The Escalation Trap: How Putin Is Painting Himself Into A Nuclear Corner
The missile attacks this week on Ukrainian cities will not scare Kyiv into submission. It’s the latest and gravest sign that Vladimir Putin may be bound to face an even grimmer tactical choice: the nuclear option.
For the third day in a row, Kyiv is being shelled, missiles are whizzing in from the Caspian Sea, kamikaze drones are crashing in from the occupied territories. Zaporizhzhya, home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, is under fire for the third day in a row. Kharkiv has been under constant shelling for seven months.
To say that the Russian army escalated in response to the explosions on the Crimean bridge is not quite right. Since Feb. 24, the shelling has never stopped. Indeed, British and Ukrainian sources cite intelligence that this latest new flurry of attacks on Ukrainian cities has been planned even before the attack on the bridge.
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Ukraine is bleeding but not panicking: this is not our first day of the war. Not the first house destroyed, not the first hospital bombed. And no, not the first child killed either.
Two hundred and thirty days and counting, and each one of them widens the gap between the way Ukraine wages war and the way Russia does. The Ukrainian army does not have long-range missiles, nor does it have the ability to destroy those military targets on Russian territory from which rockets are launched.
Ukraine's allies do not provide such weapons for fear of angering Russia. Angering Russia?
To close the sky and prevent Russian missiles from flying into Ukrainian territory, the country needs an air defense of the level of the Israeli Iron Dome; but so far, only a few modest air-defense systems have arrived from Western allies.
And as we’ve seen the past 72 hours, even if Ukraine’s military gamely boasts about the missiles they’ve intercepted, they cannot even protect the country's capital from a massive attack. For months, meanwhile, nuclear power plants, bridges, and critical infrastructure have stood vulnerable to the next missile that Putin decides to send.
But there is a bitter paradox that Ukrainians have faced since the invasion began, which was most clearly on display this week. The more the Ukrainian army succeeds on the frontline, the more likely that Russia will retaliate with strikes against innocent civilians and the basic infrastructure that keeps life moving.
Increasingly aware that they are unable to win, the disorganized and hungry Russian army passes the baton to the missile launchers far in the rear, who target civilians in Ukraine far from any battlefield.
And of course, the logical extreme of this escalation of terror is the nuclear option. Yes, the missiles crashing into Ukrainian cities could just have well been carrying nuclear shells. Today or tomorrow, or two months from now, it could happen. Ukrainians are aware of it, and the rest of the world shouldn’t try to look away. It’s almost mathematical: the more land the Ukrainian army reclaims, the more extreme Putin's actions will become.
Vladimir Putin observing the main stage of the Vostok-2022 strategic command post exercise at the Sergeyevsky range in the Primorye Territory
A new Russian commander
The current received wisdom of military experts and intelligence sources is that nuclear strikes on Ukraine are unlikely. The U.S. reports no signs of a nuclear attack being prepared.
But the probability increases, not necessarily by the day or hour, but with every kilometer of liberated Ukrainian land.
For President Volodymyr Zelensky and his military commanders, this reality ultimately changes nothing. Ukraine will continue the counter-offensive with the aim to liberate all its territories, including Crimea. Kyiv will not negotiate with Putin at the table, and certainly won’t on the battlefield itself.
Putin, for his part, continues not only shelling civilians but also trying to rectify the situation on the front with maneuvers from the Kremlin. On October 8, he appointed the first official commander of Russian troops in Ukraine, General Sergey Surovikin.
With a career marked by brutality, Surovikin gave the orders to go on the rampage during the 1991 Kremlin putsch, and terrorized civilians while in command of operations in Chechnya in 2004 and later in Donbas in 2014. And more recently, in Russia’s intervention in Syria, he infamously ordered the bombing of the ancient city of Aleppo, killing scores of civilians.
If there is a person in charge, there is someone to hold accountable for the failures — though British intelligence notes that Surovikin's task will not be easy, even internally, forced “to compete with an increasingly fragmented Russian Defense Ministry, which does not have sufficient resources to achieve the political goals set in Ukraine."
Not a rational actor
Of course having someone to blame does not resolve the dilemma that Putin now faces, which will grow more evident as his indiscriminate attacks against civilians fail to stop the Ukrainian army’s advances or frighten the Ukrainian people into submission.
Since Feb. 24, or even earlier, there has been no real logic in his actions — even if commentators and adversaries continue to hold on to the myth of the master calculator from Saint Petersburg. President Joe Biden’s latest was in Tuesday’s interview with CNN, calling the Russian President a “rational actor” who’d simply miscalculated.
Well, call it what you like, but Putin continues to show the world that he is capable of illegal, illogical, criminal actions that bring him no political or military victory.
And so that brings us to the nuclear question. It has become clear that the choice of whether to use nuclear weapons, for Vladimir Putin, is ultimately like any other choice. And it will be one made by a man who has painted himself in a corner.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is right in his own way: the West continues to misjudge the Ukrainian war. This war is changing the world in monumental ways, the geopolitical calculus of the 20th century no longer apply. Perhaps the past was extinguished in Mariupol, a city that most European, American, and Asian leaders hadn’t even know existed.
The Ukrainian war is the beginning of a new world, and that may very well include a world where nuclear weapons are used. Our choices should be made with this in mind.
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