The Ukrainian army’s counter-offensive in the northeast and southeast corners of its nation began on Sept. 5 and has been effective beyond its hopes and those of its allies. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy hopes to retake all of the Donbas region as well as the Crimean Peninsula.
Russian forces have reportedly been pushed back over more than three thousand square kilometers. Other reports, most unverified, said that Russian soldiers had been stealing civilian boats to flee across the Dneipr River.
In response to the at least temporary Ukrainian success, Russian forces have been using missiles – including Iranian-supplied “suicide drones” – to attack civilian infrastructure such as the dam near Mr. Zelenskyy’s hometown of Kryvyi Rhi.
Worse still are the reports of mass graves containing the bodies of soldiers and civilians murdered by Russian troops found near Izium. More than four hundred bodies have been found, some of which Mr. Zelenskyy says show evidence they had been tortured.
The bodies found near Izium should not surprise anyone. Russian forces have committed such atrocities at least since the 1941 Katyn Forest massacre when more than twenty thousand Polish officers were slaughtered by Russian secret police. Russian forces have committed so many war crimes in Ukraine they cannot be listed here.
The Russians are also reportedly retreating in southeastern Ukraine and heavy partisan fighting is reported around the port city of Mariupol.
A number of usually calm and thoughtful people, including the Wall Street Journal, are asking whether, in order to avoid defeat and humiliation, Russian President Vladimir Putin will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
It’s nearly impossible to speak of nuclear conflict calmly but let’s at least try to analyze what will affect Mr. Putin’s decision.
President Joe Biden asked what would be our reaction to Mr. Putin using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, responded that Russia would become even more of a pariah nation but wouldn’t elaborate further. Mr. Biden, who has repeatedly said we would defend Taiwan militarily (and had his underlings immediately reverse what he said) evidently confuses strategic ambiguity with strategic muddle-headedness.
NATO has been divided in its response to Mr. Putin’s war. While many member nations have sent arms to Ukraine, gas supplies on which Germany and other nations depend have continued until Mr. Putin cut them off.
Russia’s temporary (?) cutoff of gas supplies to Germany and much of Europe hasn’t worked out for Mr. Putin. About a week ago, Russia’s ambassador to Germany warned Berlin that it had crossed a “red line” by supplying missiles and armored personnel carriers. Russia’s economy is dependent on gas and petroleum exports, so the cutoff is a net negative for Russia.
That brings us to what would be Mr. Putin’s final option. He has been implying that nuclear war would result if the West interfered in Ukraine almost since his war in Ukraine began. Within days of the February 24 commencement of the war, Mr. Putin put Russian nuclear forces on “special alert” threatening “consequences you have never seen” if NATO responded with military force. On Sept. 19, Mr. Putin accused Ukraine of terrorist attacks and threatened “more impactful” actions, adding that Russia was not fighting with its “full army.”
On September 21, Mr. Putin called up Russian reserves and again raised the threat of nuclear weapons. He said, “Russia will use all the instruments at its disposal to counter a threat against its territorial integrity—this is not a bluff.” There is no threat to Russia’s territorial integrity unless Ukraine is regarded as part of Russia.
There are several problems for Mr. Putin that could deter him from using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
The biggest question is whether Russia’s generals – none of whom have distinguished themselves in Ukraine – would follow Mr. Putin’s order to use tactical nuclear weapons there.
Ordering the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine would be an enormous personal risk for Mr. Putin. If the generals refused such an order it could presage a coup d’etat against Mr. Putin that could result in his death. Thus, he wouldn’t order a nuclear strike in Ukraine unless he believed his order would be obeyed.
A lesser problem for Mr. Putin faces is what NATO’s response could be. But Mr. Biden’s “leadership” would be weak and other NATO members, Germany and France especially, would be opposed to any military action.
As this column has pointed out, Mr. Putin’s Ukraine war has ended the peace that Europe has enjoyed under America’s protection – the foundation of the NATO alliance – since 1949. Any use of nuclear weapons in Europe, without a strong NATO response, would severely erode its credibility in defending its members.
The question boils down to how desperate Russia’s situation is in Mr. Putin’s personal judgment. Winter is coming and with it an inevitable slowing of Ukraine’s counter-offensive and further Russian action. That would give both Mr. Putin and Mr. Zelenskyy time to regroup their forces to continue the war. It would also give time to negotiate a peace deal, in which Mr. Putin seems disinterested.
For now, the most likely outcome is a partial slowdown of the war during winter and a resumption – without a nuclear strike on Ukraine – in the spring. If we use that time to strengthen and resupply Ukraine’s forces, winter could be freedom’s friend.
• Jed Babbin is a national security and foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Times and contributing editor for The American Spectator.