warsaw, Stockholm, Paris, and then London. Now, in the days before September 1st, that is generally my position — that if the Russians feel that they have to nuke someone, those are the five cities they would go after, because it would disrupt the weapon flows going into Ukraine.

However, in the aftermath of the Kharkiv offensive, the Ukrainians have captured sufficient equipment, and tanks and artillery to equip 15,000 people in an entire Armored Division. That’s a bigger weapon transfer to the Ukrainians than everything that NATO has done to this point.

And in the Kherson offensive, which is still ongoing, they’re likely to get even more gear. So weapon flows all of a sudden, are not the important thing that they used to be. It’s not that they’re unimportant, but the Ukrainians are gonna be able to put 30,000 additional troops into the field here with the best equipment that the Russians have.

And unlike the Western gear, where the Ukrainians need training, they already know how to use all the Russian gear. So we are at a tipping point.

And that raises the question of whether nukes are of any use of the Russians whatsoever.
That just leaves one possible scenario, that the Russians realize they’re gonna lose, that  Putin realizes that he’s done, that he realizes is going to be a victim to history, not just Western history, Russian history, and he just decides to go out with a bang.

While we can never rule that out, I find it unlikely. When the Soviet system collapsed, the then KGB basically had a meeting where they discussed whether they should just release the nukes onto the world, not in terms of launch, but sharing, so that the United States would then have to spend the next century dealing with it.

They ultimately decided that even though they had lost and that was sad for them, that they wouldn’t want to be the end of the human condition. And so they kept the news bottled up as best they could.

Putin was part of the organization that made that decision. So I find it unlikely at this point, that he would go a different direction.

The risk, and something that I’m sure the folks at the Defense Department are now stressing about a little bit, is we have seen how poorly maintained every aspect of the Russian military is. And it’s an open question whether the Russian nuclear arsenal works.

So in the worst case scenario, what happens if Putin hits the big red button? And we know it because we’ve been reading his email and listened to his phone calls, and nothing happens? What do you do when someone tries to kill 10s of millions of people but fails? Now that’s an interesting political question, and I don’t have an answer for you.

Okay, that’s it for me for now. Until next time, bye.