Russia has targeted Ukraine's capital Kiev after suffering setbacks on other war fronts. Suicide drones are a key weapon. Image: NBC News / Screengrab

Russia’s “nuclear war” in Ukraine has already started, but it is not with “normal” nuclear weapons. Russia’s nuclear strategy is to take down a large part of Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, leaving it a country in ruins or, as some Americans say, bombing it back to the stone age.

For Russia, attacking critical infrastructure means hitting the vulnerable parts that can be wiped out with missiles, drones and artillery rockets.

Some read this as Russia’s response to the bombing of the Crimean Kerch bridge, a US$3.5 billion span that connects Russia to Crimea. But that is only partly true. Ukraine, which has admitted responsibility for the Kerch bridge truck bomb, crossed what Russia calls a “red line.” But it is far from the first bit of infrastructure that both sides have attacked.

What is different is that Russia’s massive attack starting on October 10 was not aimed at one discrete target but many and these targets are all around the country. Notably, Russia went after Ukrainian thermal power plants and command centers and was generally successful, forcing Ukraine to impose emergency measures on electricity use and stop power exports.

It is likely that the mastermind of the infrastructure bombing campaign is newly appointed Ukraine Special Operation commander General Sergei Surovikin, who was in charge of the air and land campaign in Syria. His leadership led to a month-long bombing of Aleppo where rebels and civilians held out in the eastern neighborhoods of the city.

Some call him General Armageddon. Two days after being promoted to command Russia’s faltering war on Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin unleashed a punishing barrage of air strikes on the country. Photo: TASS / Vadim Savitsky

Both Syrian and Russian aircraft flattened apartment buildings and used cluster bombs and incendiaries along with the Russian version of bunker busters to drive the defenders to surrender. 

In the process and on multiple occasions, Russian and Syrian air forces targeted medical centers and hospitals including the al-Sakhour Medical Center, a well-known hospital in Aleppo that was hit four different times. 

In all, the Russians and Syrians attacked 16 different medical facilities, according to rights lobby Human Rights Watch. Russia and Syria also knocked out water pumping stations and electricity.

Aleppo is not Ukraine. The battle for Aleppo involved irregular rebel Islamist forces, including al-Qaeda, that lacked heavy artillery or capable anti-aircraft weapons. What marked the Russian-Syrian campaign was ruthless attacks on civilians and the medical infrastructure.

Ukraine is different in many ways. Ukraine has an army that is gaining ground against Russian and Russia-aligned local forces. Ukraine still has an air force, although limited to a few fighter planes and helicopters, and it has plenty of artillery and armor. 

Ukraine also has launched many attacks behind the front lines, using local partisans who have carried out targeted killings of “traitors” and bombed airfields and ports under Russian control.

While the Aleppo Islamists used terror tactics when they could, once they were squeezed into the Aleppo neighborhoods they were trapped.

The aftermath of Aleppo after Russian bombing. Could areas of Ukraine soon look the same? Photo: Amnesty International

In Ukraine, it appears the Russian strategy is to inflict enough damage around the country in order to force Ukraine’s leaders to the bargaining table. Until now, the war has not produced a successful negotiation because Washington has opposed it and conditioned its support and aid for post-war reconstruction accordingly.

While he is no doubt capable of his own zealotry, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has little or no room for maneuver. The Russians likely hope to convince both Kiev and Washington that the cost of the Ukraine war outweighs any benefits from continuing it.

Until very recently, the Biden administration had a free hand to pour weapons and money into Ukraine – hundreds of billions of dollars worth including some of the most modern weapons in the US arsenal such as HIMARS. That is now changing as attitudes in Washington and Europe shift.

Serious opposition is coming from Republicans, including Trumpists, who consider Biden a warmonger. Tulsi Gabbard, always something of a Democratic outlier who nevertheless ran for president as a party member in 2020, has joined Trump in condemning the Biden administration as warmongers. She has just, finally, resigned from her party.

In Europe, too, there is a trend growing against the war, especially in France and Germany. Leaders such as Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Sholtz are facing insurrections at home. As conditions deteriorate when the weather turns colder and Russian gas in short supply, both could find their tenure in office uncertain.

At the same time, the Biden White House looks increasingly like it is flailing. Emptying the strategic petroleum reserve has helped suppress gasoline prices, but growing shipments of LNG to Europe are raising natural gas prices at home. Just as in Europe, natural gas heats homes, runs power plants and is critical to industry and agriculture.

Coupled with severe drought conditions in the US heartland, impacting wheat, corn and soybean production, plus rising prices for essential fertilizer, this means that inflation in the US will likely get worse this winter, notwithstanding whatever draconian measures the US Federal Reserve tries to implement by hiking rates.

Biden was handed a major defeat when OPEC decided to cut production to keep oil prices up, driving the White House to say it is “reassessing” its policy toward OPEC leader Saudi Arabia. 

Three congressional Democrats – Sean Casten, Tom Malinowski, and Susan Wild – introduced a House bill calling for the US to withdraw its troops and missile defense systems from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

For Russia, hammering Ukraine’s critical infrastructure has more positives than negatives. For Surovikin, who has been accused of war crimes and is already under sanctions from the United States for his role in Syria, his Ukraine operations are just another day at the office.

Civilians evacuate the city of Irpin, northwest of Kiev, during heavy shelling and bombing on March 5, 2022. Photo: Aris Messinis /

Ukraine is now asking the US for front-line air defense systems, but the Pentagon does not have many to spare and systems such as Patriot have not proven especially effective. Furthermore, getting these systems to Ukraine and manning them would require US or NATO troops and US contractors for maintenance. 

Even then, there is a well-known shortage of interceptor missiles for Patriots, meaning that supporting them in an infrastructure war may be possible only for a short time.

The bottom line is that Russia may have found a way to change the direction of the Ukraine war, which has been trending against Russia with Ukraine’s counteroffensive and recent insurgent-style attacks on key targets.

There are still many questions. Can Ukraine keep fighting and win decisive victories? Does Russia have sufficient long-range weapons, rockets, cruise missiles and drones to do much more damage than it has so far? Will the Biden administration reverse course or simply dig in and hope for the best – meaning fighting to the last Ukrainian?

It is hard to see how a devastated Ukraine serves the interest of NATO, the United States, and, most of all, the Ukrainian people. Negotiations are the only way to head off a stone-age result.

Stephen Bryen is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and the Yorktown Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebryen