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Russia-Ukraine War: What Putin's Nuclear Attack Threat Implies For the World

But it's certainly not the end of the war or perhaps even the beginning, as Putin orders partial mobilisation.

Published
Opinion
7 min read
Russia-Ukraine War: What Putin's Nuclear Attack Threat Implies For the World
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The Ukraine conflict has just moved into a higher gear. As the war shifted course against Russia, the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) which President Vladimir Putin recognised as independent states just before the invasion, have said they want referendums on joining Russia from 23 to 27 September.

Zaporizhzhia and Kherson will do likewise. That’s just days away. Moscow’s position is that once, they formally accede, then its Russian territory, and thereby become part of Moscow’s defensive perimeter. And for that defence, Putin seems prepared to use nuclear weapons.

That’s an extremely dangerous position to be in. After all, it involves the West allowing Russia to get away with a fifth of Ukrainian territory. And it also needs the Ukrainians to give that up. Neither seems likely.

No End to the War in Sight

The lightning strike by the Ukrainians into Kharkiv, that took back a large slice of territory, according to Russian sources, led to not just loss of at least 151 Russian infantry fighting vehicles and 104 tanks, but also an "enormous number" of people.

Kyiv’s forces seized the strategic cities of Kupiansk and Izyum in Kharkiv region, cutting crucial Russian supply lines to the Donbas, which is, and always has been Moscow’s main target. Why this happened is puzzling, since it seems to indicate a total loss of intelligence on the movements of Ukrainian troops, poor planning, and less-than-enthusiastic soldiers.

Snapshot
  • The lightning strike by the Ukrainians into Kharkiv that took back a large slice of territory, according to Russian sources led to not just loss of at least 151 Russian infantry fighting vehicles and 104 tanks, but also an "enormous amount" of people.

  • Kyiv’s forces seized the strategic cities of Kupiansk and Izyum in Kharkiv region, cutting crucial Russian supply lines to the Donbas, which is, and always has been Moscow’s main target.

  • Human Rights reports in 2020 noted discrimination against Russian enclaves in various ways, but by then the separatist violence had already been in full flow for 6 years. Clearly, all was not well in these regions.

  • A report by SecDev a think tank of repute, notes “a perfect storm’ of rising costs of living, inflation and an energy security crisis.

  • That the Ukraine war, coming on the heels of Covid has caused a global shock is evident, most in the case of Sri Lanka and Pakistan, both on the verge of complete collapse

But it's certainly not the end of the war or perhaps not even the beginning, as Putin orders partial mobilisation. The question is one of motivation and core interests of all sides.
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Will Russia Deoccupy Donbas? 

By initiating a referendum, Moscow has essentially drawn a line in the sand. In legal terms, Putin is on solid ground. There is a large Russian minority, that after 2014 has begun to agitate for closer relations with Russia, following discriminatory policies against them.

That included making 'Ukrainian' the state language, and closing down television stations that were pro-Russia, and detention of journalists. Human Rights Reports in 2020 noted discrimination against Russian enclaves in various ways, but by then, the separatist violence had already been in full flow for six years. Clearly, all was not well in these regions.

A case then may be made that if a 'genuine' referendum is held, and people want to join Russia, then they should be allowed to do so. The problem is that Moscow, undemocratic itself, is hardly likely to allow any oversight. Moreover, it is ikely that even a section of ethnic Russians will prefer European freedom to the mess that is Russia.

The name 'Donbas’ itself comes in part from the river Donets and its large coal basin, holding one of the world’s largest reserves. Ukraine has the potential to become a "critical mineral superpower," according to a recent analysis.
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The country ranks fourth globally in terms of total assessed value of natural resources, with roughly USD15 billion in annual output and a potential "assessed value [that] could be as high as USD7.5 trillion. It may also have the largest supply of recoverable, rare earth resources (cerium, yttrium, lanthanum and neodymium) all of which is highly strategic.

Ukraine is hardly likely to sit tamely and watch its territories – and certainly its people be swallowed by Russia, referendum or no. But as to whether it is a core interest for Kyiv, the answer is – probably not. It's just too much trouble to keep in a mess of endless fighting.

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Will Putin’s Nuclear Attack Threat Spiral Out of Control?

