Putin, Ukraine and nuclear war – what are risk factors?

Author: Steens Manu

In this piece I give my own opinion, not that of any organization.

It is about Ukraine. I do not know the whole history of Ukraine, nor do I wish to reveal all of it, which is certainly not immaculate.  I zoom in on the past few weeks.

A few days ago, I saw a message on the internet that Medvedev, Putin’s loyal follower, said that Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons.

Putin himself has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons.

That puts everyone in a difficult position. If you’ve learned to fight with animals, you know that they’d rather not fight unnecessarily. They fight to eat or for their lives. A poisonous spider does not like to use its deadly bite, because poison is produced slowly, so that it is vulnerable for a long time afterwards.

The same applies to the people who use nuclear weapons.

If Putin starts his nuclear war, it will be either in Europe or in America. Withregard to what we now know about nuclear weapons and the air currents around the earth, bombing America is not a good move: Russia is one of the next countries to have to deal with the fallout of its own weapons. China and other Asian countries too, by the way, and that would not suit Russia.

Mutatis mutandis, the West also suffers from nuclear fallout of its own nuclear weapons, if the West were to use them in retaliation.

So there is the argument that one is vulnerable themselves. And that leads to uncertainties.

So there is a natural deterrent: the person who uses nuclear weapons risks becoming a victim of his own weapons, albeit in a second instance.

In addition, the fact that nuclear weapons should not be used in an emotional agitation. Suppose the Russians make a ‘first strike’ on Europe, should the West  launch a retaliatory strike within 10 minutes? Even if it is an attack with only one bomb?

If we were to assume for a moment that Putin is throwing a single tactical bomb on a city in the West, what would be possible reactions?  And therefore possible impacts?

  • Total nuclear war: the West reacts with a total destruction of Russia, which itself throws everything at the Westen. As a result, all life on earth would die, including in other Asian countries, including the southern hemisphere. So that’s not an optimal response.
  • An equally large city in Russia is being attacked by the West in retaliation for the stricken city in the West.  Afterwards, both parties reflect and acknowledge that this is not the right way. This does mean that two sub-scenarios become possible.  The first is to mobilize and wage a classic war such as WWII.   A second is that it is decided to sit around the table and immediately start negotiations to stop the insanity.
  • The West does not throw a nuclear weapon. Russia is given some time to reflect, to see that it is not a solution, and is invited diplomatically around the table. If this does not happen, a classic war such as WWII is again an option.

So there are also opportunities to sit around the table.

Let’s say for a moment that Putin doesn’t throw a nuclear bomb, what then? He is now threatening with nuclear war. Why does he do that?  Perhaps he is putting pressure  on the politics of the West, by frightening the population. That in itself in terms of impact is the effect of psychological warfare.  That’s what it has in common with terrorism: you don’t know what’s where and when and fear is sown as a means for an end in itself: the political games.  He seems to be able to do that well if the goal is not to enter into a direct confrontation with the ‘Western Allies’. Both sides are playing the game strongly: Ukraine is applying for accelerated NATO membership, while Russia wants politicians to see Donbass as a piece of Russia. Which in the event of recapture by Ukraine can be considered as an invasion of Russia.

And then, according to their reasoning, they would have the right to use nuclear weapons.

The question is: do they do that?

To this end, we no longer ask the question of the impact, but rather the question of the probability that the threats will become true.

Just a sidestep: when is something truth?

There are two ways in the world to create truths:

  • Or you provide scientific proof. Something mathematicians are proud of.
  • Or you tell the story so often that it sounds so familiar that it is accepted by a large group of people who are in charge.

What are the factors that influence the odds?

  • Russian politics is full of people who do not contradict Putin. An advanced form of ‘group think’ is present. Although there are exceptions. For example, Putin has deemed it necessary to ‘remove from their positions’ a lot of senior figures of the FSB, the descendant of the KGB. But they are not politicians.
  • Putin is used to being right. He believes very strongly in himself and in being right. In addition, he managed to acquire eternal rights to the Russian ‘throne’. Much more than that, a normal man does not need to develop a god complex.
  • He was lied to, and thought Ukraine would be easy. He sent in a number of army units, some of which consisted of young conscripts with a lack of experience. Young boys. Always someone’s child.
  • He has very often threatened with the use of nuclear weapons, can he psychologically go back on those statements?  Or is he really willing to use them?
  • What about the mobilization? Many people who have been called to arms (could) flee the country. What does that do to his psychology? Does he see the facts and does he apply the principle from the economy of the marginal revenue that manifests itself here in loss ?
  • What happens after the war, if there is to be peace? What possibilities does Russia still have on the (economic) world map if he remains in charge?  What are possible avenues there?
  • Can he still justify his political moves? Even in the eyes of his own people?

To proceed in such a way and assess the risk further, two things are needed:

  • One has to pierce one’s own fear to see the facts, regardless of what it can do to the observer and
  • One needs more knowledge of psychology of the politicians in question, and one needs to know their lives, in order to be able to estimate what the next act is.

I don’t have that knowledge.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a Churchill at the moment. As stated earlier: there are no certainties here.

Manu Steens

Manu works at the Flemish Government in risk management and Business Continuity Management. On this website, he shares his own opinions regarding these and related fields. Since 2012, he has been working at the Crisis Centre of the Flemish Government (CCVO), where he has progressed in BCM, risk management, and crisis management. Since August 2021, he has been a knowledge worker for the CCVO. As of January 2024, he works at the Department of Chancellery and Foreign Affairs of the Flemish Government. Here, he combines BCM, risk management, and crisis management to create a tailored form of resilience management to meet the needs of the Flemish Government.

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