Ukrainian expert says how Russia might launch nuclear strike on Ukraine

1 October 2022, 06:22 PM
According to Oleksiy Melnyk, Western countries have the ability to monitor whether there are nuclear weapons on a Russian plane (Photo:Reuters)

According to Oleksiy Melnyk, Western countries have the ability to monitor whether there are nuclear weapons on a Russian plane (Photo:Reuters)

Russia’s use of nuclear weapons in the war against Ukraine has become one of the most discussed topics in recent weeks.

Authoritative Western media such as the Financial Times, AFP and CNN write about it, while the degree of seriousness of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s unprecedented intentions is being discussed by influential world politicians.

NV interviewed Oleksiy Melnyk, co-director of foreign policy and international security programs at the Razumkov Center, about the stages of coordinating a nuclear strike, how likely Russia is to use nuclear weapons, and what could prevent it.

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NV: Now more and more people are talking about the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons against Ukraine. What do you think about it?

Melnyk: If we talk about strategic nuclear weapons, quite reliable control mechanisms over these weapons have been developed since the 1970s. Since the Soviet Union and the United States realized that there was a strategy of mutually assured destruction, the sides began to agree on how to protect each other from unforeseen incidents and this mutual destruction. In fact, when they realized that there could be no winner in a nuclear conflict, they began to develop mutual trust and verification measures. Their result was such well-known agreements as Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, the Treaty on Open Skies, etc.

Thus, this system worked quite well and avoided a nuclear incident during the Cold War and later in the 1990s and early 2000s. But later everything began to gradually degrade and collapse. Despite everything, there is now a clear understanding of how many nuclear warheads each country has, how many of them are ready for use, and how many there are carriers of these weapons.

So, if we talk about the strategic component, everything is more or less settled and clear.

As for tactical nuclear weapons, unfortunately, the system of international bilateral control was not so well developed on this issue. Therefore, the biggest risk now is the possibility of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons, or battlefield weapons, as they are sometimes called. And in this aspect, it is important to understand that the use of such weapons can pursue two goals.

The first one is the destruction of large groups of enemy troops. Because tactical nuclear weapons, compared to strategic ones, have a smaller charge and a shorter range, they were designed to destroy, so to say, a tank army deployed for offensive or defensive purposes, etc. The second one is demonstration strikes. Such strikes are carried out on infrastructure facilities or large cities to break enemy will to resist and force it to surrender or negotiate on favorable terms for the aggressor.

As for the current situation, in principle both goals are unattainable for Russia. Firstly, because there are no such groups or clusters of Ukrainian troops that could justify the expediency of using nuclear weapons. And given the political risks that follow, the use of nuclear weapons becomes inexpedient.

As for the demonstration strike, there is a clear position that Russia should understand that a demonstration strike will not work. The fact is that Ukraine has already passed the painful threshold when such a strike could force, firstly, the political leadership of the country to surrender, and secondly, intimidate our international partners so that they would limit support for Ukraine or rush to convince official Kyiv that it’s necessary to accept any Russian conditions.

Given this, the goals that Russia would try to achieve with such a nuclear strike are almost unattainable.

NV: So, realizing this, Putin will not use such weapons?

Melnyk: The decision-making system is one of the key issues. If, for example, we had to consider or assess such a threat from some democratic country or even, let’s say, the People’s Republic of China and at least the Soviet Union, there is at least some system of deterrence there. There is a certain group of people involved in making such decisions, and in the case of the Soviet Union or today’s China, it is the party or the Political Bureau. And although this is a very closed way of decision-making, in any case, we could expect some kind of discussion there.

If we talk about Russia, today it’s actually a state ruled by one person. Therefore, it makes no sense to calculate or talk about some algorithm that will be used there, even if it is enshrined in Russian legislation or in governing documents. Decisions are made there by one person, who is now backed into a corner, he is in panic and despair and produces such (wrong) decisions one after another, or someone slips them to him, and he approves them, such as the announced mobilization, the incident with the Nord Stream, etc. It is clear that this person is still in power today, he is listened to, and it is unlikely that the executors of his order will strongly oppose it.

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NV: However, the United States does not yet see signs of Russia preparing to use nuclear weapons. Can we believe it?

Melnyk: Yes, the U.S. partners make statements that there are currently no signs of preparation (for the use of nuclear weapons by Russia). Of course, the Americans do not disclose the details (of the capabilities to control preparations for the possible use of nuclear weapons), and a limited circle of people know the details. So, if the United States makes such statements with the available space and intelligence capabilities, then obviously we should trust it.

