On the first day of his invasion of Ukraine, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin warned Western nations not to intervene lest they face “consequences greater than any you have faced in history.” Three days later, Putin put Russian nuclear forces on some kind of elevated status.
No nations are intervening.
Five days into the war, Putin launched a long-range missile with near-nuclear destructiveness. What looked like a thermobaric missile hit Freedom Square in the center of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
Putin’s nuclear threat has succeeded in scaring off the West, allowing him to employ non-nuclear weapons that are nearly as horrific.
While the West cannot ignore the risk of a nuclear confrontation, it should not be frozen by fear of it in face of Putin’s monstrous acts, those already committed and those in prospect.
With his invasion of Ukraine, Putin has changed the Post-World War II strategic calculus. Until now, nuclear powers have followed the rationale of mutually assured destruction (MAD), namely that, if no one can survive nuclear war, much less win it, then no one will engage in it or even threaten it. This reality has served to channel military confrontations into conventional warfare for three-quarters of a century.
Putin has changed that. He is using nuclear threats and blackmail to create an umbrella under which to conduct one-sided conventional warfare, with his threats immobilizing any conventional military response by opposing nuclear powers.
The U.S. and the West must muster the courage to stare down Putin and his nuclear blackmail and mount a sufficient military response to show Putin that his nuclear saber-rattling cannot be used to obtain everything and anything he wants, now or in the future.
Otherwise, Ukraine may be only the first of several Putin victims – victims that are subjugated by the most barbarous means, carried out under a new type of nuclear umbrella. Hitler didn’t stop in Austria, nor, afterward, in the Sudetenland, nor, thereafter in Czechoslovakia… And no one should forget that Chinese dictator Xi Jing Ping has all but promised to invade Taiwan.
Back to the missile which hit Freedom Square. Thermobaric arms, aka fuel-air-explosives (FAE) or vacuum bombs, are nightmarish. They create an explosive firestorm, which vaporizes victims at the blast center, and, radiating outward, kills by blast impact, by immolation, by suffocation, and by chemical poisoning.
They are indiscriminate weapons ideally suited to urban warfare since they are more powerful in closed versus open spaces. They consist of a container of fuel and two separate explosive charges. The first charge bursts open the container and disperses the fuel in a cloud that mixes with atmospheric oxygen. The cloud flows around objects and into structures, including underground spaces. The second charge then detonates the cloud, creating a massive blast wave and firestorm.
Russia admitted using thermobaric rocket-propelled grenades in the Beslan School hostage crisis in Chechnya in 2004, and, reportedly, Russian forces have used FAE bombs in Syria against civilian populations.
There is no assurance that Putin will not use them in Ukraine if he hasn’t already.
While President Biden and European leaders have said that they will “defend every inch of NATO territory,” that NATO guarantee is only as strong as NATO’s willingness to stare down Putin’s nuclear threats – and as strong as its stomach to engage in battles employing horrific near-nuclear weaponry.
Ukraine and the Free World should do three things. Already, powerful economic and financial sanctions have been imposed. They should be ratcheted up to the maximum.
Second, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should consult his military experts and consider some redeployment and repositioning of his leadership team, his military forces and his civilian population. With Putin employing thermobaric weapons, the urban centers of Kyiv and Kharkiv are largely indefensible and unsurvivable positions. Deploying at least some forces and most citizens to the countryside would seem prudent.
While Ukrainian fighters have the advantage in knowing the urban terrain, there’s a tradeoff between that knowledge edge and the near-apocalyptic nature of the horrific urban-warfare weapons and tactics that Putin is willing to employ.
Putin leveled Grozny in the Second Chechnyan War, reducing it from a city of almost 400,000 in the late 1980s before the Chechnyan Wars to 21,000 after it was pulverized. He might as well have employed nuclear weapons since the result was almost the same.
Third, the Free World should undertake some kind of at least limited military action. Everyone seems so mesmerized by Zenlenskyy’s inspirational leadership and the Ukrainians’ courage and fierce resistance that military success seems possible in face of the Russian military machine. Perhaps, Ukrainian moxie and the unprecedented global outcry will win the day, but that is a hope, not a plan.
Sanctions rely upon a domestic uprising against Putin when the pain becomes too much for the Russian populace. Even if such an uprising is possible in Putin’s totalitarian police state, it is unlikely to occur before the outcome in Ukraine is a fait accompli.
The West must take other action to even the odds in Ukraine, to keep the Ukrainians in the fight, and to keep the Russians at bay. Supplying arms is unlikely to be enough if they can be supplied at all. At this writing, the Russians are close to closing off Eastern Ukraine, with their forces driving north up the Dnieper River within 150 miles of joining forces with Russian troops around Kharkiv. Once then, they connect with their forces around Kyiv, half of Ukraine will be closed off to weapons supplied from the West.
Moreover, the kind of shoulder-fired short-range Stinger anti-aircraft and Javelin anti-tank missiles mostly being supplied cannot defend against the long-range missiles and artillery Putin is employing. Indeed, the Russians may rely even more heavily upon long-range weaponry – with even more indiscriminate devastation – as the Ukrainians are increasingly armed with short-range missiles.
However frightening and delicate the challenge of dealing with Putin’s nuclear threat, that threat must be faced, and some level of military assistance should be provided to Ukraine. Determining how and where is the province of the Pentagon Chiefs, the CIA, and NATO generals, who must now earn their keep.
In any case, Putin’s nuclear brinksmanship cannot go completely unchallenged. The Free World must act with a higher tolerance of nuclear risk while Putin – and Xi Jing Ping – remain on the world stage. Otherwise, what Putin does in Ukraine is not likely to stay in Ukraine.
Red Jahncke is president of The Townsend Group International, a business consulting firm in Connecticut.