As Russia’s situation deteriorates on the battlefield, concerns grow about the possibility that Vladimir Putin might try to change the situation with a battlefield nuclear weapon. The war is so far confined to Ukraine, which makes it highly unlikely that Putin would reach out with strategic nuclear weapons to begin World War III. That’s all I’ll say about that.
Early on in Russia’s war, Putin was quick to remind the world that Russia possesses nuclear weapons. That brought on a spate of commentary about a nuclear umbrella for war and the circumstances in which Russia might use those weapons. The conclusion was that Russia might use battlefield nuclear weapons to stave off a defeat, but not before.
General mobilization of the Russian population would allow Putin to increase military numbers. But it would be an admission that the war is going badly. In the same way, the use of a nuclear weapon would be an admission that the war is going badly. Putin seems to be firmly resisting the first. The admission of failure might be enough to prevent the second.
There is no military target in Ukraine that justifies a nuclear strike. Putin might order a strike on, say, Donetsk Airport, which is currently reported to be a center of fighting, but any gains would be small to offset the admission that Russia is unable to meet the Ukrainian military in any other way.
Russia has been willing to strike civilian targets, and Kyiv might be a target Putin would be willing to strike. However, the humanitarian response to Russia’s war crimes so far suggests that such a strike would receive universal condemnation. Again, would Putin trade even further isolation for pure destruction?
There are other aspects to a calculation of nuclear use, none of them strongly in favor of it. We don’t know what Putin understands of the progress of the war, and we don’t know his calculations of risk versus benefit. It’s clear that Putin doesn’t want to look like a loser. That may be enough to keep him from using nuclear weapons.
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner