Russia has just launched a new stage of its war in Ukraine, having withdrawn from Kyiv after suffering losses even Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described as “significant” in an extraordinary interview with Sky News earlier this month. The Russians have since regrouped in the eastern parts of the country collectively known as Donbass where they essentially paused their offensive in an effort to reconstitute their damaged forces.
Today the Russian offensive is back on the move in Donbass and southern Ukraine after a night of heavy shelling in the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, an important, strategic steppingstone between Crimea, which the Russians have occupied since 2014, and the southern port city of Odessa, which the Russians seek to conquer to expand their control of the Black Sea.
Just south of Mykolaiv is the city of Kherson, the administrative center of the Kherson Oblast which has been under Russian occupation since early March. There the Russians are organizing an independence referendum which is expected to be held as early as May. The result of the referendum will undoubtedly produce a declaration of independence and the so-called “Kherson People’s Republic” which Russia will undoubtedly recognize.
When this happens, there will be four provinces which will have declared independence from Ukraine while under Russian occupation: Crimea, Kherson, Donetsk, and Luhansk. It stands to reason that once Russia takes control of Mariupol, thereby securing control of the last remaining holdouts of the Donetsk Oblast, the world may come to hear of the People’s Republic of Zaporizhia, the territory between Donetsk and Kherson oblasts which Russia has occupied since early March. Russia will undoubtedly recognize Zaporizhian independence from Ukraine and sign and ratify a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, as it did immediately after recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics, and as it will do after recognizing the People’s Republic of Kherson in next month.
The next step will involve these independent republics holding new referendums to give up their sovereignty and officially join the Russian Federation, something Denis Pushilin, the leader of Donetsk People’s Republic, says he plans to do once they control the whole of the Donetsk Oblast. Once these independent republics become a part of Russia, they open a logistical land corridor for travel and transportation to Crimea that goes through Mariupol and Berdyansk, whereas today Russians can only get to Crimea by crossing a 10.5-mile bridge they just finished building in 2018 that connects to Russia’s Krasnodar region.
This full economic and geographic integration – not protecting the Russian-speaking populations in Donetsk and Luhansk – is what the war in southern and eastern Ukraine has been about since the beginning. It is the critical background information for understanding why the world needs to prepare for the use of nuclear weapons by Russia against Ukraine. It is more abstract than protecting this transportation corridor. For this we must look at a presidential decree updating Russia’s nuclear deterrence policy which Vladimir Putin signed in 2020. Kind of convenient that Russia updated its nuclear weapons policy less than two years before invading Ukraine and yet Moscow insists they never planned to invade, but I digress.
In the decree, Russia says its nuclear arsenal is “defensive in nature” but goes on to say that the purpose of its nuclear arsenal during military conflicts is to “prevent military actions from escalating and stopping them on terms acceptable to the Russian Federation.” The decree then goes on to provide specific circumstances under which Russia reserves the right to “transition” from conventional warfare to the use nuclear weapons. These reasons include acts of “aggression against the Russian Federation using conventional weapons, where the very existence of the State is threatened.” With Crimea and the Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk Oblasts part of the Russian Federation—at least in the eyes of Moscow—acts of aggression against Russian forces in these territories will be—in the eyes of Moscow—acts of aggression against Russian forces on Russian territory, a de facto invasion of Russia threatening the existence of the Russian state.
The decree goes into more detail, stating that the launching of ballistic missiles against the territory of the Russian Federation (which, in the eyes of Moscow, will soon include large swaths of Ukraine) justifies the transition to the use of nuclear weapons. Ballistic missiles can carry nuclear or conventional warheads, so even a ballistic missile carrying a conventional warhead launched by the Ukrainian military to destroy or repel Russian forces from Ukrainian cities they occupy will technically qualify.
The obvious rebuttal is that even though Russia may technically have justification according to a strict reading of their public nuclear deterrence policy, it doesn’t mean they would necessarily resort to such an extreme measure. However, one must not forget the extremely distorted lens through which Vladimir Putin sees the world and justifies his war in Ukraine, even if the actual motive has always been—and will continue to be—territorial expansion.
Officially, however, the goal has been stopping the genocide of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. If you listen to Putin, he describes a “nightmare” against “millions of people” (referring to ethnic Russians) in Ukraine, a country he additionally believes was on the verge of not only joining an adversarial military alliance in NATO, but of becoming nuclear itself. That is exactly how he described the situation at a patriotic pep rally held in a Moscow stadium at the beginning of the war in Ukraine.
Claiming those as his motives, he ordered the invasion of Ukraine, and even portrays his decision as unwanted but necessary, for desperate times call for desperate measures. After the significant losses the Russians have suffered over the past two months, if the ongoing war in Ukraine threatens their
campaign for territorial expansion mission to save the “millions” of ethnic Russians suffering in Ukraine, then Russia may be prepared to use nuclear weapons to stop the war “on terms acceptable to the Russian Federation” i.e., the formal cessation of territory to Russia. This is particularly important because if Ukraine never recognizes Crimea or the other occupied territories as part of Russia, neither will the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, an argument cannot be made that the threat of global outrage would prevent Russia from using nuclear weapons. It did not stop them from invading Ukraine in the first place and they have already earned condemnation from the countries that would express global outrage, so there is not much left to lose on that front. That is not to say there would not be additional sanctions or measures taken against Russia, or even some form of escalation on the part of Europe or NATO, but Russia already believes the West is out to destroy it, and Russia publicly claims that western sanctions are designed to push it into financial default.
