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Monday, 05 December 2022
Ukraine, Contained? 
James Denselow

As world leaders convene in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly this week, many may be asking: What’s it all for? Almost seven months into Russia’s war in Ukraine you’d hope that such a rare celebration of diplomacy could be prioritised to address the conflict. Yet there is an emerging narrative that in contrast to February where Russia’s surprise invasion and sudden upping of its strategic nuclear forces, that the conflict is today both contained, and that Kiev is in the driving seat.  

Indeed, the Russian military’s rapid collapse in the face of Ukraine’s surprise offensive has turned the whole narrative of the war on its head. In recent days, Ukraine says it has recaptured more than 8,000 sq km (3,088 sq miles) of territory in the north-eastern Kharkiv region. President Putin has been paying a continued diplomatic price for his decision to invade, with Chinese and Indian allies holding his feet to the coals for the decision, not to mention his country’s absence alongside the rest of the world at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.  

Yet many of Putin’s biographers or those writing about him regularly cite a childhood story of when he encountered a giant rat in Leningrad; “Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me”. The simple notion is that the rat became more dangerous when trapped and seemingly at the point of its greatest weakness. 

Russia, let us not forget, is a nuclear power with the theoretical ability to destroy the planet. Someone who didn’t forget this recently was US President Joe Biden who warned Russia not to use chemical or tactical nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine. Speaking during an interview with CBS News, Mr Biden said such action would "change the face of war unlike anything since World War Two". Critically though he would not say what response the US would make to the use of such weapons. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin put the country's nuclear forces on "special" alert following its invasion of Ukraine in February. However, Russia’s stunning loses have pushed its forces further away from NATO’s borders where perhaps the classic scenarios of nuclear brinksmanship would be focused on. If Ukraine is ‘contained’, then the threat of nuclear war would seem diminished. Today, as President Biden was alluding too, there is chatter around the use of tactical nuclear weapons as opposed to the MAD days of the Cold War – which helpfully stood for ‘mutually assured destruction”.  

The thinking goes that as Russia has struggled with the number of soldiers needed to halt the Ukrainian counteroffensive, that it would deploy low yield ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons to stop the advance and essentially plug gaps in their front line. Ironically some considered this the most likely Cold War scenario that NATO would adopt if Russian tanks surged across into Western Germany. Tactical nuclear weapons are relatively easy to deploy say via artillery and the key descriptor of them is that their yield and explosive size is smaller than their strategic cousins. The thermonuclear weapons are true city killers, yet the advancement of nuclear weapons means that tactical weapons are Modern tactical nuclear warheads have yields up to the tens of kilotons, or potentially hundreds, several times that of the weapons used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

So, their use doesn’t represent a graduated and rational escalation of the conflict, but rather would put humanity back on the brink as of course the question would follow as to what happens next? Would NATO countries supply Ukraine with tactical nuclear weapons or even deploy them themselves against Russian units inside the country? Such is the zero-sum logic of escalation that follows this moment that it is almost too terrible to consider, yet it is being talked about right now by the President of the United States.  

What the prospect for a contained Ukrainian conflict quickly becoming something of an even higher magnitude should do, is force again the upcoming UN General Assembly high level week to try and make inroads with diplomacy. Can the Black Sea grain deal be expanded? Can the nuclear plants in Ukraine be demilitarised? These are relatively small steps but ones that have not been achieved so far.

BY: James Denselow