Earlier this afternoon (18 March 2022) the government of the Netherlands approved NATO Allied Command’s request that the country’s armed forces deploy its Patriot air defence system to Slovakia, joining two Patriot battalions being deployed from Germany. The Patriot (MIM-104) system is a hi-tech integrated surface-to-air or ‘SAM’ battery defence designed to intercept tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and advanced aircraft, and has an approximate range of 70km. Mobile SAM and radar coverage along NATO’s eastern border with Ukraine are necessary requirements for the enforcement of an air exclusion over the conflict zone or part of the conflict zone. This, then, is our first indication that NATO is preparing for an escalation; either in the form of a no-fly zone over Ukraine or a Russian missile or aerial attack on NATO territory.
It is now widely accepted that a NATO-enforced air exclusion over the whole of Ukraine is a logistical impossibility and that the military requirements of any attempt at such an enforcement — the neutralisation of radar and SAM air defences in sovereign Russian territory and in Belarus — would lead to a rapid escalation to a nuclear exchange. Yet, the enforcement of a partial air exclusion zone over southern and western Ukraine is possible with NATO radar and SAM support (perhaps with the assistance of US AWAC high-altitude radar). Measures and countermeasures would dictate that Russia defies this exclusion by directing its forces to engage NATO in a conventional escalation.
What this means in effect is that Russian and NATO forces will come into hostile contact shortly after any kind of no-fly zone is announced, but with the rules of engagement limiting both sides to contact within the parameters of the Ukrainian conflict (that is, not quite a global nuclear war scenario). However, Russian military doctrine allows for the combined use of short range, low yield tactical nuclear weapons, and the Russian armed forces have trained for this combined approach. This would see the use of 1-50 kiloton ballistic missiles used against NATO and Ukrainian forces within the theatre of operation (Ukraine). Any reasonable assessment of a limited conventional escalation to a conflict involving NATO in Ukraine would conclude this to be Russia’s first response.
Why would Russia’s first response be a tactical nuclear response? The Russian Federation simply does not have the conventional military strength to win a war against the combined forces of the NATO alliance. In order to level the field, therefore, Russian military doctrine has accepted the necessity of an integrated defence involving tactical nuclear weapons and conventional land and air forces. The Russian premier, Vladimir Putin, does not have the executive authority to engage the nuclear option, but now that his nuclear deterrence is at a state of battle readiness, all he needs is the launch authorisation of his Minister of Defence (Sergei Shoigu) and his Chief of General Staff (Valery Gerasimov) — both of whom are Putin loyalists. Given this and that this combined arms approach is Russian military doctrine, Mr Putin will have little trouble getting the required authorisation.
Presuming this happens, then, there are a number of serious risks of further escalation from a tactical to a strategic nuclear response (the use of ICBMs). It is possible that a tactical nuclear strike inside Ukraine against NATO and/or Ukrainian forces will damage or otherwise affect military and civilian infrastructure in neighbouring NATO-member states (Poland, Slovakia, and Romania); an accident that very well might result in an Article 5 — ‘Collective Defence’ — retaliation. This kind of response from NATO would be a de facto declaration of war against Russia and the beginning of a global nuclear conflict. Another significant risk comes from the real possibility of a Russian tactical strike on any number of the Ukrainian nuclear power plants, which would cause a catastrophic regional nuclear disaster of a magnitude of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Can this be averted? At this point it is very difficult to see quite how this escalation can be averted. It is clear from numerous declassified US government and CIA documents that the United States has had a long-term strategic interest in Ukraine, reaching back to the early 1950s. Ukraine is essential to Russian strategic and geopolitical interests in eastern Europe, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean. Thus, the US has correctly identified it as the soft underbelly of Russia. NATO eastward expansion, US encirclement, and CIA covert operations both in Ukraine and in the United States have been directed towards provoking Russia to act and so trap Moscow in a long and bloody insurgency. To this end, the US’ most important weapon has been propaganda; with Russia’s leader monsterised even before the conflict began, with the explosion of anti-Russian articles and opinion pieces, and with the liberal use of ‘black propaganda’ in the use of such CIA instruments as Radio Free Europe, the US has prepared the group for mass public support for an ‘intervention’ against Russia. This calibre of propaganda has been evident on the ground in Ukraine with one example being that of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry using the Ukrainian shelling of Donetsk as evidence of Russia attacking civilian targets.
