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.
Ukraine, a month in.
by Philip Ingram MBE
Life changed not just for Ukraine on 24th February 2022 but arguably for a large proportion of the world. Russia’s further invasion of a sovereign country has changed the continent of Europe, changed its political priorities and economies as well as those of most countries across the globe. It has brought the EU together in a way hitherto unseen, shocked NATO with a threat many members had thought had disappeared into a puff of cyber into a grey zone and brought the possibility of nuclear war, a prospect last seen in 1983, but for many last considered with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
A lot has happened in that month, with millions of Ukrainians displaced, some 3.5 million out of the country. Thousands have died and for what? And many more have been injured and scarred for life. Towns and cities have been reduced to wastelands and lives changed for generations. Causing this, Russia has failed to achieve a single operational objective.
Russia’s main effort (ME) was to topple the current Ukrainian Government and replace it with a more pro-Moscow regime in order to quash Ukraine’s increasing EU and longer-term NATO ambitions. Putin and his Foreign Minister, Lavrov, have both said this, which is why the Russian ME is known. Its secondary objective was the linking of Crimea along the Southern coast of Ukraine, via the Donbas region to Russia with a Land Bridge and that is clear from the formations used, their operational dispositions and axis of advance. The third objective was likely the capture of Eastern Ukraine unto and including the Dnieper River. This is known from the axis of attacking Russian formations.
To achieve these three objectives, looking at what happened on the ground, Russia had tried to prepare the battlespace with small teams of special forces and from their intelligence agencies, the GRU and FSB inside Kyiv to identify and snatch key Ukrainian leaders whilst an Air Mobile Operation with an Airborne Reserve captured a key airport near Kyiv, Antonov Airport, in order to build a bridgehead whilst ground forces advanced rapidly from the North and North West to link up with the Bridgehead. These manoeuvres were seen in the first hours of the invasion. They failed.
They failed because the teams operating inside Kyiv in the first hours failed to find and capture any government or senior officials and were routed by Ukrainian defenders, it is likely that Ukrainian intelligence had known about them and had a clear plan in place to neutralise them. It worked. The Airmobile operation to capture Kyiv’s Antonov Airport met heavy Ukrainian resistance and it is likely that Russian casualties were high. Russian forces established a toehold at the airport and airborne forces were dispatched to reinforce that whilst the armoured forces attempted to advance rapidly along multiple axis to link up with their lightly equipped forces at the Airport.
However, the Ukrainians successfully counterattacked the airport before the airborne forces could land, destroyed 2 transport aircraft in the air transporting these troops and blunted the advance of the armoured columns on all fronts. The link up armoured columns and their logistics got stuck in traffic jams stretching 10’s of Km making it easy for the Ukrainian defenders to keep them in place, destroying elements, sowing despair, and further restricting resupply and casualty evacuation.
They failed because Russia did not or could not gain air superiority over Ukraine, allowing the Ukrainians to attack Russian manoeuvre operations, keep the Russia air force at distance and allow Ukrainian air and air defence assets to continue to operate. They failed because all arms combined operations are complex and need a lot of training and experienced and disciplined commanders and troops, Russia has few in that bracket. They failed because logistic support was an afterthought instead of being central to the operation. They failed because their troops lacked the drive and motivation of the Ukrainian defenders. They failed because intelligence was used to support pre conceived ideas rather than give realistic assessments.
The secondary objective required a move from Crimea North and Northeast along the coast of the Sea of Azov to meet up with formations coming from Russia and the disputed Donbas Region the other direction with maritime landings and operations along the coast to fix the Ukrainian defenders. Once completed the operation would switch to capture the strategic port Odessa and therefore the whole Ukrainian coastline and access to the sea. In occupying territory terms, the first part of this objective has been more successful but to date, has also failed.
It is clear the Russian formations were not prepared for the ground conditions, making it virtually impossible for them to manoeuvre their formations operationally and the continual attacks by the Ukrainian defenders caused an expenditure of combat supplies, (fuel, ammunition, rations, water, medical), that was unprepared for, making it easier for the Ukrainian defenders with internal lines of communication (i.e. easily resupplied and supported) to further influence the Russian advance. That Ukrainian influence has in military terms fixed the Russian attackers. Again, a lack of air superiority was and is a significant factor. This means, stopped their ability to manoeuvre in the way they want and need to achieve their objective.
