The Ukrainian Nuclear war of 2023
and its Aftermath
by Martin N. Stanton
Ukraine, July 2023: Russia’s only option for quick victory – Break a Taboo / Change the World.
The Ukrainians long promised summer offensive has begun and is slowly inching its way into the Russian defensive belts. The Ukraine conflict has already surpassed anyone’s expectations for duration and losses suffered. Since February of 2022 the Russians have been bloodied and embarrassed in Ukraine. The Ukrainians have proved surprisingly resilient but have suffered substantial losses as well and only survive through massive infusions of western aid. By the middle of June 2023 each side had evolved. The Ukrainians have become marginally less effective due the attrition of their most trained forces but also managed to husband significant operational reserves which now form the core elements of their summer counteroffensive. The Russians on the other hand became slightly more capable while at the same time continuing to exhibit many of the deficiencies in training and planning that have hobbled their efforts since the beginning of the war. If the recent fighting around Bakhmut is anything to go by the Russians may be able to win exhaustive battles of attrition in single localities but haven’t demonstrated the ability to translate this into a war winning general offensive. Meanwhile the Ukrainians have conducted their largest drone attack on Moscow to date and are grinding into the Russian defensive belts towards Melitopol and Mariupol. How this will play out is hard to predict, but even if the Russians manage to blunt the Ukrainians offensive (no sure thing), they will only do so after suffering significant attrition in another series of bloody, drawn-out battles.
Putin may not have begun the war understanding that he was playing for existential stakes (his own survival in power), but he knows that he is now. His conventional forces have shown themselves to be surprisingly incapable and aren’t getting better fast enough. The impact of the war on Russia’s home front is increasing with Ukrainian strikes on Russian border towns like Belgorad. Additionally, Putin has just seen the first shots in what promises to become a drone “War-of-the-cities” like the Scud exchanges on population centers during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Even with government control of the media it’s getting harder to convince the Russian man-in-the-street the war is going well. The recent “Wagner” mutiny led by Prigozhin with its abortive march on Moscow is another clear indicator that many of Russia’s power elite are becoming increasingly restive under Putin’s leadership.
To survive in power, Putin can’t afford to lose in Ukraine and must eke out some kind of victory – sooner rather than later. He wants to avoid the war dragging into next year – which could necessitate a call for general mobilization. Relying on attrition and the traditional Russian model of mass to eventually deliver something that could be called a “victory” has its drawbacks. Russia’s military has already been badly attritted and further years of fighting will only further delay its reconstitution. Additionally, although the Russians have greater personnel reserves than the Ukrainians, they are far smaller than the inexhaustible pool of manpower in which the Soviets drowned the Wehrmacht 80 years ago. Putin must also be thinking about “what-comes-next” even after “victory” in the Ukraine. Russian manpower lost in future attritional battles in the Ukraine will be manpower unavailable to rebuild Russia’s military after the shooting stops.
In short, Putin is in a quandary. He needs to show that he is decisive and powerful in order quell the whispers of weakness following Prigozhin’s mutiny. Putin also needs to win in Ukraine (and soon too, so that he can rebuild his badly worn Army). However, his forces are incapable of achieving a quick decisive conventional victory and could be upset yet again by the Western backed Ukrainians (who stand to get even more western weapons – including F-16s as the war drags on). Putin only has one option available to both (a) look strong and unchallengeable on the Russian political scene and (b) Win the war in 2023. This option is to use Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNW). Russian TNW employment in the Ukraine would shatter the taboo over the use of nuclear weapons that has existed since 1945. We need to be thinking about what the policy implications of a post Ukraine nuclear war are and how the world will change forever.
The first battlefield practical application of TNW: The Ukraine nuclear war of 2023
The US Department of Defense defines Tactical Nuclear Warfare as: The use of nuclear weapons by land, sea, or air forces against opposing forces, supporting installations or facilities, in support of operations that contribute to the accomplishment of a military mission of limited scope.
Based on this, here are some of the things we should be looking for in potential Russian TNW employment in Ukraine:
- Surprise: The Initial use of TNW would be even more effective if it came without warning. The Russians know they exist under a microscope of intel collection. They will do their best to compensate for this while preparing for their first strike – which would likely involve a small number of weapons. Remember, they only need to be secretive about their initial use of TNW, after that it doesn’t matter.
