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Tom Clonan: Putin has made another strategic blunder but this is a dangerous moment

The security analyst looks at the Russian president’s latest move and the level of threat he now poses.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

VLADIMIR PUTIN’S STATEMENTS on the ‘Special Military Operation’ in Donbas this morning reveal a great deal about the military ‘facts on the ground’ in Ukraine.

His remarks and threats have placed the risk of a nuclear exchange in Europe firmly on the table.

Putin’s brutal war has failed in all of its objectives. It has failed to decapitate Zelenskyy’s regime and install a puppet regime west of the Dnieper River. It has failed to consolidate its occupation of the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. The Kremlin’s forces were routed from the Kharkiv Oblast in recent weeks – retreating in disarray towards the Russian border.

Today, Russia’s Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu stated that Russia had lost 5,397 soldiers in Ukraine. US estimates in July claimed at least 70,000 Russian deaths.

The real casualty figure is likely to be 30,000 Russian troops killed in action with many multiples of that figure wounded and missing. It is likely that over half of Putin’s original invasion force of 180,000 troops have become casualties in this war.

The draft

Today’s ‘partial mobilisation’ of reservists falls far short of a full mobilisation of Russia’s vast reservoir of manpower – conscripts, veterans and contract, mercenary troops. Putin also stopped short of making a formal declaration of war on Ukraine – continuing to reference his invasion as a ‘Special Military Operation’.

Putin’s latest throw of the dice will not change the facts on the ground in Ukraine. His plan to mobilise 300,000 reservists will take time. Time is running out for Putin. To recall, equip, train and deploy such a force of troops – from all over the Russian Federation – will take weeks, if not months.

Each reserve unit will be a composite unit, consisting of troops who have not served together previously. To be effective in the field, they will require an intense period of training.

To deploy coherent, combined arms formations of this size to Ukraine – consisting of logistics, artillery, air defence, mechanised infantry and armour – will require a massive national effort. It is unlikely that such units will form up and reach their jump-off points in Ukraine before Winter sets in.

Intimidation

Putin has signalled his intentions in a clear and unambiguous manner in an attempt to intimidate Ukraine and what he refers to as the ‘collective West’. In doing so, he has handed the initiative to President Zelenskyy and his forces.

For Ukraine, morale and the motivation to fight will be high after their recent dramatic territorial gains in the east and south of the country. Putin’s threats will further galvanise their efforts and they will throw their full weight at Russian positions in the coming weeks. Ukraine will seek to exploit the time frame revealed to them by Putin’s outburst.

Unlike Ukraine’s excellent use of concealment and deception – the critical element of surprise – in their recent counter-offensives, Putin has revealed his latest ‘plan’ to the world.

This is another strategic blunder on his part – the latest in a series of spectacular intelligence failures that have been hallmarks of his command of this operation to date.

His threats will accelerate NATO and EU support to Ukraine and provides the Ukrainian military with a neat and predictable timetable within which to concentrate their force.

There is however the imminent risk of escalation in the conflict. If Putin carries out his threat to hold referenda in the areas he currently occupies in Donbas, he will effectively annex this territory, declaring it Russian soil.

If Ukrainian forces – or long-range weapons – encroach on this newly annexed territory, it would give Putin a pseudo-legal premise upon which to formally declare war on Ukraine. This would permit him – in theory – to use a tactical nuclear weapon against Ukraine.

Let’s be clear here. Even with an army of 300,000 troops – Putin will never be able to occupy or control a population of 40 million Ukrainians.

The United States and her allies – along with NATO – recently learned that lesson after catastrophic campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, both with populations similar in number to that of Ukraine.

Quite simply, Russia has run out of conventional military options in Ukraine. Even in an escalated, fuller conventional confrontation with Ukraine, President Zelenskyy has the ability to mobilise his own force of over 400,000 military veterans leading to an ongoing stalemate and unsustainable war of brutal attrition.

This is why Putin’s renewed – veiled – threat of a nuclear strike must be taken seriously.

He has re-stated his threat to use ‘all means’ to defend Russia from attack. If annexed by referendum, Putin might be tempted to use non-conventional means – nuclear weapons – to ‘reverse’ his military failure in Ukraine.

The nuclear threat

Russia has an arsenal of approximately 6,000 nuclear warheads. Around two thirds of these are massive ‘strategic’ nuclear weapons with a strength of up to 800 kilotons.

Each of these weapons is over fifty times more powerful than the atomic bombs used by the United States at Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War Two. It is unlikely – at this stage – that Putin would consider using one of these terrifying weapons.

However, he might be tempted to use a smaller ‘tactical’ nuclear weapon. The Kremlin possesses approximately 2,000 such warheads – ranging in size from 1 kiloton to 100 kilotons.

For comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was approximately 15 kilotons – killing 146,000 people in one attack. A locally launched Russian nuclear weapon – say 1 kiloton – would kill up to 10,000 Ukrainian troops and civilians in an instant.

Such a weapon would immediately destroy and contaminate strategic Ukrainian hubs such as Kramatorsk or Slovyansk.

Prior to this conflict, NATO had observed that Russian ground, air and naval forces had incorporated such tactical nuclear weapons into their strategic doctrine – in a ‘first-use’ concept – for the defence of Russian territory.

This ‘pre-emptive’ strike concept, applying to smaller nuclear devices is a real and present threat in this latest phase of Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Such a weapon can be launched from conventional missile or artillery systems – such as the Russian Iskander M SS-26 Missile Launcher or Malka self-propelled artillery piece. Such delivery systems would allow Putin to use such a weapon without warning and without detection by western technical means.

Such an attack would result in a massive thermonuclear explosion – or blast. A one kiloton device would instantly destroy everything within a one-mile radius of the detonation point. A massive blast wave of heat and radiation would reach a 12-mile radius within 50 seconds.

In addition, an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) would take out all electronic and digital systems within a very wide radius – with grave and unpredictable consequences for critical infrastructure and civil aviation. The death rate would be catastrophic and the area of the attack contaminated – like Chernobyl – for hundreds of years.

Many millions of Ukrainians have had their lives upturned and destroyed by Putin’s invasion. With partial mobilisation, many hundreds of thousands of Russian families will now join them in that experience. Ordinary Russians – and Europeans – fear a nuclear exchange in Ukraine. Putin however, does not.

Putin’s conventional military failures in Ukraine and his outburst in Moscow this morning reveal a man who is not amenable to reason and a man who is disinhibited in his willingness to use conventional and non-conventional weapons to kill soldiers and civilians – including children – without hesitation.

With every setback, Putin becomes more dangerous. This is a dangerous moment – for Ukraine, for Europe and for the world.

 Dr Tom Clonan is an independent Senator and former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter. 

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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