Australian news, and some related international items

Are Putin’s nuclear threats really likely to lead to Armageddon?

The realities underlying the menacing vocabulary are a grey area – it is far from certain that Putin would be prepared to use nuclear weapons

Guardian, by Julian Borger in Washington, Sat 8 Oct 2022

The past week has seen a rapid escalation in nuclear rhetoric, beginning with Vladimir Putin’s threat to use “all forces and means” to defend newly seized territory in Ukraine and ending with Joe Biden’s warning of “Armageddon” if Russia crosses the nuclear Rubicon.

However, the realities underlying the menacing vocabulary are a far greyer area than the bluster suggests. It is far from certain that Putin would be prepared to be the first leader to use nuclear weapons in wartime since 1945, over his territorial ambitions in Ukraine. If his primary goal is to stay in power, that could be exactly the wrong way of going about it.

Even if he did issue the launch order, he has no guarantee it would be carried out. Nor can he be absolutely sure that the weapons and their delivery systems would work.

On the US side, despite the US president’s apocalyptic language at a private fundraiser on Thursday night, it is not at all inevitable that Washington would respond to Putin’s nuclear use with nuclear retaliation. Past wargaming suggests there would be vigorous debate within the administration to say the least.

Like US presidents, Putin is normally accompanied by an aide carrying a briefcase with codes used to authorise a nuclear launch. In the US it is called the football, in Russia it is the cheget. In the Russian system, the defence minister and the chief of the general staff have their own chegets but it is believed that Putin can order a launch without them.

However, the cheget is relevant for the strategic nuclear forces, the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched from land or sea, or long-range bombers. Because they need to be launched within minutes in case of enemy attack, the warheads need to be deployed, mounted on the delivery systems.

Any nuclear use in Ukraine would be likely to involve non-strategic, or tactical, weapons with shorter-range delivery systems, and which are usually (but not necessarily) less powerful than strategic arms, though on average they are many times more powerful that the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs.

The US only has one kind of tactical weapon, the B61 gravity bomb, of which there are about a hundred in Europe and a similar number in the US, according to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).

FAS estimates Russia has 2,000 tactical weapons, in very many shapes and sizes for use on land, sea and air. The weapons are not deployed on missiles or aircraft, but kept in bunkers in storage sites dotted around Russia. There are 12 national storage sites, known in Russian military parlance as “Object S”, one of which is in Belgorod, right on the Ukrainian border.

There are also 34 “base-level” sites, closer to the delivery systems. In a time of crisis, warheads would be moved from national to base-level sites – and up to now western intelligence agencies say no such movement has been observed.

Any such movement would be carried out by the 12th main directorate of the Russian armed forces, which has the job of storing and maintaining the warheads and then delivering them in specialised trains or trucks to base-level sites, or directly to the unit designated to launch them.

Pavel Baev, a military researcher who worked for the Soviet defence ministry, said that Putin cannot count on these weapons actually working.

“Most of these warheads stored there are very old,” Baev, now a professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, said. “Without testing it’s really hard to say how suitable they are because many of them are past their expiration date.”

Baev added that it was also far from clear that the Russian can successfully pair old warheads with the much newer delivery systems that would have to be used, possibly 9K720 Iskander or Kinzhal hypersonic missiles……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

The key question is more likely to be whether the US and its allies should respond with devastating conventional firepower, as Poland’s foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, and the former CIA director David Petraeus have suggested. But that would transform the war into one between Russia and Nato, in which escalation to a nuclear exchange could become hard to stop.

According to Eric Schlosser, the author of a book about the nuclear establishment, Command and Control, the Pentagon’s Defence Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) conducted another war game in 2019 focused on Russian nuclear use in Ukraine. That wargame appears to have been updated, suggesting it is in constant use. The results in 2019 are top secret, but as Schlosser wrote in the Atlantic, one of the participants told him: “There were no happy outcomes.”

October 8, 2022 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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