- Going for the win: Most military analysts in the media today believe the Russians probably won’t employ TNW, but if they do, (a) they will only do so “in-extremis” to stave off disaster (IE keep the Ukrainians from taking Crimea back) and (b) they will exercise a self -imposed incrementalism. Media “experts” postulate the Russians are most likely to use either a single device used in “demonstration” that doesn’t kill anyone or a single weapon strike that does inflict casualties as part of the “demonstration’. No one seems to think about the Russians using them as a mechanism to achieve victory. The people who make these postulations are, in my estimation, making two grave errors. (1) They believe that international opinion and sanctions matter more to the Russians leadership than it does (they also believe international opinion is far more unified against Russia than it is, but that’s another issue). (2) They believe the Russians, having made the decision to use TNW, will voluntarily choose an incremental approach that minimizes their effectiveness. That Russia’s leadership will make a decision that furthers the international opprobrium and isolation she already suffers while at the same time deriving no tangible military benefit from the decision. This flies in the face of common sense. If the Russians make the drastic decision to use TNW. They’ll be using them to win.
- Mass Employment: Once the decision to use nuclear weapons is made, it makes far more sense for the Russians to use a larger number of TNW in their initial strikes to achieve the tactical effect they desire on the ground. It is very easy to envision Russian first use of TNW that involves numerous 1-10Kt warheads that are tied to larger maneuver and designed to break the Ukrainians momentum/resistance.
- Continual Employment: Once nuclear weapons have been used it makes little sense not to keep using them. Subsequent nuclear strikes will most likely be tied to anywhere the Ukrainians are massing or trying to make a stand. TNW become the tactical “Easy” button for oft stymied Russian forces. Nuclear strikes on key airfields and LOCs also make sense at this stage to impede the Ukrainians from responding with their carefully husbanded airpower or moving reserves. We could expect to see a full week or more with nuclear employment every day. The number of TNW ultimately used will vary with the efficacy of the Russians targeting processes, accuracy of their delivery systems and rate of weapon proper function, but several dozen (or even more) would not surprise me at all.
- Minimize Fallout: Fallout can be minimized through use of fuze settings that explode the device in such a manner as to not have the fireball touch the ground (airburst). The Russians would have the incentive to employ TNW in this manner on the battlefield as they will likely have to maneuver through the strike areas soon after they occur. Given the low state of training and readiness in general that the Russians have displayed to date it cannot be assumed their forces are prepared to maneuver through highly contaminated areas, so it would behoove them to keep residual contamination to a minimum. The only potential targets for surface bursts and cratering effects (with their associated high residual fallout) are major Ukrainian airfields, logistics hubs and national C2 facilities on the west bank of the Dnieper beyond the potential advance of Russian ground maneuver.
- TNW Employed from Russian soil whenever possible. Some of the Russians shorter ranged systems will have to be employed from inside Ukraine’s borders. Many however, can engage targets in Ukraine from Russian soil. This presents a significant escalation difficulty for those NATO leaders who have publicly advocated for a NATO conventional response against Russian forces in Ukraine in the event of Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons. Does NATO really go after Russian tactical nuclear systems based in Russia?
The likely outcome of Russian tactical nuclear weapons use:
Short of general hostilities with Russia, NATO’s options in the face of the kind of TNW employment I have just described are limited and unlikely to be availing. The most likely outcome of Russian TNW use as postulated here is a negotiated peace with terms more favorable towards Russia than she would have otherwise received – and much quicker. It would be an ugly minimalist victory, but it would suffice for Putin’s purposes. Winning ugly is still winning.
Tactical nuclear weapons worked – now what?
Russia will, of course, face Western rage and a certain amount of international diplomatic and economic censure and isolation. However, we would be mistaken in thinking that the Russians could not weather this. There would be, in the developing world, a certain admiration of the Russians for calling the West’s bluff. Domestically, Putin would look like a strong man who stood up to NATO and the US and did what he had to do to win. Post Ukraine, the bear will burp and lick its wounds. The Russian military has been badly damaged in Ukraine and will take years to recover. Expect no more moves for expansion during Putin’s lifetime as they seek to absorb their newly acquired (and worse for wear) territory from a diminished (and dependably anti-Russian) Ukraine.
The Chinese will make “Tut – Tut” noises and censure the Russian’s diplomatically but be privately gleeful as the US knee jerk reaction is to stop our “Pacific shift’ and send forces to support our newly awakened (and hysterical) “less-than-2% GDP Defense Budget” NATO partners. They will be mindful that Taiwan will be frantic to acquire its own nuclear weapons but likely calculate Taiwan by itself couldn’t achieve nuclear capacity before China’s military is fully ready to take the island by force if necessary. The Russians energy and wheat customers across the world will all swoon with the vapors but be quietly back to business as usual within the year.
In the meantime, militaries all over the world will be studying exhaustively just what did happen with TNW in Ukraine. What kind of radiation patterns and fallout did they produce? How effective were they? The Russians (and by extension – the Chinese, Iranians, and North Koreans) will have a leg up on this because the Russians will own most of the battlefields / strike locations. However, even those countries without immediate access to the battlefields will have enough data to draw two very important conclusions. (1) The residual radiation impact of judicious TNW employment is manageable and (2) TNW produced decisive effects on the battlefield.
