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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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HomeNewsAfter Kharkiv rout, will Putin resort to nuclear weapons?

After Kharkiv rout, will Putin resort to nuclear weapons?

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UKRAINE’S sudden rout of the Russian army in Kharkiv province between Kiev and hailing distance of the Russian border signals the possibility of a turning point in the ground war

Kharkiv is only part of a much longer and deeper front but its significance lies in the blow to Russian morale and Ukraine’s first recapture of lost territory since the battle of Kiev at the start of the war when Russia’s attack on the capital was thwarted.

It spotlights the military superiority of Ukrainian forces, now well armed with hi-tech US weapons, and the crippling effect of accumulated Russian battlefield losses over months of fighting. This has led to a critical shortage of men who cannot be replaced in a timely way, if at all.

Ukraine’s general staff spotted a weakness created in Kharkiv by the withdrawal of Russian troops to shore up other fronts and struck devastatingly. The independent Institute for the Study of War said Russian defenders fled to avoid encirclement as the Ukrainians advanced by some 40 miles in only two days. Sitzkrieg became blitzkrieg, in the words of one commentator. The war, it seems, wears a different face this week.

If we are to believe first reports, Vladimir Putin has lost the initiative which enabled him to capture swathes of eastern Ukraine. His battered army is no longer advancing though much of the fighting is not being carried out by Russia’s regular army. However, if the Ukrainians can replicate the irresistible punch into Kharkiv elsewhere, he becomes a man at bay, threatened with defeat on the ground.

Whatever military edge Putin had when he invaded appears to have evaporated. The lack of trained soldiers and their weapons inferiority means his fronts have more holes than the army can plug.

Does this unexpected disaster in Kharkiv revive the threat that has lain over the war since the outset – that Putin might unleash nuclear weapons to save himself? Such an escalation, even if the Russians used only tactical nuclear weapons, would make the future entirely unpredictable beyond Ukraine.

No country has used nuclear weapons since the US attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. To do so now would be to cross the sacrosanct Rubicon of deterrence and risk awesome consequences for Russia as well as its opponents.

Ukraine’s triumph in Kharkiv vindicated Nato’s much-criticised policy of arming it with superior weapons while leaving the fighting to the Ukrainians alone. That said, a resolution of the conflict is nowhere in sight. Economic and long-term geopolitical aspects of the conflict remain.

The French philosopher Pascal Bruckner wrote that Ukraine was vital to the security of Europe as a buffer against Russia. Strangely, he did not mention the obvious corollary that it is equally vital to Russia as a buffer against Nato and the United States.

Putin warned the US and Nato for years that allowing Ukraine to join the alliance represented an existential threat to Russia. The noose has tightened since the decision of Finland – which has an 800-mile Russian border – to join Nato.

Bruckner is wrong. Geo-politically, Ukraine is much more important to Russia’s security than it is to Europe’s. If Nato – already well entrenched in eastern Europe – deployed its forces on Ukraine’s Russian border, the Russian army would be no match for them as its performance during the invasion has demonstrated.

The fact is that Putin invaded Ukraine with his ill-trained and badly led army not because he is strong but because he is weak and reliant entirely for defence on the doomsday threat of his nuclear arsenal. The invasion was a desperate throw, at least in terms of conventional war, against encirclement by the West.

The Russians still hold 20 per cent of Ukraine but perhaps not for much longer if the Ukrainians launch more targeted offensives against the chinks in their front. Russian army spokesmen claimed they executed a controlled withdrawal in Kharkiv but the evidence is that they reeled and ran from an onslaught which took them by surprise.

Putin’s ambitions have been failed by his army but it is still questionable whether the Ukrainians are strong enough to drive it out of their country entirely. And the fighting on the ground is not the only factor affecting the outcome.

What is critical now for both sides is whether they have time on their side.

Putin not only retains his nuclear veto but the power to cripple EU economies this winter after shutting off Russian energy supplies on which they depend for their electricity. The reaction of European publics to the privations inflicted them once they are fully felt is regarded as the weak link in the West’s strategy.

European governments must weather the political and economic challenges of inevitable power cuts affecting homes and industries in the coming months while continuing to arm Ukraine in the hope that Putin will be forced to negotiate by his military reverses.

The plan would collapse if Germany, the country most dependent on Russian energy, broke under the social strain. The rest of the EU would inevitably follow, leaving President Biden to continue his proxy war with the Russians alone amid domestic complaints about the cost to the US of keeping Ukraine afloat.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told her countrymen that Berlin would not opt out of Nato sanctions on Russia – the reason for Putin’s energy export retaliation – ‘even if it gets really tough for politicians’.

Ordinary people may not concur although Germany is less prone to anti-government street protests than France, Italy and Spain. Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that ‘civil disobedience’ was possible across the EU as people start to freeze and industry slows from November onwards.

What matters now is whether the message of Kharkiv that the Ukrainians can beat the Russians is enough, despite economic distress, to bolster the pro-Ukrainian support that ordinary Europeans showed at the start of the war.

For their leaders, the question remains the same. Do they still insist Ukraine has the right to join Nato in defiance of Russia’s ‘existential’ security concerns?

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Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes is a retired Anglo-Scottish journalist now living in France who during a 40-year career worked in eastern Europe before and after communism.

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