THE AMERICANS are doubling down on their commitment to keep the Ukrainian armed forces in the field against the Russians. The Biden Administration’s decision to dispatch another billion-dollars-worth of state-of-the-art artillery to Kiev has been met with fury in Moscow. The rage of Putin and his mouthpieces is understandable. Washington is giving the Ukrainians the weapons they need to keep the devastating Russian self-propelled guns out of range of the Donbass cities Moscow must take to secure anything remotely resembling victory.
What do the Americans know about Russia’s present military situation that makes them willing to incur Putin’s wrath in this way? The Russian President has warned the United States and its Nato allies repeatedly that the supply of weapons capable of fundamentally altering the strategic balance of its “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine will produce unimaginable consequences. By this, Putin is clearly alluding to the Russian Federation’s nuclear capability. “Give Ukraine too much help,” he is saying, “and I’ll use my nukes.”
That’s a big bluff to call.
To find out why Biden and his Defence and National Security advisors may be willing to call Putin’s bluff, we have to go all the way back to January and February of this year. From the wealth of detail relating to Russia’s offensive plans for Ukraine – subsequently borne out by the facts of the Russian invasion – it is clear that there had been a massive breach of Russian military security. Somehow, the Americans were reading Russia’s political and military leaders’ mail.
Obviously Putin, himself a counter-intelligence specialist, took steps to close up the breach. Senior figures in the political and military hierarchy started blipping off Russian screens.
It is highly doubtful that the Americans would feel confident enough to call Putin’s nuclear bluff if they did not have it on very good authority, from those in a position to do so, that any move toward the tactical or strategic use of nuclear weapons by the Russian President will result in his immediate deposition.
This could mean something thoroughly cinematic – like a patriotic bodyguard drawing his pistol, shooting Putin and his advisers dead, crying “Long Live Russia!” and then turning the weapon on himself. Alternatively, it could involve the commanders of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces sending an H-Bomb tipped missile hurtling into Putin’s supposedly blast-proof nuclear bunker. (Spoiler Alert: There’s no such thing.) Or, it could amount to senior officers in the know quietly communicating Putin’s location to the Americans in sufficient time for them to carry out the deposition themselves.
Certainly, there can be little doubt in the minds of senior Russian commanders that the Americans know pretty much exactly where they are at any given moment of the day or night. The sheer number of Russian commanders killed by sniper-fire or drone-strikes since 24 February makes that terrifyingly clear. They will also know that if Putin is insane enough to actually order a tactical nuclear strike, the American response will be a massive, decapitating, counter-strike that will leave Russia leaderless and rudderless. Precisely because Russian nuclear-war-fighting doctrine devolves launch authority, in extremis, to battlefield commanders, the Americans will make damn sure that there are no battlefield commanders left alive.
In the context of this discussion it is important to remember that when the world was literally on the brink of Nuclear Armageddon in October 1962, it was the good sense and humanitarian instincts of the political commissar aboard a Soviet nuclear-armed submarine under attack from US Navy-launched depth-charges, off Cuba, who persuaded the vessel’s commanders not to respond with its nuclear torpedoes. By refusing to put his key in the unlocking mechanism, he saved himself, the crew, and the whole world from nuclear annihilation.
There is absolutely no reason to suppose that Russian patriots have become so extreme that, rather than depose a delusional and potentially genocidal president, they would see the whole of Mother Russia – along with the rest of the planet – reduced to a radioactive ash-heap. Nor is it fanciful to suppose that Russia’s most intelligent and capable citizens have not long since realised that their country has no viable future as an independent nation if it persists in the folly of attempting to “Make Russia Great Again” by force of arms. The only questions that matter now are: How many of those intelligent and capable citizens are there in the upper echelons of the Russian armed forces? And: How many of them have a working back-channel to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff?
The point of maximum danger will come if/when a day arrives when the Russian forces in Ukraine lose all offensive capability and begin to fall back under Ukrainian pressure. That moment is likely to come when the state-of-the-art weaponry currently being dispatched from the United States is effectively deployed on the battlefields of Ukraine. Weapons with the power to shut down the massive artillery barrages Russian military commanders rely upon to take their objectives.
In the hugely popular television series, Game of Thrones, the stark warning that “Winter is coming” struck fear into the hearts of all the peoples of Westeros. Along the bitterly contested battle-lines of the Russo-Ukrainian War, the warning that should strike fear into the Russians’ hearts is the seasonal opposite of the Game of Thrones. Not the bitter snows of winter, but the sun-hardened fields of the Ukrainian plains, across which the Blue and Yellow Walkers can move with deadly speed.
What stark warning should Putin fear?
“Summer is coming.”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 3 June 2022.