The final collapse of the old Arms Control / counterproliferation order:
After the Russians use TNW there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the “flouting of international norms” and the violation of numerous arms control treaties. The West, led by the US may have some limited success isolating Russia for a short time (although even this is not guaranteed) but none of this really matters. International counterproliferation efforts over the decades have been spotty at best and have not prevented India, Pakistan, North Korea, or Israel from developing nuclear weapons. Other nations are already on the cusp of acquiring them as well. Successful use of TNW will spur acquisition efforts. Counterproliferation efforts as we know them will largely fall to the wayside. The hard men of the world don’t really care about the opinions of western intelligentsia and the Union of Concerned Scientists can have all the conniptions it wants to. The genie will be out of the bottle.
The only real question is how long will the US cling to the wreckage of the obsolete international counterproliferation regime, desperately trying to convince a world that has already moved on to remain adherent to it? Think of Kevin Bacon’s character at the end of the movie “Animal House” trying to convince everyone that “all is well” as the parade descends into chaos around him. Like Kevin Bacon, we’ll be ignored.
The scramble for acquisition of TNW.
The scramble for acquisition will be divided between two kinds of nations. (1) Nations that can build one – that is to say, nations with the scientific, technological, and industrial capacity to build an atomic bomb if provided with enough of the proper materials and (2) Nations that can buy one – Nations that do not have the capacity to produce indigenous weapons but have the wherewithal to acquire them from outside sources.
In the first category we have nations like Brazil, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, most European countries, etc. In the second we have nations like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc. (If your country hasn’t been listed sorry – but I’m trying to save space). Many countries who can build one can also buy one.
So, who’s to sell? Well, Russia for one. They’ve tons of them and can make more. Calculated proliferation of TNW could make them a lot of money and buy them a lot of influence. Pakistan is cash strapped and so is North Korea, but both have fully operational nuclear programs. India is a possibility if they see others cashing in, as is Israel. The on-the-cusp producers like Iran could be depended to get in on the action once their basic national security needs are met.
The scramble for acquisition will leave the US with hard choices and no good options. The longer we act like Kevin Bacon and ignore the reality of the world around us the worse it will be for our position in the world and for those of our partners that still trust us. We will also have to recognize that we are well behind our potential adversaries in the number and types of TNW we have available. Our divestiture of these systems after the fall of the Soviet Union was, in retrospect, a bad move.
The next nuclear war and beyond
Looking at the potential conflicts in the world it is easy to see several flashpoints where use of TNW would be likely in the event of conflict. Taiwan is the most obvious, but Korea and India-Pakistan also become more likely as do conflicts in the Middle East (Sunni vs Shia). The nuclear war in Ukraine will have broken the psychological barrier against nuclear weapons use and proven that it is possible to use TNW to achieve decisive battlefield effect. From there it’s all just targeting mechanics and weighing political risk of conflict. Nor will the great powers be immune. Localized tactical nuclear conflicts between strategic nuclear powers with recognized self- limitations are also possible. We must also recognize the possibility that the next military use of nuclear weapons after the Ukraine will be at sea.
A new normality
Today we live in a world with nine recognized nuclear weapons nations (US, Russia, China, UK, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea). Soon we will be in a world where a respectable two-digit number of nations possess TNW. What’s the new normal look like?
First, the strategic nuclear powers will still hold the ability to execute mutually assured destruction. This will ensure continued restraint between them in terms of the use of strategic nuclear weapons. However, underneath the shade of these massive strategic arsenals, little mushroom clouds will pop up from time to time.
Tactical nuclear warfare will be just another tool in the toolbox. But this does not mean they are automatically the tool of choice. The expense of TNW and limited circumstances in which they make battlefield sense (vice some less expensive/destructive option) mean that TNW won’t be going off in every border skirmish across the world.
We can also expect calculations as to potential aggressive moves to resolve international disputes before one (or both) parties acquire TNW. In some scenarios it may make strategic sense to use TNW to achieve battlefield victory and subsequently desired political results at the peace table before the other combatant can arm itself. Striking first in this kind of war carries priceless advantage.
There will be a certain amount of uncertainty as to what constitutes a TNW (recall, the Hiroshima bomb was only 15Kt) and the next international arms control regime will spend a good amount of its efforts on this subject.
Arms control efforts will also concentrate more on surety / security of nuclear weapons as opposed to their proliferation. There will be a concerted effort by societies with the most to lose to keep TNW out of the hands of non-state actors.
Finally, responsible governments will increase civil defense measures and preparations for TNW use and the associated consequence management such use entails.
The long period between August of 1945 and the present has contributed to the mistaken belief that nuclear weapons are somehow unique in the history of mankind and we really could refrain from their use. This was never true. Barring some miraculous “Deus Machina” we’re about to enter a new era in human history. We need to be thinking about what comes after the 2023 Ukrainian nuclear war.