Many would consider reminders of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as alarmist, but the fact remains that nuclear weapons, or at least their threat, is one card that Moscow can play, reminding the world that the US set the precedent.

London: “Tell me how this ends”, said US General David Petraeus while directing the 101st Airborne during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many Russian generals will currently be asking the same question as their President’s failing war on Ukraine stumbles into its third month with no end in sight. Some pundits are forecasting that the invasion could last several years, leading to a stalemate. Others predict that an impatient and frustrated Putin will escalate the “special military operation” into a full scale war on Ukraine as early as tomorrow (denied by the Kremlin), making a huge gesture on Russia’s “День Победы”, the annual celebration of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany 77 years ago. For weeks, Russian state television has been raging about WWIII, priming citizens to believe that even nuclear war, the worst outcome, “is a good thing because those dying for the Motherland will skyrocket to paradise”, although many would argue that they would prefer to remain on earth at the moment. But will Vladimir Putin, believed to be seriously physically and mentally ill, actually upscale the invasion into WWIII or even an all-out nuclear war?

As Western arms continue to flow in and Russia’s military exhausts its own defensive capabilities, the correlation of forces is steadily shifting in Ukraine’s favour. If President Putin begins to believe he’s losing the war at “peacetime strengths”, he may have to declare a real state of war in order to enact national mobilisation, which could certainly provide him with hundreds of thousands of fresh troops. But all would need training, lasting many months and would therefore prolong the war. Reinforcements are desperately needed, though, as Russia has lost a huge number of its troops, 23,000 according to the Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, although this figure has not been verified. Zelenskyy also claimed last week that the Ukrainian army has destroyed more than 1,000 Russian tanks, nearly 200 Russian aircraft and almost 2,500 armoured fighting vehicles. On Monday, the British military defence intelligence agency said that Russia has committed roughly 65% of its entire ground combat forces to the war in Ukraine and that more than a quarter of these have been “rendered combat ineffective”. Early in April, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov briefly admitted that Russia had suffered “significant” losses, calling the losses a “huge tragedy for Russia”.

President Putin is unquestionably finding his military forces less impressive than he once thought—and others used to fear. The sinking of his Black Sea flagship, the Moskva in April, and reports that the Admiral Makarov, a modern guided missile frigate commissioned in 2017 had been destroyed by Ukrainian missiles, illustrate that the Russian navy is in deep trouble. Many analysts also point to the chaotic showing of the Russian army in Ukraine as clear evidence of corruption among the officer corps, as well as appalling communications and lack of motivation in the ranks. The Economist concluded last week that the answer to the question “how deep is the rot within the Russian army” is “the rot goes very deep indeed”.

It’s not difficult to see why motivation is so low among the Russian troops, made up from many ethnic groups around the vast country. Risking imprisonment for revealing details of the war, Russian academic contacts have sent conclusive evidence that military leaders consider their soldiers, especially those from ethnic minorities, as mere “cannon fodder”. Moscow rarely reveals its casualties in the “special military operation” in Ukraine, and on the rare occasions that numbers trickle out, they are believed to be well below the true level. However, the number of military funerals around the country have been collated and analysed by my Russian contacts, who have concluded that there is a disproportionate representation of ethnic minorities among those killed fighting in Ukraine. For example, there is high mortality relative to population among young soldiers from Buddhist regions of Siberia, such as Buryatia, and Muslim regions of the North Caucuses, such as North Ossetia and Dagestan. Of the 1,083 Russian soldiers killed in action and identified on 6 April, not a single name came from Moscow, a city with a population of 13 million. One hundred and twenty-three funerals had been held in Dagestan (population 3 million) and ninety-one in Buryatia (1 million). If you compare the lack of motivation among such disparate groups of soldiers with the strong motivation of Ukrainian forces determined to defend their country, why the war is turning into such a disaster for Vladimir Putin is fairly obvious.

Faced with stalemate at best, or defeat at worst, the narrative from Moscow is now that the conflict in Ukraine is actually rather wider. In the words of Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on 26 April “NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy. War means war.” This is a false narrative, of course, designed to explain to a puzzled Russian audience why, in their eyes, their mighty forces are failing so miserably to overcome an “inferior and ragged” Ukrainian army. NATO has been very careful not to engage Russian forces directly for fear of starting WWIII, and has limited itself to supplying only military hardware to the Ukrainians, despite many pleas for modern aircraft from Zelenskyy’s government. Speaking to Russian media, Lavrov went further, warning that there was a “considerable risk of this conflict escalating into a nuclear exchange”. This statement puzzled Western analysts because, if Putin’s objective is the occupation of at least some parts of Ukraine, it’s hard to see how the use of a nuclear weapon on the country serves his interests. So is the threat really serious?

In an interview published in the Financial Times last week, the eminent political scientist Graham Allison, Professor of Government at Harvard University, claimed that “if Putin is forced to choose between losing on one hand in Ukraine and escalating the level of destruction, there is every reason to believe that he’ll escalate the level of destruction”. Allison noted that the new commander of Russian troops in Ukraine, 60-year-old General Aleksandr Dvornikov, one of the President’s most trusted allies, had been responsible for earlier brutal military operations in Chechnya and particularly in Syria, where he was known as the “butcher of Aleppo”. Dvornikov had no compunction in the mass killing of Chechens and Syrians or of levelling their cities, and is now in control of Iskander missiles in Ukraine with tactical nuclear warheads. “The nightmare scenario I envisage”, said Allison, “is that Dvornikov conducts a nuclear strike on a small city in Ukraine, maybe 20,000 people, and then challenges Zelenskyy to imagine what a Ukrainian ‘Nagasaki’ would look like”—recalling that it was the Americans who dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing more than 100,000 people, and then another bomb on Nagasaki before the Japanese emperor surrendered.

In an earlier interview with Reuters on 14 April, CIA director William Burns took the same line: “None of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential Russian resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons.” When asked if he was worried about the Russians using nuclear weapons against the Ukrainians if the war continues to go badly for Moscow, Burns replied “Yes. It was recently argued in Foreign Affairs that Putin is the most dangerous man in the world, and I agree. He could order Dvornikov to drop a single nuclear bomb on a Ukrainian city to try to coerce the Zelenskyy government into immediately surrendering. This frightening scenario is not fanciful. It is, after all, effectively what the United States did to Japan in 1945.”

Many would consider these reminders of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as alarmist, but the fact remains that nuclear weapons, or at least their threat, is one card that Moscow can play, reminding the world that the US set the precedent. As Professor Mark Galeotti, author of the book “We need to talk about Putin”, said in last week’s New Statesman, “No-one can be sure how far Putin will go. Three months ago, it seemed inconceivable that he might use a nuclear weapon, even a tactical one. Yet today’s Putin is not the essentially cautious figure of the past, and his next move is much harder to predict. It still seems monstrously unlikely, but no longer unthinkable.”

Vladimir Putin is fond of using the story of him cornering a huge rat when living in a run-down tenement building in Leningrad as a child. Many now believe that this is a warning metaphor for the West about his next move should he feel cornered by NATO. Like the rat, a trapped Putin might do whatever necessary to lash out and decide that the best way out of a terrible situation is to ratchet up tensions to the nuclear level. So is this the answer to the Petraeus question?

Better start digging that bunker!


John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.