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.