Western pundits, analysts, and even militaries are trumpeting Ukraine’s recent counter-offensive in its war with Russia. To be sure, this is a blow against the growing authoritarian axis.
But there are dangers that many appear to be ignoring. Russian doctrine allows for using nuclear weapons when its position on the battlefield is threatened. Moreover, on a bureaucratic level, there are a variety of Russian institutions that will find it difficult to accept military defeat in Ukraine.
Likewise, on an individual level, Russian President Vladimir Putin may be unable to abide by defeat.
Each of these variables may interact with other variables in unpredictable ways, increasing the chances of miscalculation or accident, which could also lead to nuclear use, even if unintended. Finally, if Crimea comes into play, the peninsula is one that each side sees as a vital interest, thus increasing the possibility of nuclear use by Russia.
Dangers of escalation
In their excitement over seeing Russia punished for its aggression, Western observers may be missing the dangers of escalation. If Russia continues to take losses on the battlefield, one would expect conventional escalation, perhaps culminating in full-scale mobilization by Russia as well as more pronounced support from China.
A less likely, but more impactful, escalation would be nuclear escalation. Although this remains unlikely at this juncture, the chances of such escalation have increased since Ukraine started to drive Russia back. There are a variety of reasons nuclear escalation is more likely now than it was a week ago.
Russian nuclear doctrine
Russia’s nuclear doctrine allows for nuclear use to end conventional conflicts.
Article IV of the Basic Principles of the State Policy of the Russian Federation “provides for the prevention of an escalation of military actions and their termination on conditions that are acceptable for the Russian Federation and/or its allies.”
Though declaratory policy is not always a guide for employment policy, this nevertheless provides justification for the use of nuclear weapons to terminate a conventional conflict.
Many institutions in Russia would be undermined by defeat in Ukraine. Most obviously, the Russian military would be weakened by any loss in Ukraine.
But likewise, the Federal Security Service (FSB), probably the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU – military intelligence), and perhaps the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), miscalculated grievously.
Each has some share of the blame for the misguided operation and each has incentive to end the operation on terms favorable to Russia. Additionally, weapons manufacturers and procurement groups have much to lose. All of these organizations have reasons to seek a decisive end to the war.
President Putin has every reason to attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Not only is this his war, but he is a dictator in fact if not name. Dictators often do not survive humiliating battlefield defeats.
Given the way Putin has shamed and murdered opponents, he must suspect that decisive defeat in Ukraine would make him the scapegoat.
The oligarchs would want him out so they could resume plundering Russia. The generals would want him out so as to direct blame elsewhere. There are many who would seek vengeance or need to deflect blame.
Another reason Putin cannot accept defeat in Ukraine is that it would squander all the fear he built in reasserting Russian control in Georgia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Chechnya, Dagestan, and of course, Crimea itself.
In fact, a loss in Ukraine would encourage the people in all these other areas to rise up. Indeed, there is evidence of recent protests in Crimea. Russia cannot manage multiple uprisings.
These variables are likely to interact in unpredictable ways. For example, losses in one region may encourage instability in other regions.
Widespread unrest or a coup emanating from one of the aggrieved Russian bureaucracies could encourage other actors such as the oligarchs to move on the levers of government.
Greater instability within Russia means control over nuclear weapons may deteriorate. Accident or miscalculation could follow, leading to the loss of a weapon or, worse yet, the unintended detonation of a weapon.
These unstable interactions would be multiplied by external nuclear threats, even if implicit.
If a nuclear weapon were used, the West would find itself in the unenviable position of accepting that use and possibly the defeat of Ukraine, or of responding and risking uncontrolled escalation. We have little guidance for what would happen if a nuclear weapon were detonated in anger in a multipolar nuclear world.
Finally, Crimea complicates these issues. If Russia were pushed out of eastern Ukraine, this would be a dramatic defeat, but perhaps one that Russia could accept. But Crimea, like Taiwan for China and the US, is an area where both sides perceive their interests as vital.
Neither side can back down. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has indicated he will not accept peace until Crimea is back in Ukraine’s hands.
Putin considers Crimea to be part of Russia and sees it as being under Ukrainian jurisdiction only because of an indefensible decision made by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev almost 70 years ago.
It seems doubtful that Ukraine could eject Russia from Crimea, but if it did, the pressure on Russia to use at least one nuclear weapon would increase markedly.
Nuclear use unlikely but increasing
Although nuclear use remains unlikely, Ukraine’s battlefield successes make such use more likely than before. As Ukrainian success grows, so does the pressure for Russia to escalate.
Once a single nuclear weapon is used, we are in uncharted territory. There will be pressure on Western states to respond, which in war games often rapidly leads to global catastrophe.