Russia and Ukraine have lived side by side for over three decades without Russia invading. Ukrainian neutrality has, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, guaranteed peace between these two states. Yet, US government involvement — including clandestine involvement — in the Orange Revolution and the 2014 Maidan coup have revealed Washington’s intention to push for a war with Russia over a wholly manufactured and unnecessary conflict in Ukraine. With the US pressing for this war — as was shown in 2008 when, against French and German advice, the US invited Ukraine and Georgia to join the NATO alliance in breach of the 1991 NATO-Soviet agreement — it is hard to see how exactly it can be stopped without the US ending its interference in the region.
Again, we must return to the principle of measures and countermeasures. At each step of the way to this conflict, Russia has been reacting to the United States and NATO’s measures. Not even the Russian invasion can seriously be considered as anything but a countermeasure. Ukraine offers no strategic or territorial advantage to Russia other than Ukrainian neutrality and the naval base at Sevastopol — both of which Russia had until US interference began in 2008. Realistically, we cannot expect Russia not to take countermeasures the United States would not itself take if it were in the same situation. Doing nothing, while NATO expanded into Ukraine, would seriously weaken Russia — both geopolitically and economically. The moment US intervention secured the end of Ukrainian neutrality, this war was unavoidable — and clearly there is more on the US’ agenda for Ukraine and eastern Europe. Unless something significant changes in the next few weeks, a dangerous escalation in this conflict is an absolute certainty.
Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.
Associated Press, ‘Live updates: Ukraine: Plant staff forced to record address,’ AP News (9 March 2022), accessed 17 March 2022: https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-war-live-updates-56ea6abdbd67e415c4bd0321a682ff13
John Baylis, “The Concept of ‘Tailored Deterrence’ in the ‘Second Nuclear Age.’” St Antony’s International Review 4, no. 2 (2009): 8–23. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26472731.
Briefing, ‘The risk that the war in Ukraine escalates past the nuclear threshold,’ The Economist (19 March 2022), accessed 18 March 2022: https://www.economist.com/briefing/2022/03/19/the-risk-of-escalation-past-the-nuclear-threshold
Covert Cabal, ‘The Logic Behind the Patriot Missile System,’ YouTube (15 January 2022), accessed 18 March 2022: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-dnr2suQWM
Chad De Guzman, ‘Why Establishing a No-Fly Zone Over Ukraine Would Be Very Dangerous and Costly,’ Time Magazine (8 March 2022), accessed 18 March 2022: https://time.com/6156060/ukraine-no-fly-zone-russia/
Tom Enders, ‘The case for a no-fly zone in western Ukraine,’ Politico (15 March 2022), accessed 17 March 2022: https://www.politico.eu/article/case-no-fly-zone-western-ukraine/
Max Fisher, ‘As Russia Digs In, What’s the Risk of Nuclear War? ‘It’s Not Zero.’,’ The New York Times (16 March 2022), accessed 18 March 2022: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/16/world/europe/ukraine-russia-nuclear-war.html
News Desk, ‘Dutch to supply anti-tank, air defence rockets to Ukraine,’ Reuters (26 February 2022), accessed 18 March 2022: https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/dutch-deliver-200-air-defence-rockets-ukraine-govt-letter-2022-02-26/
News Desk, ‘Dutch to support defence system in Slovakia,’ RTE News Online (18 March 2022), accessed 18 March 2022: https://www.rte.ie/news/post/103887779/
News, ‘The Netherlands and Germany to deploy Patriot system in Slovakia,’ Army Technology (9 March 2022), accessed: 18 March 2022: https://www.army-technology.com/news/the-netherlands-germany-patriot-system-slovakia/
Al Mauroni, ‘Would Russia use Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine?,’ Modern War Institute at West Point (16 March 2022), accessed: 18 March 2022: https://mwi.usma.edu/would-russia-use-a-tactical-nuclear-weapon-in-ukraine/
Keith B. Payne, ‘Nuclear Deterrence in a New Era: Applying “Tailored Deterrence,”‘ Real Clear Defence (17 May 2018), accessed 18 March 2022: https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2018/05/17/nuclear_deterrence_in_a_new_era__applying_tailored_deterrence_113459.html