NUCLEAR RISKSCan Ukraine Be Saved Without Triggering a Nuclear Response?

By Brendan Nicholson

Published 9 March 2022

Worries about the war in Ukraine are deepened by the prospect that if, against the odds, Russian forces are brought to the point of defeat, Putin will launch a ‘battlefield’ or ‘tactical’ nuclear weapon to destroy the forces opposing the Russian military, and, perhaps, even attack military bases inside neighboring countries – some are NATO member states – which provide supplies to the resistance.

Nations in and near Eastern Europe have long feared the sort of brutal onslaught Russia’s Vladimir Putin is visiting upon Ukraine.

That fear is heightened by the horrifying prospect that if, against the odds, they manage to bring the Russians to the point of defeat, Putin will launch a ‘battlefield’ or ‘tactical’ nuclear weapon to destroy them or their NATO allies.

That will be exercising the minds of Polish leaders conscious that their nation is a vital supply route to its beleaguered neighbor which is using weapons supplied by allies to inflict undreamed-of damage on the Russian invaders.

In 2016, I attended a military exercise in Poland involving 31,000 troops from the United States and other NATO countries along with nations that were once members of the Warsaw Pact. On a vast stretch of rolling meadow scattered with trees in northern Poland, a combined team of US Apache attack helicopters and Soviet-era Hind gunships blasted a ‘Red’ army force trapped in a valley below.

No one on the ‘Blue’ army side, or among the watching politicians and NATO officials, acknow­ledged that the ‘Red’ force that had been cut off after invading from the north represented the Russians—but that’s clearly who it was.

The exercise was driven by rising fears of Putin’s Russia and its willingness to use force to threaten, weaken and ultimately invade weaker nations on its borders. This included regular reminders from Moscow that it had a nuclear arsenal.

By 2016, Russia wasn’t ‘red’ anymore, but a succession of events in Europe had breathed new life into a Cold War most of the world thought was long dead.

In 2014, Russia’s neighbors were appalled by its forced annexation of the Crimean peninsula which had been part of Ukraine. After that success, Russia infiltrated thousands of its regular troops, the so-called ‘little green men’, into Ukraine’s Donbas region until the war there reached a stalemate.

By then, Putin’s bullyboy tactics, his threats and his unpredictability had his country’s former allies, and the rest of Europe, badly spooked. Russia said it was merely reacting to NATO’s expansion eastwards and the installation of missile defense systems across nations that once were part of the Soviet bloc. Having a protective moat of acquiescent nations had long provided Moscow with a measure of comfort.