Could 9th May be the next step on a nuclear path?

By Philip Ingram MBE

There is a lot of commentary suggesting Vladimir Putin will want to announce a victory in Ukraine at Moscow’s annual Parade, commemorating victory in the Second World War, with this year’s parade taking place on 9thMay.  Putin hasn’t said he wants to announce anything but given its position in Russian society and his ongoing Special Military Operation, it is logical to suggest he will want to do something.

In an ideal world for Putin, he would have wanted to congratulate his victorious Russian forces from rapidly toppling the Zelinskyy government, bringing Ukraine back under the safety of Russia and pushing western influence out and away from Russia’s borders. He has failed with that desire.  He would want to say how his victorious Russian forces have liberated the whole of the Donbas Region and now control the Luhsank and Donbas Oblasts; it is increasingly unlikely he will be able to do that.

So, what is he likely to say? He could resort to straight враньё (vranyo), telling a lie without expecting to be believed, but as he controls the ‘truth’ as presented to the Russian people through маскировка (maskirovka), masking, he could invent a victory. However, he is unlikely to do that as it won’t explain the continuing bodies coming back to Russian mothers and need to mobilise additional troops and units to go to Ukraine.

However, he will want to do something. The indicators are appearing to suggest just that. The indicators I am talking about are:

  • Increasing rhetoric threatening the West for interfering
  • Issues appearing in other Russian breakaway regions
  • Missile attacks on cities across Ukraine
  • Russia exercising energy warfare
  • Unexplained incidents happening in Russia and Russian breakaway areas
  • Russia putting messages out about Russian victories in history
  • Russia continuing to try to court international support
  • Russia failing to gain advantages on the ground

Incidents and activities hitting all of these indicators have happened and are continuing to happen as well as increasing in frequency.  Explosions in Transnistria, threats to hit supply routes from NATO countries into Ukraine, attacks on the likes of Lviv, Dnipra and other cities, the gas being turned off to Poland and Bulgaria, Foreign Minister Lavrov saying, “The risks [of nuclear war] now are considerable,” on 25th April, and more, are all examples, every indicator and warning of something else brewing, has been ticked. The important issue now is what these indicators point to?

Putin’s ambitions for a swift operation to topple the Ukrainian Government and replace it with a Moscow centric regime like in Belarus has failed. Strategically his desire for a weakened EU and NATO has failed. His desire for Russia to be seen as a Global power like the old Soviet Union, something he has been working on for almost the past 20 years, has failed His contempt for the international rules-based system was highlighted perfectly by the way he treated the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres on his visit to Moscow to Putin’s version of ‘Tablegate’ and then rocketed Kyiv when Guterres was visiting there, 48 hours later.

The International Community is hitting back, ‘NATO is ready to maintain its support for Ukraine in the war against Russia for years, including help for Kyiv to shift from Soviet-era weapons to modern Western arms and systems, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in April.’ The UK Foreign Secretary said, “Ukraine must triumph. We will not relent in our efforts until they do,” as the US President, Joe Biden, asked Congress to approve $33Bn of aid including arms, for Ukraine.

We are likely to see an increase in rhetoric from both the Russians and stronger responses from the International Community as 9th May approaches. I can see Russia increasing its nuclear threats and moving from the implied to openly stated. I can see the Russians increasing their global saviours against Nazis rhetoric, siting WW2 and comparing Ukraine and the Wests ‘interference’ in a similar light to 1940’s Nazi Germany. I can see the Russians calling Ukraine and other Western countries, existential threats to Russia itself. All of this could well lead to Putin declaring War on Ukraine on 9th May. We are already hearing more war like talk from Russian commentators at all levels.

So, what will a declaration of war change? It will allow Putin to change his messaging at home and start to explain the huge numbers of casualties, it will allow him to mobilise greater numbers of reserves and give him an opportunity to try and garner additional military support from his strategic alliances. However, the main reason is all about messaging, domestically and then internationally. It is unlikely to change much on the ground except we would see more strategic rocket capabilities brought to bear with conventional warheads, on cities across Ukraine.

What happens next will dictate how the War develops. If Putin manages to capture the whole of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, the whole of the Donbas region, then he would likely try and sue for peace as quickly as possible with the aim of retaining all of the territory he has captured. That would probably be unacceptable to President Zelinskyy and the people of Ukraine, and this is where the first nuclear option could come into play.

To force the Ukrainians to the negotiating table, especially if they were preparing to counterattack, Putin could drop a tactical low yield nuclear device in an unpopulated area, for example the forests around Chernobyl, telling his domestic audience there was an accident but knowing the international community would know instantly what happened. He would then possibly tell the West to back off and say to Ukraine, negotiate and agree to terms or Kyiv, or Lviv are next.

I think this would be below the threshold for a Western nuclear response however, it would almost certainly alienate the tacit relationship Putin has with China, India, and Pakistan. He would be balancing advantages and disadvantages off carefully in his mind. A Joint diplomatic response from the USA, UK, France with ideally China, India and Pakistan could be the precursor to any Western Military response, as there would have to be one or Putin will declare a victory. That possible response would likely be conventional and limited to Russian forces in Ukraine, but the nuclear escalation ladder has been joined!

If Putin doesn’t capture the whole of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts and looks like he could be counterattacked and pushed out of Ukraine, he could try the same tactic with a lesser territorial demand.

However, both options carry a terminal risk for Russia on any part of the international stage so would be last resort tactics. The possibility, however horrifying, exists, and it is critical that Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron have a contingency plan agreed with President Zelinskyy, should the unthinkable happen. Macron will have the greatest difficulty with options, as he is the only EU nuclear power and will have to try and bring the whole of the EU along with any decision he makes. Again, if it happens it will likely stimulate a massive nuclear arms race amongst many smaller countries across the globe. The global doomsday clock would be slightly closer to midnight.

Philip Ingram MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and NATO Planner – he is available for comment.