The Third objective required Russian formations backed by formations from the self-proclaimed republics in the Donbas Region to attack West and grab territory up to and including the Dnieper River. This too has failed for the same reasons mentioned above.
So what? Russia will keep pumping troops in and will win. This is what Putin hopes but the signs are it won’t work. On the ground Russian forces have transitioned from offensive operations to attritional operations and in in some areas purely defensive. Their attritional focus in from what is euphemistically referred to as ‘The Play Book’ which is just shorthand for what happened in Georgia and Syria, but the situation is different, and you can’t (or shouldn’t) template operations. Putin is concerned which is why he has dared use the Chemical and Biological words as well as reaching for his nuclear stick.
He knows that by suggesting their possible use he will likely split some of the political unity seen in the EU and NATO but he also knows that if he uses them then the tacit support he is getting from other countries such as China and India could disappear very rapidly. Putin is playing a game of nuclear chess with words to try and give him and his forces on the ground breathing space to regroup, use attrition to break the will of the Ukrainian people and thereby hopefully the Ukrainian politicians and break the cohesion of the international community reined against him.
This is probably the most dangerous phase of Putin’s Invasion as he tries to wrestle some form of initiative back, knowing he can make this phase last months, with the civilian people of Ukraine paying an increasing price daily. However, there are green shoots of possible Ukrainian counterattacks, North West of Kyiv. If Ukraine can begin to push Russia forces back in any meaningful way, then Putin’s hand will be called earlier. The problem with this is he has nowhere to go and given what he has done should be given no concessions. It is at this point that NATO leaders will have to consider some form of closer involvement with all the inherent dangers that that will bring.
I think we could see Putin waving his nuclear stick harder and the real concern is once he steps onto the escalation ladder, it can be climbed very quickly. This is a time for international leaders to put politics aside and concentrate on unity of action and unity of message; we live in increasingly dangerous times.
Philip Ingram MBE is a former senior British Military Intelligence Officer and NATO Planner – he commentates globally on TV, on the Radio and in print.
Russia and Ukraine, the Chemical and Biological threat with a touch of Nuclear
By Philip Ingram MBE
The Russian messaging machine has gone into overdrive on its claims that the Ukraine and the US are developing chemical or biological weapons for use against invading Russian forces, as they brought the accusation to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on Friday. So that is the reality, a question I have been asked frequently by many press outlets in the past 24 hours?
At the end of February Vladimir Putin issued a statement where he raised the alert level of his nuclear forces and later his Foreign Minister Lavrov blamed comments from the British Foreign Secretary for forcing them to do so. This one act of putting your foot on the nuclear escalatory ladder then taking it off again says so much about Russia’s approach to diplomacy.
Russia has a policy of “escalate to de-escalate” so threatening the unthinkable to then back down is something in their psyche but they also have a history of following thorough, in particular when it comes to bombing, rocketing and shelling civilian built up areas and in Syria, helping to facilitate the use of chemical weapons.
In Ukraine, Russia’s invasion has become bogged down and in some areas fixed. They have little freedom to manoeuvre. That is why we are seeing what many refer to as the playbook tactics being rolled out. Whenever Russia has been fixed or bogged down in the past, they have rapidly resorted to surrounding cities and pounding them from the air, with rockets, missiles and artillery, in an indiscriminate manner, all to try and break the resolve of the people.
The agreement for humanitarian corridors and ceasefires is also playbook stuff as is mining those routes and shelling fleeing civilians. Again, looking at the response from the international community in the past to these atrocities, there has been none; Russia has been allowed to get away with it.
Many of the commanders involved in invasion of Ukraine will have served in Syria, some may even have been in Grozny in 2008, but that playbook tactics will be in their psyche, Putin likely won’t even have had to order it as it will have been in the wider contingency plans for cities showing too much resistance. What Russia hadn’t expected was that is every city! The last time this level of resolve was shown, in Syria, to break the deadlock, Chemical weapons were employed.
