The West must take Putin’s threat to deploy nuclear weapons seriously as tensions escalate
Vladimir Putin’s war continues to go from bad to worse. Buoyed by the stunning advances made in the Kharkiv region in early September, Ukraine’s counter-offensive is progressing deeper into Russian-occupied territory.
In the east, Ukraine has recaptured the important logistics hub, Lyman, in a major setback to Russia’s attempt to control the Donbas, and in the south Ukraine is making steady progress to liberate the key port city, Kherson. The daring attack on the Kerch bridge has severed Moscow’s main artery to their forces on the southern front and inflicted an embarrassing blow to Putin’s carefully cultivated image as a strongman defending the Russian homeland from adversaries. With Ukraine in the ascendancy, no part of Russian-occupied Ukraine appears safe.
Putin’s attempts to wrestle back the momentum on the battlefield have proved ineffective
Putin’s attempts to wrestle back the momentum on the battlefield have proved ineffective. The announcement of partial mobilisation on 21 September was met with demonstrations across the country and an exodus of an estimated 400,000 fighting-age men from Russia. In the latest sign that Putin’s chaotic mobilisation efforts are faltering, Russia is now leaning on Belarus to supplement its supply of troops with a joint ground force. More problematically for the Kremlin, cobbling together civilians to send to the front line will not correct the fundamental asymmetry between the motivation, training and logistic networks of the Ukrainian and Russian forces.
In an admission there have been serious failures in military leadership, Putin has appointed General Sergei Surovikin as the new overall commander of the Kremlin’s forces in Ukraine. The former commander-in-chief of the Russian aerospace forces in Syria, Surovikin has so far employed the same strategy of indiscriminate missile attacks in Ukraine. Over the weekend we saw strikes on energy and transport infrastructure interspersed with hits on office blocks, apartment buildings and even a children’s playground, in what was clearly an attempt to inflict maximum damage on civilians and terrorise the Ukrainian people into submission.
Yet this show of force belies the fragility at the heart of Russia’s approach. These strikes do nothing to advance Russia’s position on the battlefield. And the fact that Russia has not deployed this rate of long-range cruise missiles since the start of the war suggests that supplies of these projectiles are limited and the intensity of current bombardment cannot be sustained. The Kremlin’s brutality has only welded the Ukrainian people together through a stronger sense of Ukrainian nationhood and an even greater resolve to liberate their land.
Ukraine’s sustained military advances raise the stakes considerably for Putin. Within Russia he is under increasing pressure from hardliners to escalate the conflict, including by potentially deploying tactical nuclear weapons. Whilst such an outcome remains unlikely, not least because it is emphatically not in Putin’s self-interest to do so, it would be prudent for decision makers to take this threat seriously. Putin has already broken one massive taboo – and he has proven that he is not bound by moral constraints. A constructive debate about our response can improve our posture to the overall betterment of deterrence.
Meanwhile the fighting will continue. Russia is beset with manpower and equipment shortages, but Putin is too invested in the conflict to cease hostilities at this moment. Ukraine cannot, and will not, submit to a murderous regime that has invaded its territory and is committing unspeakable atrocities against its population. Russia may well repeat their bombardment of civilian infrastructure in an attempt to force Ukraine to capitulate, but with Ukraine claiming to have shot down over half of their missiles launched, and with improved defensive systems scheduled to be in place by November, this is unlikely to translate into decisive gains on the battlefield.
For the United Kingdom and our allies, the priority must now be to press ahead with the delivery and coordination of these air defence systems to protect Ukraine’s population centres and critical infrastructure ahead of a difficult winter.
Robert Jenrick, Conservative MP for Newark and chair of Conservative Friends of Ukraine.
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