Geopolitics Strategic Thinking

Moscow’s Red Lines, Nuclear Threat, and Restraint

Adapt Institute

Red lines and nukes

Whenever the Ukrainian armed forces achieved something vis-à-vis their Russian foe, and occasionally even without immediate cause, represen­ta­tives of the Kremlin or Mr Putin himself have been signalling to Kyiv and the West: “One step further, and there will be grave consequences“– hinting at the eventual use of weapons of mass destruction for retaliation.

Despite remarkable Ukrainian successes, especially in September/October of 2022, nothing of the kind happened. This has given food for speculations in Western expert circles assuming that the Russian threat, as often as it has been voiced, is a worn-out, void gesture.

The problem appears to be, however, that one cannot firmly rely on the experts’ assumption. A residual risk cannot be ruled out. A red line may indeed be crossed if Ukrainian forces march into Russian territory (as de­fined before the war), or if Russian civilian and military infrastructure is vigorously attacked in-depth, or if NATO – especially American – troops are getting directly in­volved in com­bat activities on the defender’s soil.

Source: Flicker.com / Ainz Wilkins

The eventuality of a Russian escalation should not deter, however, from assisting the Ukrainian armed forces to restore their nation’s territorial integrity, as defined by the borders of 1991 and sanctioned by the Budapest Memo­randum of 1994, signed by Russia, the United Kingdom and the Uni­ted States. In other words, Ukraine’s borders are guaranteed by international law – a fact that demands protection by the world community. Should Ukraine not be able to restore its territorial integrity, losing eco­nomically important districts (oblasts), the country’s viability as an in­de­pen­dent state will be at stake.

Western restraint

Official voices on the part of NATO and EU have repeatedly declared that the Ukrainian cause is just and that the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity should be considered imperative. Yet the possibility, however faint, thatRussia might employ nuclear weapons, even if “only symbolically“, has led to calls for restraint in supporting the Ukrainian military. Apparently, this concern has affected Western policy – much more than could be plausibly expected.

The impression so far is that the deliveries of arms are just sufficient to enable the de­fender to hold his ground – in other words to survive, with diffi­culties, in the positional encounter which has char­act­erised the war since Octo­ber of 2022 (too much to lose, not enough to win).

Substantial military support from the West came late and in dribs and drabs. The excuses for this failure were manifold: It was claimed, for instance, that relevant main weapon systems were out of stock, and that the ones in use by active NATO units could not be given away because of the negative effect on the Alliance’s defensive posture. This is a thoroughly weird argumentation because a loss of Ukraine would be far more dangerous to the West’s stand.

Another impediment on the road to adequate military support resulted from the insistence of certain NATO members to reach an alliance accord before sub­stantial deliveries could get on their way.

Washington, independent of such coordination, sent to the frontline more than double the military gear than all other allies combined. Yet the pattern of this support betrays a particular sense of caution. Certain categories of weapon­ry were held back because there was concern about their potential escalatory nature. Small wonder that the US allies shared these reservations which, in some cases, were not justified by sober analysis.

Paying lip service to the Ukrainian cause and at the same time withholding necessary material support undermines the credibility of Western policymaking: certainly detrimental to a sound democratic process – and much to the delight of Mr Putin.

The tank debacle

Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) of Western design are said to be significantly superior to their counterparts of Russian (Soviet) vintage, especially when taking into account the re­spective survivability on the battlefield.

The idea of beefing up the Ukrainian ground forces with NATO MBTs has resulted in a veritable farce, however. Several European NATO members pres­sed Germany, for some reasons considered a “lead nation“, to reach an agreement with the United States to provide Ukraine with their most modern MBTs: the latest versions of Leopard 2 and Abrams. In that case, they would be eager to join and contribute their own share of Leo 2s.

When, after an excruciatingly long phase of hesitation, the understanding was reached and the German government decided to send a small batch of 14 tanks (somewhat later augmented to 18), some of the European allies concerned did not imme­diately follow suit – playing for time, claiming technical prob­lems. Only Britain declared relatively early to send some MBTs (Chal­lenger 2).

If finally, the European countries that operate Leo 2s are going to fulfil their pledge, and if the Americans stick to their pattern of support, sending more than double, the NATO-supplied armour fleet of the Ukrainian forces (inclu­ding the British contribution) is not likely to number significantly more than 100 vehicles by mid-2023. (Russa still possesses several thousand MBTs, admittedly of older vintage.)

If one intends to wage dynamic armoured war, in this case, to regain lost territory, it is imperative to go big, and not operate in dribs and drabs. This suggests organising all Western tanks in one or – at the most – two formations. As the three tank models in question, unfortunately, have quite different logistic demands, such a combination does not seem advisable, however. The integration of the three different Mechanised Infantry Combat Vehicles (MICVs: Bradley, Warrior, Marder), which would have to closely cooperate with the MBTs on the battlefield, presents a similar challenge to logistics.

Armoured warfare also requires strong support from mechanised artillery that travels in good coordination with the MBTs and MICVs. In this context, only the modern German armoured howitzer (Panzerhaubitze 2000) appears to be adequately combat effective. Yet it has been made available only in apalling­ly in­suffi­cient numbers.

Last, but not least: armoured warfare demands air cover. Without control of the air space over the lines of advance and the respective logistic tail, the chances of success are minimal.

Strengthening the Ukrainian Air Force by supplying tactical aircraft seems to remain taboo, however, because it is feared that the leadership in Kyiv might employ these assets to conduct deep raids into Russian territory.