It is that playbook combined with the statements from official Russian MoD channels and the calling of the UNSC meeting that makes the threat of use of chemical weapons in Ukraine all the more real.
I will dismiss biological weapons quickly by saying they are not an act of war. Biological weapons are very difficult to weaponise into battlefield delivery system and their effects more difficult to control. You also need superb medial facilities for your own troops in case of accidental exposure, and the Russians don’t.
However, a real threat doesn’t automatically translate into their actual use. Key to this is that in Syria, Putin had a plausibly deniable outlet for blame when the international community called out the false flag attacks blamed on the Syrian opposition fighters, he could blame Assad and say he was misled too. This is a combination of маскировка (maskirovka), masking the truth behind disinformation and враньё(vranyo), which means to tell a lie without expecting to be believed, both are frequently exercised Putin tactics.
There are 2 scenarios where Putin may use chemical weapons in Ukraine, one is in a false flag incident in the vicinity of a Ukrainian research facility giving an excuse for him to go to the Russian people as say, “told you so, this is why we have to invade all of Ukraine.” This remains a possibility but the fact that western intelligence has already called it out may take that option off the table as it has done before with other potential false flag incidents.
The second is horrific, Putin uses chemical weapons in order to break the blockades around Ukrainian cities. Here I am going to assess this as being less likely to unlikely as no matter what messaging Putin puts out, he knows that personally this gives him nowhere to hide within an international context, ever. He may be a psychopath, but he is in some ways still rational. He knows that use of chemical weapons would have to be authorised by him and that would mean automatic prosecution and a massive withdrawal of the tacit ‘turning a blind eye,’ he is getting from the likes of China and India. His pariah status would be further set in stone; irrecoverably so.
He also doesn’t need to go there yet. He has much more he can do with conventional military capabilities, if he can manoeuvre them and support them logistically, in this case that if is probably the biggest word in the English language. He can threaten other disasters such as nuclear meltdowns in Ukraine’s nuclear facilities currently under Russian control but blame that on counter attacking Ukrainians. He has much more conventional terror to rain down on Ukraine’s cities before he even needs to consider the unthinkable.
The worrying final issue is no matter what the outcome, Putin has lost this war. He has failed, his military have failed. He has strengthened the Ukrainian people as a nation, strengthened the international community including the EU, caused the conditions for possible further NATO expansion.
Sun Tzu says, “Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.” Putin’s forces didn’t listen and are fixed. Unless there is a palace coup in Moscow, this conflict could go on for a long time with all of the associated suffering and deaths. The only other tiny green shoot of hope is that the Russians are becoming so fixed, that if the Ukrainian defenders can generate manoeuvre capabilities to counterattack, their time to push the Russian back in a significant way could come. Supporting the Ukrainian defenders more and enabling them to become attackers is the Wests next logical step.
Philip Ingram MBE is a former senior British Military Intelligence Officer and NATO Planner and is available for comment.
No fly zones and the Russian nuclear threat
by Philip INGRAM MBE
The clamours to instigate some form of a no-fly zone over Ukraine are increasing as the humanitarian fall out from Russia’s invasion and increasing rocket attacks and shelling of built up and residential areas, grows.
From a cursory glance perspective, it seems a logical step, something the West did over Iraq as Saddam Hussein oppresses his people, but what are the implications? At the moment the conflict is geographically bound inside the borders of Ukraine. On paper Russia has a much stronger military force but realistically only a small percentage is properly trained, equipped, and resourced and the Ukrainian defenders are having success after success in blunting their advances. The Russian have become largely fixed.
Should the international community decide to implement a no-fly zone, or even humanitarian no fly corridors, the only organisation that has the resources, including command and control, to police this is NATO. To maintain them safely NATO would have to be prepared to destroy any air defence capabilities that tracked them, the risk of not doing so would be too great. This would bring NATO into direct conflict with Russia and probably Belarus.
The implications of this are instantaneous, the conflict would go from being geographically bound, to being at the minimum Northern Hemisphere, but more likely global. Putin knows he can’t win against a sustained conflict with NATO. He would need to warn NATO off from proactively attacking Russia. His only option for doing this is a nuclear option.
