Be Careful What You Wish For

What effect will Putin’s war have on Russia? There’s an active trade in historical analogies, but the more I look at those analogies, the more I become convinced that few of them work. They don’t even rhyme.

War in Europe because of an attempted grab by a declining power with no strong allies. It doesn’t fit the Cold War Soviet attack through the Fulda Gap, the objectives of which were never clear – control of West Germany? Disruption of Europe’s prosperity? Perhaps it’s a little like Vietnam, with the technologically favored side being undercut by defenders of the homeland and now a draft of unwilling fighters.

World War I started between major powers who were spoiling for a war and did it very badly. Russia has mobilized three times, I’ve seen more than once on Twitter: World War I, World War II, and now. It went badly for them in World War I.

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Russian Objectives At Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

Newsweek published my op-ed on the dangers at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). The more I think about it, the more I become convinced that Russia captured the plant as part of the initial “three-day war” and with the collapse of that objective had to figure out what to do with it. They came up with two possibilities: Frighten Ukrainians and their arms suppliers with the prospect of a radiological accident, and take the power to Russia.

Those two objectives are in conflict, however. A radiological accident would contaminate the plant and at least require a long decontamination before power could be supplied to Russia.

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Would Vladimir Putin Use Nuclear Weapons?

As Russia’s situation deteriorates on the battlefield, concerns grow about the possibility that Vladimir Putin might try to change the situation with a battlefield nuclear weapon. The war is so far confined to Ukraine, which makes it highly unlikely that Putin would reach out with strategic nuclear weapons to begin World War III. That’s all I’ll say about that.

Early on in Russia’s war, Putin was quick to remind the world that Russia possesses nuclear weapons. That brought on a spate of commentary about a nuclear umbrella for war and the circumstances in which Russia might use those weapons. The conclusion was that Russia might use battlefield nuclear weapons to stave off a defeat, but not before.

General mobilization of the Russian population would allow Putin to increase military numbers. But it would be an admission that the war is going badly. In the same way, the use of a nuclear weapon would be an admission that the war is going badly. Putin seems to be firmly resisting the first. The admission of failure might be enough to prevent the second.

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Russia Tries To Steal A Nuclear Power Plant

For the past couple of weeks, we have been hearing about military activity around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). Of course, the Russian occupation and stationing of military vehicles within the plant is dangerous. Unfortunately, both Russia and Ukraine are motivated to exaggerate the plant’s dangers. For Ukraine, reporting a desperate situation at the plant may motivate its western supporters to increase their support. For Russia, it is a way to rattle nukes without referring to nuclear weapons. Both take advantage of exaggerated fears about nuclear issues.

Add to that Russian threats against the Ukrainian operators, which make it impossible to get reliable reports of the status of the plant from the people who know. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the international oversight agency for nuclear plants, wants to be able to inspect the plant, but Russia has refused to allow them in.

ZNPP is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, with six VVER (Soviet design) nuclear reactors. Russia took the plant early in its war against Ukraine, probably as part of its attempt at a quick takeover of the country and installation of a puppet regime. They also seized hydroelectric plants and shelled another nuclear plant at Rivne. It makes sense to secure the power plants in regime change.

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Zaporizhzhia Again

There’s been a flurry of news this past week about Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

It’s impossible to tell what is going on. Both Ukraine and Russia have raised alarms of various kinds since Russia occupied the plant, and most have not played out. It’s to both sides’ advantage to overplay the dangers.

That said, there are real dangers. I’ve written about them. This article is a good summary. And given Russia’s actions over the past six months, it’s hard to rule out any possibility, although so far their actions have been far less than their warnings.

My feeling about the current uproar is that it’s a Russian propaganda operation to distract from Ukraine’s ability to strike inside Crimea. That bodes ill for Russia – it opens another front while Ukraine is working on Kherson, and the uncertainty of how much Ukraine can do in Crimea has got to be stunning. Reports are that Russia has moved planes and helicopters back from the attacks, some of them to Russia.

So I’m not going to analyze (or even present) some of the tweets and claims that are out there. There’s too much, and it probably won’t all play out. If you want to share stuff in the comments, I’ll try to respond.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

US Diplomacy In The Lead-Up To Russia’s War On Ukraine

In its excellent article on the lead-up to the war, the Washington Post describes some of the diplomatic contacts in the attempt to avert the war. The bottom line is that Russia wasn’t having any.

June 16, 2021: Biden meets with Putin. No indication that Putin plans a war, but two weeks later, his screed on Ukraine’s rightful place in the Russian Empire is released.

End of October: Biden meets leaders of Britain, France, and Germany at the side of the G20 meeting.

November 2: CIA Director William Burns meets with Putin, Yuri Ushakov, and Nikolai Patrushev (Putin advisors).

There seemed to be no room for meaningful engagement, and it left the CIA director to wonder if Putin and his tight circle of aides had formed their own echo chamber. Putin had not made an irreversible decision to go to war, but his views on Ukraine had hardened, his appetite for risk had grown, and the Russian leader believed his moment of opportunity would soon pass.

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Russia Continues To Put The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant At Risk

The Russians are…shelling the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant?

This does not make sense, but neither do any of Russia’s actions toward the plant. They took the plant by shelling it and caused a fire that destroyed one of the administrative buildings. They are rumored to have mined the plant. The Ukrainian operators are effectively prisoners. The Russians regularly shell the nearby city where the operators’ families live.