Additionally, countries like Syria and North Korea which have not condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine (and are among the few that support their decision to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk), will likely not be moved by their use of nuclear weapons, either. Both are listed by the Department of State as state sponsors of terrorism and North Korea has nuclear ambitions of its own. So, there is not much for Russia to lose economically, considering the extent of western sanctions that have already been placed, or diplomatically, for the number of countries still sitting on the fence after what has transpired over the last two months that would be willing to join the anti-Russian coalition if they were to use nuclear weapons is likely limited.
And Russia has already justified its actions in Ukraine by pointing to how the United States and NATO bombed Serbia in the 1990s resulting in the death of hundreds according to NATO, possibly thousands of civilians according to Yugoslavia. Be assured that Russia is prepared to justify its use of nuclear weapons by reminding the world how the United States used atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the American justification of which was to bring about a quick end to a bloody and ongoing war. Sound familiar?
And the fact that high-level Russian officials have refused to unequivocally reject the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine when given the chance does not send a good signal. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has vaguely spoken about Russia’s right to use nuclear weapons in the case of an existential threat to his country, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (pictured below), when asked about the prospect of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine responded earlier today saying Russia is not considering nuclear weapons “at this stage.”
…at this stage?
His response raises the question: given a new stage of the war was launched today, how many stages are there and at which stage does Russia go nuclear? Truth be told, he has since walked back that statement, saying Russia will not use nuclear weapons on Ukraine. It is frankly hard to believe what any Russian government official says, including Mr. Lavrov, considering how he denied that Russia planned to invade Ukraine for weeks before Russia did, in fact, invade Ukraine.
Meanwhile, there have been a slew of other official statements referring to and threatening “unpredictable consequences” if the United States continues to arm Ukraine and other consequences if Sweden and Finland join NATO this summer, as they are expected to do, such as the deployment of nuclear weapons to the Baltics. A Russian lawmaker recently even proposed launching a preemptive nuclear strike on US military facilities Nevada to show Russian resolve. Pundits like to brush these statements aside as empty threats aimed at intimidating the West but the events of the last few months have demonstrated that the world is not dealing with a rational Russian government.
Indeed, four of Russia’s nuclear bombers were spotted flying near the Ukrainian border under fighter escort late last week just after news broke that Russia’s flagship missile cruiser, the Moskva, was sunk by a Ukrainian attack using anti-ship Neptune missiles launched from the shore. It was the first time Russia lost its flagship since the Russo-Japanese war in 1904 and is the biggest Russian warship to be sunk in action since World War II. It was a major loss for Russian morale and the government’s public relations campaign in Russia which has somehow, likely through fear, repression, and manipulation, mobilized the country into a nationalistic frenzy – the final piece to the puzzle which will have Russia use nuclear weapons.
In brief: Russia has a military policy that allows for the use of nuclear weapons in certain circumstances; events have transpired over years and throughout this current military conflict that give Russia reason to implement that policy; the ascension of the Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk Oblasts into Russia (Crimea has already joined) will allow Russia to claim, however preposterously, that its foreign adversaries are attacking and advancing on the territory of the Russian Federation, thereby endangering the existence of the Russian State; Russia will employ its Soviet-era whataboutism tactic to justify its use of nuclear weapons—at least to itself and the few friends it has left—by diverting attention from its nuclear attack on Ukraine onto the atomic bombings of Japan by the United States, and the US-led NATO bombings in Serbia, and lastly, the Russian population is under a nationalistic, anti-western spell of the Z, which is quite surprising because after eight years of living in Russia I would have described the Russian people as largely apathetic.
Russia is going to face more heavy losses in the coming days and weeks, largely thanks to the flow of heavier and more sophisticated weapons from the US and NATO, which has turned the war in Ukraine to a proxy way between NATO and Russia. As the war continues because Kyiv has the means to keep up the fight and (rightfully) refuses to cede any territory to Russia in order to secure a peace deal, the costs for Russia will continue to mount. Meanwhile, Russia will likely manage to hold a few independence referendums in oblasts across southern Ukraine and grant them admission into the Russian Federation, at which time they will declare victory and an end to the war. Time will tell if they manage to pull that off by May 9, in time for the annual Victory Day parade the Russians were hoping to use to show off their victory “against the Nazis in Ukraine” in 2022 along with their victory over the Nazis in Germany more than 75 years ago.
Remember: when Ukraine launches its ballistic missiles and rolls its tanks and other forces into these new Russian territories in an effort to liberate them from the Russian occupiers, they will be, from Moscow’s perspective, attacking and invading Russia itself, threatening the very existence of the Russian State exactly how the Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens the very existence of Ukraine State. Russia will use nuclear weapons in that case to defend itself.
The world must prepare. It is a good thing Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has already started asking for anti-radiation pills.