Russia Hints at a Tactical Nuclear Escalation

On Saturday (19 March 2022) a Russian Ministry of Defence spokesperson claimed Russian forces had used a hypersonic missile (the Kh-47M2 ‘Kinzhal’) to neutralise a Ukrainian arms depot at Deliatyn in western Ukraine close to the Romanian border. While there is no independent corroboration of this, the Russian military has released video footage of the launch which appears — at least initially — to verify the claim. If verified, then this will be the first recorded use of these hi-tech weapons in an active combat situation. Western media has dismissed the use of this weapon as a form of ‘psychological propaganda’ (Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, EuroNews) which changes nothing on the battlefield. This assessment may indeed be true, but this is to miss the statement being made by the Russian military by its deployment.

As a precision strike on a large arms depot some 70km from the Romanian border — a NATO member state, Russia is sending a message to Allied Command that it can and will vaporise weapons and ammunition coming into the west of the country from Romania, Slovakia, and Poland. With the Russian fleet now in complete control of the Black Sea and the Ukrainian Black Sea ports, Russia is demonstrating its ability to cut off armament supplies to Ukraine. Viewed in the light of NATO’s recent establishment of Patriot SAM batteries (German and Dutch) in western Slovakia, this is a firm statement from Moscow that it is prepared to face down any attempt on the part of the North Atlantic alliance to enforce an air exclusion zone over western or southern Ukraine. These hypersonic weapons, which NATO does not have, render the Patriot batteries redundant.

Yet, the most powerful statement this strike makes is in the particular capabilities of the Kinzhal hypersonic missile (developed by the Russian Federation and the PR China); the Kinzhal or ‘Dagger’ missile is designed to deliver a tactical nuclear warhead payload. More to the point, as a hypersonic weapon capable of velocities between Mach 5 and Mach 12 it is technologically beyond the interception capabilities of NATO’s defences. Far from being a sign of Russian desperation or a psychological flex, the Russian military has made a countermeasure in response to the measures made by NATO in Slovakia. The unmistakable message here from the Russian premier is that the western allies had better be ready for a fight if they think they can waltz into Ukraine and take on Russia.

Since Friday (18 March 2022) we have seen measures and countermeasures in action, with Russia trumping NATO once again in the escalation stakes. Allied Command is of course hiding behind the rhetoric of the western news media, but military strategists and analysts in Washington and Casteau will be well aware of what is required of NATO if it is to save face. The stage is now set for the western alliance to enforce a no-fly zone, but given the most likely dire outcomes of such a move, both Washington and its NATO client states will require significant public support for the order to be given. Kelsey Atherton, a military technology journalist for Popular Science, explains the US’ reluctance to put boots on the ground for the same reason:

The Biden administration has consistently ruled out the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, as well as directly transferring combat aircraft to the country, citing the risk of escalation with Russia and its nuclear arsenal. None of the historic no-fly zones undertaken by the United States were set up against countries with nuclear weapons, or allies with nuclear weapons who were flying in support of the country targeted.

Kelsey Atherton, Popular Science

Air exclusion zones are essentially a bully tactic used by superpower states against weaker states which are typically limited to land-based military operations. An attempt to impose an air exclusion zone over all or part of Ukraine, a move which would require targeted strikes on radar and SAM installations inside Russia and Belarus, would absolutely mean that the members of the alliance would have to be prepared for a quick and highly aggressive response from Russia. Given the demonstrated superiority of the Russian conventional ballistic arsenal, NATO would be forced to order a full land deployment into Ukraine — an eventuality for which Russia has no doubt prepared. The fly in the ointment here (for NATO) is that Russia simply does not possess the conventional military capability to defeat the combined forces of the NATO alliance and so will initiate the protocols of its 2014 military doctrine of ‘tailored damage,’ a combined arms approach which incorporates the ‘limited use’ of nuclear weapons against military targets (on first strike) to deter further nuclear escalation. In simple terms, this is a strategy of nuclear coercion Moscow deems ‘acceptable.’

What can the United States do now? It is more appropriate here to speak of the United States as opposed to NATO. In real geopolitical terms NATO is the treatification of the United States’ foreign policy. And this is no longer a question of what the US can do. We know what it can do. Rather, global peace and security depend on what Washington should do — de-escalate the already perilous situation and reposition itself in good faith as a partner for peace. The US shares a great deal of responsibility with Russia for this conflict. By invading Ukraine, the Russian Federation has broken international law and is the aggressor in the conflict. But the US-directed expansion of NATO (in clear violation of the February 1991 NATO-Soviet agreement), as a series of openly hostile measures, has provoked Russia to invade Ukraine as a countermeasure. Aggressive US posturing towards the Russian Federation — NATO’s eastward expansion and the programme of US encirclement of Russia — and Russia’s response have brought us dangerously close to the nuclear cliff edge.

This, however, is a naïve peacenik proposal, and one which the hawks in the US government will undoubtedly brush off with a sneer. This leaves us with but two possible responses from NATO; nothing — which is the best we might hope for — or further escalation. Russia has now already set the bet for further escalation and to meet or up this the next step Washington makes will have to be another display of nuclear strength, which Russia will most certainly answer in kind. Where we are now is at the pre-tip stage of the domino effect, waiting for the first domino to fall — if it hasn’t already

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.


Al Jazeera. “Russia Says It Used Hypersonic Missiles in Ukraine for First Time.” Al Jazeera, March 19, 2022.

Atherton, Kelsey D. “What a No-Fly Zone over Ukraine Would Actually Mean.” Popular Science, March 18, 2022.

Bloomberg News. “Russia Says It Used Hypersonic ‘Kinzhal’ Missiles to Attack,” March 19, 2022.

Euronews. “Russia’s New Ukraine Weapon: What Is a Hypersonic Missile?,” March 19, 2022.

Grieco, Kelly. “A No-Fly Zone over Ukraine? The Case against NATO Doing It.” Atlantic Council, March 18, 2022.

Ismay, John. “Russia Claims to Use a Hypersonic Missile.” The New York Times, March 19, 2022.

Kirby, By Paul. “Russia Claims First Use of Hypersonic Kinzhal Missile in Ukraine.” BBC News, March 19, 2022.

McCann, Jason Michael. “NATO Preparing for Escalation.” Standpoint Zero (blog), March 18, 2022.

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