As a result, it is quite likely that the tanks are going to be spread out, in relatively small contingents, along those stretches of the frontline which are under particular pressure. In other words, the armour would be used as a backbone and morale booster of an infantry defence engaged in positional warfare. This implies foregoing the hopes for restoring the country’s territorial integrity. Besides that, it constitutes a suboptimal allocation of tanks whose true talents lie in manoeuvring.

False hopes

According to Boris Johnson, the former British Prime Minister, Olav Scholz, the German Federal Chancellor, had initially hoped that the whole affair would be over in a matter of a few days: with Russia coming out victoriously. Then one would have responded with the usual lamento, and there would have been a limited period of ice age. Afterwards “normal“ relations with Russia could have been resumed and the continued flow of relatively low-cost fossil fuel secured: much to the liking of the German Social and Christian Democrats as well as the nation’s industrial leaders.

This may sound like a caricature. Yet the political course, chosen by Scholz after the Kremlin failed to reach his goals, gives rise to questions: What about his credibility when he declares himself the champion of alliance so­lidarity in the struggle against Russia and at the same time embarks on a strategy of procrastination when it comes to militarily support the defender?

Could it be that there exists a hidden agenda? Suggesting that – despite all lip service to the contrary – Western military aid should go only as far as to allow the Ukrainians to hold the ground they control since last autumn, but not enabling them to completely free their country?

If this is the case, we have to assume that there continue to be hopes for some kind of deal with Russia – on the basis of an armistice, Ukraine being coerced to concede occupied land to the aggressor.

Source: Flickr.com / Alexander Smirnov

This would indicate a thorough misunderstanding of the Russian position. It is illusory to believe that such a “solution“ would appease the Kremlin in a reliable manner. Apparently, Olav Scholz, and people alike, cannot conceive of the fact that a murderous gang (KGB/FSB) has taken over a whole nation and that the gang leader has been developing a style of government called “Putinism“ – which is a modern copy of the power structure once created by Adolf Hitler:  divide and rule, the leader (Führer) controlling virtually every­thing. (In addition, there are mafia-like features and ubiquitous corruption.)

By its very nature, such a system has raptor qualities: being aggressive for reasons of self-preservation. In other words, it seems highly likely that the Kremlin would regard an armistice cum cession of Ukrainian land as an en­couraging step to go for more in the next round (fitting in nicely with plans to “bring back“ Belarus and Moldova).

In any case, concessions to Russia would seriously compromise the rule of international law and the idea of an All-European security system. And not to forget: China’s ruler would feel inspired to finally attempt swallowing Taiwan.

A viable solution

Let us consider a scenario that might look appealing from a Moscovite perspective!

As Western sanctions so far did not suffice to bring Russia’s economy down to its knees, and as the vast majority of the population has remained loyal, the Kremlin decides to take the risk and wait it all out.

Western solidarity crumbles: much trumpeted, but lacking solidity, and with the help of Russian machinations a Trumpist, probably not Trump himself, becomes President of the United States. Then, with even less support than today, much less indeed, Ukraine would have to give up: not just oblasts, but as a whole.

If this scenario can claim more than minute plausibility, a timely Ukrai­nian victory on the battlefield becomes imperative. Interestingly there appears to be a recipe to achieve just this: an approach that – contrary to tank operations – promises to minimise escalatory signals.

It draws on the concept applied in the context of the retaking of land, as already referred to, by the Ukrainian forces in the early autumn of last year. There was an ingenious combination, or tactical interaction, of superior intelligence, provided by the United States, assets generating high-precision indirect fire (tube/rocket artillery), and light, “fluid“ assault infantry the Ukrainian Army has been proud of.

The repetition of such an approach on a wider front and aiming at greater depth requires substantially increased deliveries of artillery systems by the West. The United States has quite generously sent an impressive quantity of highly effective mobile artillery rocket systems (HIMARS) along with numerous field howitzers (M 777). Sending more of these would be welcome.

The problem lies with the European reluctance to deliver. In the following a somewhat arbitrary sample of modern systems is given which are available in sizable numbers, either in the active forces or industrial depots: Panzerhaubitze 2000 (armoured howitzer): Germany/Italy, MARS (MLRS=Multiple Launch Ro­cket System, a heavier version of HIMARS):  Germany, Feld­hau­bitze 70 (field howitzer): Germany/Italy, CAESAR (light mechanised howitzer): France,  AU F1 (armoured howitzer): France, ZUZANA (mech­anised howitzer): Slovakia, AS 90 (armoured howitzer): Britain, M 777 (field howitzer): Britain.

Equipping the Ukrainian forces with such a variety of different systems may indeed cause logistic problems. But as the mobility requirements for these assets are rather limited, and as there is no need for integration at the unit level, the overall logistic burden appears to be lower than in the case of combined-arms, heavy manoeuvre forces. Also positive in this respect: All the tube artillery systems in the sample can fire standard NATO ammunition (155 mm).

So far Germany has sent only 14 (!) armoured howitzers 2000, the most modern tube artillery, to the battlefield in Ukraine. Let us speculate in retro­spect! Had Germany sent 18 of these pieces, enough to equip one powerful artillery battalion, already in April 2022, and another 18 one month later – along with an equal number of MLRS, the war would have taken a decisively different course.    

Author:

Dr. Lutz Unterseher, Chairman SAS, Berlin, Germany

German sociologist, military expert, security policy advisor and writer.

The Study Group on Alternative Security Policy (SAS) is an international, independent nonprofit organization with headquarters in Berlin, Germany. Founded in 1980, SAS pioneered the development of nonoffensive defense strategies and principles.

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