There are a couple of possibilities, not mutually exclusive, for why the Russians took the plant. First, it would be consistent with a plan to grab all of Ukraine and install a puppet government, which seems to have been the initial Russian intent. Having control of power plants would be a good thing. The Russians seized Zaporizhzhia early, along with a couple of hydroelectric power plants. Second, it is a relatively safe military base because the Ukrainians have the good sense not to shell a nuclear plant. The district in which it is located, Zaporizhzhia, is one of the ones that Russia has said it plans to incorporate as it did Donetsk and Luhansk.

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Nuclear Weapons And Russia’s War On Ukraine

Would Russia use nuclear weapons in Ukraine? A number of people have approached this question boldly in recent days and have boldly asserted that we don’t know. I join in that conclusion, but it’s always interesting to work through the argument.

Over the past year, I’ve been reading Fred Kaplan’s The Wizards of Armageddon closely. It’s a history of the development of nuclear strategy. A great many of the recent articles have reproduced that development in short form. That’s because, I would argue, there’s not much to nuclear strategy. Clausewitz tells us that it’s easy for war to run out of control. When the weapons of war are potentially world-ending, it is essential that war not run out of control. That limits actions and responses.

The deterrence properties of those weapons have been working in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Part of the reason NATO has not joined the war directly is that its entry would move everything too much closer to a nuclear exchange. Similarly, Russia has not attacked NATO members. Nuclear deterrence limits the geographic scope of the war.

Russia’s stated threshold for nuclear weapons use is “an existential threat to the country.” Given Putin’s rhetoric about the reasons for making war on Ukraine, it is hard to know what he considers an existential threat to Russia. Although he has claimed that Ukraine’s sovereignty poses an existential threat to Russia, he allowed his military to back off from a general conquest of Ukraine when it looked like that would not work. There is evidently some flexibility in Putin’s understanding of that phrase.

What happens if the war starts going very badly for Putin? If it looks, say, like Russian ammunition is running out and Ukrainian troops are pushing Russian troops toward the border? Might Putin consider using a nuclear weapon to change the course of the war?

This article gives a bit of the historical background on nuclear strategy and lays out the options clearly, although leaning toward the military ones. Let’s say Russia drops a small nuclear weapon on, say, the Zaporizhzhye nuclear plant. What are NATO’s response options? I say NATO because they’re the ones with nuclear weapons, not Ukraine.

  • Do not strike back, but proclaim Russian inhumanity in using nuclear weapons
  • Nuclear attack on an equivalent target within Russia
  • Escalate a nuclear attack to a higher-value target
  • Strike with a conventional force

The downsides, respectively, are

  • Russia may take this as having a free hand to attack its neighbors.
  • Could go into a slow-motion tit for tat situation or escalate to more nuclear use.
  • Very likely to escalate.
  • Nuclear escalation possible, but less likely.

The last seems to be the most likely NATO response, although much depends on specifics.

These options add up to everything that is possible in a nuclear war that starts on the battlefield, rather than a transcontinental attack. Even there, the options are similar.

Nuclear strategists have been struggling with the simplicity of this pattern since the first bombs were dropped in 1945. They have not come up with new answers. The edgier among them like to try to game out scenarios involving a few small hits, which involve enormous assumptions as to the fear or good will of the other side. Usually they will lament the American lack of tactical nuclear weapons in contrast to Russia’s two thousand or so. But those “small” weapons might be the size of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki weapons. Too small, and there’s not much difference in destruction from conventional weapons. Larger, and at some point someone is likely to target beyond the battlefield.

The two atom bombs dropped by the US on Japan were the only ones in existence at that time. Nobody could retaliate. But that’s no longer the case. And, just as in any war scenario, much depends on the specifics of the situation and the people involved, perhaps even more so with nuclear weapons. Right now, it looks like we’re a long way from nuclear weapon use.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Russia’s Goals In Its War On Ukraine

I’ve written about Vladimir Putin’s desire to put the Russian Empire back together again. It still may be on his wish list, but the Ukrainians aren’t cooperating. A second-best is to grab more of their territory, and the fighting now seems to have that objective. But there’s a third objective underlying the other two.

Russia is proving that it is a great power. Reconstituting the Russian Empire would have proved that, but, as I say, the Ukrainians prefer to mess around with heathen Westerners. Very well then, there are other ways Russia can prove it’s a great power.

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What The Russians Did At Chernobyl

Now that Russia has failed at their three-day takeover of Ukraine, their only purpose seems to be to destroy it. There’s no other reason for the damage of the Chernobyl plant described in this Washington Post article. (no paywall)

Russians stole equipment and damaged buildings. The most dangerous part of the site, the remains of reactor number 4, is well-protected under an engineered dome that was completed a year or two ago. The article says little about the used fuel storage ponds that have received fuel from Ukraine’s other reactors. Those are also dangerous, in that an explosion within them would disperse the radioactive fuel. That didn’t happen, whether it reflected Russian objectives or Russian ignorance. The other three reactors at the site were shut down by 2000.

Ukraine is back in charge of the plant and cleaning up the mess.

Some of the stolen equipment has GPS tracking and is now moving around in Belarus.

The article has some photos of the damage. Take a look.

@Safecast volunteers are measuring radioactivity in the area.

Photo from the Washington Post article: People who work in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone wait at a checkpoint at the entrance to the plant. (Kasia Strek/Panos Pictures for The Washington Post)

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money