The point is, whether Putin will see all of this as worth the use of nuclear weapons. Putin has been unusually loose with his threats, first implied in holding a strategic forces exercise before invasion, then placing weapon on high alert, even while his own officials intermittently downplayed the threat.

In fact, Russia’s own doctrine made public for the first time in 2020, very properly limits nuclear use to an existential threat, either conventional or otherwise, though it does introduce a rather dangerous clause of use if incoming ballistic missiles are detected ( launch of warning). But all of this is ‘standard’ deterrence posture, and is what his Defence Minister Shoigu has been reiterating.

President Putin’s present threat is fuzzy, stating that "If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people - this is not a bluff". But it is not Russia’s territory which is threatened. It is Ukraine.

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That Moscow would endanger itself for a slice of Ukrainian territory however valuable, is untenable in deterrence terms. Besides, using even a tactical nuclear weapon on Ukrainian soil on a group of soldiers or tanks would cause little damage, and would not just provoke Russians inside and outside the country, but leave him open to be tried as a war criminal.

The gambit however seems to be aimed at Europe, with the possibility that this threat is aimed as an ‘ask’ that if parts of the Donbas are incorporated into Russia, the war would end. Meanwhile, reports note protests against mobilisation and against war. Time is getting tight for a ‘victory’ that will let Putin ( and his men) step back.

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How Will Europe and the US Respond?

As winter sets in, the stakes are high. A report by SecDev, a think tank of repute, notes 'a perfect storm’ of rising costs of living, inflation and an energy security crisis brewing. Growth is expected to decline from 2.6 percent to 1.2 percent by 2023.

Meanwhile, countries from Italy to to Sweden vote-in right-wing anti-immigrant populist leaders. Hungary is pushing back against European Union sanctions, and East Europe, much poorer than the others, has no appetite at all for war. Reports note Czech protests erupting and a call for neutrality recently, with some 70,000 protestors present.

However, this was reported only by a few, notably the courageous Guardian in the UK. Other reliable reports note the inevitable downturn in sympathy for refugees, with a “What About Us?” attitude as inflation climbs on the back of high energy prices. None of this matters compared to the chaos that will result from the use of a tactical nuke. That will mean a flood of migration from East Europe and Baltic states inwards, the likes of which Europe will never have seen, and that too in winter. The challenges are unimaginable.

The US's stakes are mixed. A shrinking GDP, and rising inflation are threatening, but in the longer run, the US stands to gain be becoming the largest LNG capacity to overtake Qatar and Australia by 2022 end. Add to that the fact that a bleeding Russia means a huge rise in its relative power. Strategically, the US and its allies cant afford to lose in this nuclear poker game.

China is watching, and will learn its lessons. Indeed the whole logic of deterrence will be upended. However, that doesn’t mean the White House will risk Washington for a tiny Ukrainian enclave, but its core interests will not be hit even if Russia uses a tactical nuke and the consequent blowback.
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Repurcussions of Russia-Ukraine War on Global Economy

That the Ukraine war, coming on the heels of the Covid pandemic has caused a global shock is evident, most in the case of Sri Lanka and Pakistan, both on the verge of complete collapse. A total of 141 countries demanded an end to Russian actions in a UN General Assembly resolution in March 2022, though just four countries supported Russia (Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria) and over 35 countries abstained.

For India, inflation has been a worry, as has India's Current Account Deficit (CAD) slated to widen to 5 per cent of the GDP in the September quarter due to higher merchandise trade deficit. The trade deficit has doubled to USD 28.7 billion for August due to a 36.8 per cent expansion in imports and a 1.2 per cent decline in export earnings.

The World Investment Report, 2022 also notes a shrinking of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into from 3.4% to 2.8%. If this bad, then the economic crash arising from use of a tactical nuke would be a hundred times worse.

Trade with Europe is vital. There’s a flip side. The bottom line if Russia uses a tactical nuke is that nuclear war is winnable even in small conflicts. That’s not a lesson we want China to learn. But the thing is, the same applies to Chinese ambitions in Taiwan.
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No, the Chinese for economic and strategic reasons would want Putin’s war to end. India and China may make the strangest of bedfellows, but both need to use their influence on Russia to stop at Donbas, and the west to accept negotiations for a truly fair referendum further down the line. No, don’t think of Pakistani demands in Kashmir. After all, Donbas has its Russians. No Pakistanis in the valley, other than among terrorists. And they don’t get to vote.

(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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