Russian choice between nuclear weapons and leaving Ukraine ‘rapidly approaching,’ expert says

As Russia begins to lose the ability to conduct military operations on the ground in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin will soon face a decision to use weapons of mass destruction or leave Ukraine, a defense analyst says.

The invasion of Ukraine has reached a tipping point where Russia’s ability to conduct combat operations is no longer realistic, given its dwindling weapons stockpiles, Nicholas Drummond, a former army officer, told CBC News. British and now defense analyst.

“Putin will reach a point where he will either have to step up his use of weapons of mass destruction or withdraw, and that is the point we are rapidly approaching,” he said.

Russia’s biggest airstrikes on Ukraine since the start of the war killed at least 19 people on Monday, forced thousands of Ukrainians into bomb shelters and left hundreds of towns and villages without electricity.

‘You need to do something radical’

The attacks, denounced in the West for deliberately targeting civilian targets, have been hailed by hawks in Moscow as a turning point showing Russia’s resolve in what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

But Western military analysts say the strikes came at a staggering cost, depleted a dwindling supply of long-range missiles, missed major military targets and are unlikely to turn the tide of a war going badly for Moscow.

Putin “has a finite number of missiles like the ones he used to attack Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine, and once they’re gone, that’s it: it’s over,” Drummond said. “So he needs to do something radical to get the initiative back.”

Rescue teams inspect the scene of a Russian attack in Kyiv on Monday. The explosions rocked Kyiv early Monday after months of relative calm in the Ukrainian capital. (Adam Schreck/The Associated Press)

Drummond believes that Putin is trying to decide what the West will do if it uses a nuclear weapon. The West should not back down as long as it does not escalate, he said.

Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, said Russia’s attacks are a sign of desperation. The country does not have enough weapons to sustain the intensity of Monday’s attacks, he said, adding that Ukraine has claimed a high success rate in intercepting missiles.

Attacks on civilians are likely to only strengthen the resolve of Ukraine and the West, he said.

“This is therefore not a new strategy to win the war, but a sociopath’s tantrum.”

Tom Nichols, a retired US Naval War College professor, said it’s all up to Putin on how it will end. Unlike Drummond, he doesn’t see an end on the near horizon.

“It was their decision to start the war, and at this point it has to be their decision to end it,” he said. “And I don’t think there’s any chance of that happening anytime soon.”

Russian hawks gloat

Putin described the attacks as a response to what he called terror attacks by Ukraine, including an explosion on Sunday that damaged Russia’s bridge to Crimea, which he built after annexing the peninsula he seized in 2014.

Hawks in Russia had been demanding for weeks that Putin escalate the conflict, with many praising Monday’s attacks.

Margarita Simonyan, director of RT, Russia’s state-run media channel abroad, said Moscow had been waiting for the perfect moment to show its strength. Citing a proverb, she tweeted: “A Russian harnesses his horses slowly but he leads them fast.”

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Putin’s security advisory council, said Russia could now broaden its goals: “In my opinion, the goal of our future actions should be the complete dismantling of the political regime in Ukraine.”

“The hardliners now claim to be satisfied,” Freedman said. “Their problem is, of course, that none of this wins the war.”

Ukraine says Russia fired 83 cruise missiles on Monday and shot down at least 43 of them. Moscow says it fired more than 70 and all of its targets were hit. Both sides say the attack was on a large scale, not seen at least since Russia’s initial wave of airstrikes on the first night of the war in February.

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An injured woman reacts after the Russian shelling in Kyiv on Monday. Western military experts say such intense attacks are unsustainable and not a winning war strategy. (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

The Institute for the Study of War said the strikes wasted weapons on civilian targets such as playgrounds rather than militarily important targets.

“Russian attacks on the Ukrainian energy grid will likely not break Ukraine’s will to fight, but Russia’s use of its limited supply of precision weapons in this role may deprive Putin of options to disrupt Ukrainian counteroffensives in course in Kherson and Lugansk Oblasts,” he said. Institute said in an analysis.

500 million US dollars worth of missiles in 1 day

Each Kalibr cruise missile is estimated to cost more than US$6.5 million, meaning that Moscow fired around US$500 million worth of missiles in a single day.

Western military analysts don’t have firm figures on how many missiles Russia has left, but for months they have pointed to indicators that suggest supply is limited.

As early as July, Joseph Dempsey and Douglas Barrie of the International Institute for Strategic Studies noted that Russia was increasingly using anti-ship missiles to attack targets on land. This “suggests that Moscow needs to marshal its remaining conventionally armed land-attack cruise missile assets more carefully,” they wrote.

SEE | Putin’s motivation is desperation, experts say:

Russian choice between nuclear weapons and leaving Ukraine rapidly

Setbacks, desperation behind surge in Russian attacks: experts

Russia says the increase in missile attacks on Ukraine was a response to an attack on a vital Russian bridge in occupied Crimea. But experts say Vladimir Putin’s motivations are also tied to battlefield setbacks and a desperate bid to turn things around.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that securing more air defenses for Ukraine is his number one priority. Western leaders, including US President Joe Biden, have promised more systems, though they take time to implement.

Ukraine now relies on Soviet-era air defense systems like the S-300. Washington promised several months ago to ship its sophisticated NASAMS system, but said in late September that delivery was still about two months away.

Stop all missiles almost impossible

In practice, military experts say, Ukraine will likely never be able to defend its entire land area, the second largest in Europe after Russia itself, from attacks on low-priority scattered targets.

Air defenses, such as the US Patriot missile system, are primarily designed to protect specific high-priority targets. Others may provide broader protection, but in a comparatively small area, such as Israel’s vaunted “Iron Dome” system, which protects a country about one-twentieth the size of Ukraine.

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Destroyed Russian equipment is seen placed in an area in the reclaimed town of Lyman, Ukraine, on Tuesday. (Francisco Seco/The Associated Press)

“In a nutshell: just as it was difficult to stop Saddam [Hussein] SCUD launch, and as much as we want to help Ukraine, it is a challenge to fully counter all of Putin’s war crimes which sadly include launching missile strikes against civilian targets,” tweeted Mark Hertling, former U.S. Army Commander. US ground forces in Europe.

Still, Russia faces the same strategic difficulties as it did before Monday’s attacks: demoralized and ill-equipped forces are spread out along a 1,000-kilometre front line, with long supply lines vulnerable to Ukrainian attack.

Russia’s initial advantages, notably the enormous firepower of her artillery, enabled her to destroy and capture cities in May-July. But since September, its heavy artillery forces have proven a poor match for defending occupied territory from mobile and increasingly better-equipped Ukrainian units.

Moscow still lacks control over Ukrainian airspace, which would allow the intensive strikes by planes and helicopters that helped defeat rebels in Syria and Chechnya.

Ben Hodges, another former commander of US ground forces in Europe, said that despite Monday’s attacks, Ukraine still appeared to have “irreversible momentum” on the battlefield.

“Russia’s logistics system is exhausted and no Russian wants to fight in Putin’s war in Ukraine,” he tweeted.

A man walks past a crater next to a playground.
A man walks past a rocket crater in a city park in central Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday. Russia retaliated on Monday for an attack on a critical bridge by unleashing its most widespread attacks on Ukraine in months. (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

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