This doesn’t mean there would be an immediate strategic first strike and therefore global nuclear Armageddon, Putin is not that daft, but the escalation ladder would be escalated quickly. His first option would be the use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, possibly on or near a Ukrainian Nuclear power plant and therefore Chernobyl is a distinct target, so he could blame the explosion on Ukrainian shelling of the plant causing an explosion. He would know that the West and Ukranian government would know it was a weapon but could sell the accident to his domestic audience and to doubters in the West, remember маскировка (maskirovka), literally masking, is key to his tactics. The effect would be a clear message to the West that he is ready to escalate and to the Ukrainian’s, give in now or Kiev is next; the thought and implications are horrific.
Putin would know the West would know the truth but could calculate that by doing this he is sending a warning that the West would not want to escalate. The Wests only nuclear response realistically is a more strategic one. However, in 2018 former Defence Secretary James Mattis told the US Congress, “I don’t think there is any such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. Any nuclear weapon used any time is a strategic game-changer.” He is right.
The West would have to decide the next moves, if it was to back down, Putin would redouble his murderous tactics in Ukraine. If it were to escalate by attacking a Russian military target with a medium range nuclear weapon, that escalation ladder would be being climbed very fast, and we would, de facto, be involved in a nuclear war.
Putin’s response to that would probably be further escalation, likely hitting a target in a small European country, one of the Baltic states or Finland or Sweden, again calculating the West would not escalate further. It is not in his increasingly deranged and psychopathic psyche to back down, he knows he can’t lose or he loses everything and to him, if he loses everything then it is possible he will think everyone should lose everything. There is only one unthinkable step next. We must remember his thinking will not be wholly logical from an external viewpoint.
So, what tactical weapons does he have and are they controlled? Reports are confusing and numbers of tactical nuclear weapons in open-source reporting range from 230 and 2,000. Tactical weapons are not regulated by treaty, unlike strategic nuclear weapons. However, U.S. and Russian arms control treaties simply define non-strategic weapons as those with a strike range inferior to 5500 km with Operational nuclear weapons up to 500 Km and Tactical, 300 km. Jim Mattis’s comment remains relevant!
Russian policy on Nuclear, release (Principles of State Policy in the Sphere of Nuclear Deterrence Until 2020), states that Moscow may also use nukes in response to non-nuclear attacks threatening to disarm Russia’s nuclear forces, or that threaten the existence of the Russian state itself. NATO involvement would easily evoke this policy and маскировка (maskirovka) would make the threat seem much bigger to the Russian people and military commanders.
It is believed that nearly half of Russia’s non-strategic arsenal are estimated to belong to the Russian Navy. Of greatest relevance are long-range (1,550 miles) subsonic Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles, as well as P-800 Oniks supersonic anti-ship missiles (range 500 miles), both understood to be nuclear-capable. We have seen reports of the air or land launched Kalibr missiles used with conventional warheads in Ukraine already. The Russian navy also have nuclear torpedoes and anti-submarine weapons. In addition Russia reportedly has nuclear anti-aircraft systems.
Their Land based capability is estimated to possess less than 100 nuclear warheads for its missile batteries. Its precise Iskander-M tactical ballistic missile system can swap its regular warhead for up to a 50-kiloton device. The 2S7 self-propelled gun with a calibre of 203mm and a range of about 37km is believed to be able to fire nuclear projectiles with a yield up to 1Kt. The number of nuclear shells held is not clear.
In the air, Su-34 and older Su-24M attack jets are nuclear capable and longer-range Tu-22M supersonic bombers, which can carry dual-capable Kh-32 supersonic anti-ship and land-attack missiles. Russia has also allegedly developed a unique air-launched Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missile with a 1,200-mile range. However, it is likely that if so this isn’t fully operational yet.
The bottom line is, at the moment with the conflict geographically bound, Putin does not currently need to consider the use of nuclear weapons, he has many more tactical conventional steps he can take before that would cross his mind. However, as mentioned before the escalatory ladder can be ascended very rapidly and NATO military involvement could stimulate a step onto the first rung. Even tactical use in Ukraine would likely result in more Ukrainian casualties that a no-fly zone of any type could save. Is it worth the risk?
Philip Ingram MBE is a former Senior British Military Intelligence Officer and NATO Planner. He is available for comment.