Russian nuclear missile rolls along Red Square during the military parade marking the 75th anniversary of Nazi defeat, on June 24, 2020 in Moscow. Picture Credit: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Putin’s terror war

Campaign Diary: why is Russia threatening chemical and nuclear strikes?

Artillery Row

In an earlier post, I observed that in Ukraine “David has hit back at Goliath and the giant has a sore head”, outlining a number of reasons. Many of these are related to logistics. 

The Western military communities have realised that the invasion forces in Ukraine have taken a massive blow to their killing power and their reputation. The original Russian plan was to attack Ukraine from several different directions. The assault was preceded by an online disinformation campaign, cyber operations, and Russian special forces raids on headquarters, all designed to paralyse their opponents’ decision making.

The war in the ether is still being fought out, invisibly all around us, with cyber activity logged at 800% above the norm, but the Russians are being held. Faced with the failure of these three methods to dismember Ukraine’s command and control, Russia’s generals paused and reverted to type. 

There has been talk from Moscow in recent days of dirty bombs, chemical weapons and even nuclear strikes

It turns out they are a deeply conservative and unimaginative lot. The old guard, brought up in the Soviet Union, have returned to what they know, and to ways of operating with which they feel confident. The Russians like mass. They prefer blotting out the horizon with endless tanks, guns and troops, for there has always been a psychological dimension to Moscow’s way of war. It bullies, threatens and intimidates. Hence the vast tank columns that have been converging on Kyiv for the last fortnight. Drone footage shows them oozing across the landscape, an alien force from another world. The Russians hope that they appear irresistible, invincible. 

However much drone strikes and raiding forces nibble away at these huge phalanxes, they cannot do enough damage to halt them. The defenders hope these lava-like flows of Russian armour will slow to a halt when they meet the conurbations and dense city blocks of Kharkiv and Kyiv. We cannot be sure of the outcome, but both sides are not only ill-matched, but fighting different wars. 

The Kremlin has sent a heavyweight boxer into Ukraine to slug it out for as long as it takes. Kyiv, wisely, has deployed a nimble judo fighter. Zelensky’s lions avoid bruising head-on encounters, which they will inevitably lose. Instead, carefully planned, intelligence-led, raids after dark and ambushes are taking their toll. One such operation netted the Ukrainian forces a Russian general killed with several of his staff.

From the start, the Ukrainians have also been canny in their targeting of logistics vehicles. By far the greatest proportion of destroyed, abandoned or captured kit amounts to fuel tankers and supply lorries. The evidence of this successful tactic can be seen in social media footage of long trainloads of replacement civilian trucks, vans and even buses, commandeered from across the Motherland, and sent west. When these vehicles, available in every colour but green, and all identified by the now-infamous “Z” recognition symbol, reach the front, they will be beset by the same problems the Wehrmacht encountered in Russia in 1941. 

The hundreds of different models have few common spare parts, which will become every quartermaster’s nightmare. Furthermore, this army of school buses from Moscow and delivery trucks from St Petersburg are not designed for cross-country manoeuvre and will soon expire in the sticky Ukrainian mud that also snookered Napoleon’s grognards and Hitler’s stormtroopers. There are also allegations that some Russian breakdowns in 2022 are the result of money being syphoned away from equipment budgets and into back pockets. Three generals have been killed, eight have allegedly been sacked. In Stalin’s day, heads beginning to roll meant literally that. Maybe too, under Putin, who has intimate knowledge of the court of the Red Tsar; Putin’s uncle was Stalin’s chef. Perhaps for this reason, Putin is the only world leader to permanently employ a food taster. 

The Russian way of war is all about projecting intimidating force. It is a cultural memory inculcated through the military generations stretching back to the Great Patriotic War. Fight if you have to, but terrify your enemy first: they often surrender faster. This is why there has been talk from Moscow in recent days of dirty bombs, chemical weapons and even nuclear strikes. It is why civilian homes, humanitarian corridors, power stations, schools and hospitals are targeted. 

The inhumanity recorded in Mariupol is being repeated in a score of other towns. In Mariupol’s case, this may be due to sheer Russian frustration; after nearly three weeks this port city, a Day One objective, has still not been subdued. Humanity and compassion mattered not to Lenin or Stalin; it matters even less to Putin, motivated by power rather than dogma. This damage to people and their buildings is not accidental. It is designed to force Kyiv to submit, and the wider world to pressure Mr Zelensky to cave in.

Howls of domestic outrage greeted the news from Moscow that Meta, the parent company of both Facebook and Instagram, was designated “an extremist organisation”. Access to both social media was immediately restricted. Putin’s need to regulate his own citizens’ access to data is a throwback to the Communist era. It is the hallmark of a tyrant, who needs to dominate the minds of his citizens via controlling the information they receive.

If President Zelensky can hang on long enough, victory may be possible

Every image, every phrase is managed, nothing is left to chance. Hence, the full scale war on neighbouring Ukraine remains, three weeks into the murderous campaign, a “special military operation” in Kremlin-speak. We have seen Marina Ovsyannikova, a brave executive in a television studio, Yelena Osipova, an elderly survivor of the siege of Leningrad, and 13,000 other protesters arrested, charged with “hooliganism” and fined or jailed for speaking out against the conflict. Bullying abroad, intimidation at home. 

Moscow’s dark allusions to chemical and nuclear weapons, vocalised several times in the last week, also need to be understood in this context. These words are part of the Kremlin’s threatening tactics. However, stay calm. To release chemical weapons requires some pretty ugly ingredients to be mixed as close as possible to the airborne munitions or land-based artillery that will launch them. These arrive by road or rail in tankers, and you can bet that every single vehicle associated with chemical weaponry is being monitored hourly by NATO’s satellites and other means.

The same applies to Russia’s nuclear threats. No one is talking of an intercontinental ballistic missile strike on London or New York. Russian doctrine (though not Western) still contains the idea of short-range tactical nuclear weapons, and even nuclear-capable artillery. Such battlefield weapons are mostly of the cruise missile type, often fired from ground-based launchers, which resemble multi-wheeled vehicles from the Thunderbirds television show. Known as the SS-26 Iskander, its two missiles can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads. Putin has already used around 700 ordinary cruise missiles in strikes around Ukraine. At this rate, he must be about to run out, and on his (hotly denied) recent shopping list sent to Beijing will have been rocket motors. 

The point about handling and releasing nukes is the radiation hazard. In the event of deploying such ugly weapons, Russian troops would don military hazmat (NBC) suits and masks. There is no evidence that any such kit has been brought into or near Ukraine.

Likewise, special radiation-proof vehicles would be deployed to monitor the effects. These are unmistakable, signature vehicles, whose presence, logged by satellites and a wide array of other intelligence sources, would trigger instant alarm bells around the world. Again, calm is the watchword. There is no proof that any such weaponry is in a position to threaten Ukraine or neighbouring states, except in Mr Putin’s dreams.

If President Zelensky can hang on long enough, victory may be possible. He is right to quote Churchill’s words, “give us the tools and we will finish the job.” History is repeating itself, for in 1941 Churchill knew that with America’s help, the whole nature of the war had changed, and Germany’s fate was sealed. Some 81 years later, Ukraine understands that with the inflow of Western military materiel that outclasses anything produced by Russia, they will be able to do far more than give Goliath a sore head.

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