However, we can say with confidence that the storage locations of such ammunition are known. Therefore, all these Russian nuclear facilities are now under close round-the-clock surveillance. And there may be some unusual activity there (which could be a signal for possible preparations for the use of nuclear weapons).

At the same time, a nuclear munition, even though it is packed in a container, produces radiation. Therefore, I’m sure the Americans have the means by which they can monitor it. So, if a nuclear warhead is transported, it can be tracked.

Bases where there are carriers of such weapons are also known. If we talk about aircraft carriers, these are Tu-160, Tu-95 strategic bombers or dual-use Su-24, Su-34 bombers. These data are known, their location is known.

Therefore, let’s say, theoretically, it is possible to track that there is some kind of radiation on a plane that took off.

NV: And how will this data be used further? Will there be time to react?

Melnyk: If such a fact is discovered, it will be a few hours or tens of minutes before the plane reaches the launch line. And if the Americans monitor that such a plane suddenly takes off, there is still time to send signals, perhaps some final ultimatums to the Kremlin to turn this plane around. Or, let’s say (although it will hardly be so effective), to warn the Ukrainian side that the order for such an attack (by Russia) has already been given.

NV: Will Ukraine and the West be able to destroy a launched missile with a nuclear warhead?

Melnyk: If it concerns the United States or NATO, there is an anti-missile defense system of the battlefield. Elements of such a system are already being supplied to Ukraine. If we talk about an air attack, these are air defense systems. And given the distances from which such warheads can be launched, and the reaction time, I think that all hope lies in our air defense forces, since it is unlikely that NATO will be able to react.

On the other hand, as it becomes known from unofficial sources, NATO may launch non-nuclear strikes at some critical objects (of Russia). I emphasize these are all unofficial statements, but the former commander of United States Army Europe, General Ben Hodges, says such scenarios were at least considered. Although it will already be a serious level of escalation if the United States hits Russian targets.

NV: In your opinion, can Putin use nuclear weapons to protect the captured territories of Ukraine?

Melnyk: In its nuclear doctrine, Russia has appropriated the right to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike or a nuclear strike against an enemy that does not have such weapons. And in the formulation that Russia can use nuclear weapons if there is a threat not even of a nuclear war, but of the existence of the Russian state, legitimization or preparation was almost carried out long before the start of the military conflict with Ukraine.

And when in October 2014, the then First Deputy Head of the Russian President’s Administration, Viacheslav Volodin, declared that “if there is Putin – there is Russia, if there is no Putin – there is no Russia,” here we are talking not about a threat to the state, but a threat to Putin himself who identifies himself and his entourage with the Russian state.

Thus, when Putin feels a threat to himself and his power (and it is already almost tangible), he will perceive it as a threat to the Russian state. And such nuances are extremely unpleasant for us when we make some assessments.

NV: And what can prevent a nuclear strike? Perhaps the subordinates will refuse to carry out Putin’s order or his close entourage will eliminate him altogether, how do you think?

Melnyk: It reminds me of the scene in Mowgli, when everyone realized that Akela had made a mistake. So, Akela has already made a mistake, but not yet to such an extent that his closest entourage understands that it’s over with him.

But if we talk about some subordinates who carry out the order, at some level, when it is already clear that Akela is seriously wrong, one of the executors can, if not sabotage (and I do not reject the idea that they could sabotage), but not carry out this order immediately and request additional confirmation.

There was a similar case in the Soviet Union, when there was a false activation of the missile attack warning system in the 1980s. And as it later turned out, one lieutenant colonel actually saved the world from a nuclear disaster, although according to all the instructions he was supposed to carry it out and start the whole process of retaliating with a nuclear strike. Thus, one man questioned the operation of automation and actually prevented a nuclear war. So now, there may be a person or a group of people who will question such an order. And if they do not carry out such an order immediately, everything can change in such critical dozens of minutes.

However, the role of the individual executor at a lower level has both positive and negative aspects. For example, if we talk about the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant captured by the Russian invaders, everything can work in the other direction here. When some executor at the level of a major or colonel, without a command from above, can organize something so that there will be an explosion and disaster there after the withdrawal of the Russian invaders.

NV: In this case, what should Ukraine and the world prepare for?

Melnyk: As a former serviceman, I’m used to the fact that we should prepare for the worst scenario in such critical situations. But not just to sit and wait for it, but clearly work out all practical actions and prepare a plan. And do everything to prevent this worst-case scenario.

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