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A hurting stalemate? The risks of nuclear weapon use in the Ukraine crisis

Nuclear experts are trained to think the unthinkable. So, here is an unthinkable scenario that might actually happen in real life:

The battle over Ukraine drags on. From both the European Union and the United States, fresh weapons and other supplies continue to enter into Ukraine and allow the Ukrainian forces to fight on. The battle reaches what conflict resolution expert William Zartman calls “a hurting stalemate” situation. The balance of forces on the ground is not completely or perfectly symmetrical, but what was once considered a completely disproportioned asymmetry of forces has been gradually re-equilibrated, in favor of the Ukrainian forces.

The crisis becomes a war of endurance.

Theories of international relations tell us the defenders have a strategic advantage. They know the terrain in which they fight, and above all they have an absolute resolve to repulse the attacker. What news outlets report largely confirms these theoretical arguments. The extraordinary competence of the Ukrainian military is further strengthened by an unprecedented level of civilian mobilization and resistance.

Meanwhile, Russian forces meet considerable challenges in re-supplying their forward-deployed troops. The army has visibly underperformed. No strategic objective has been achieved. And for the first time since the beginning of the conflict, the Russian media acknowledge the country’s first causalities.  As the situation endures, Russian troop morale wanes. Fighting becomes sloppy, casualties continue to climb on the Russian side.

Generally, in a situation of hurting stalemate, according to Zartman, the costs of continuing the struggle exceed (oftentimes greatly exceed) the benefits to be gained. Yet, it is reasonable to assume that for Putin, losing the war with Ukraine is a non-option. He has claimed Ukraine is an indivisible part of the Russian identity and territory. In addition, with two-thirds of Russia’s entire military forces on the ground, losing a war against what is perceived as a much weaker military would inflict major reputational costs to the Russian Federation and to Putin.

Read more at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

About the author

Francesca Giovannini

Francesca Giovannini is the executive director of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs. In addition, she is a non-residential fellow at the Centre for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. Giovannini served as Strategy and Policy Officer to the Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), based in Vienna. Prior to her international appointment, Ms. Giovannini served for five years at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston as director of the Research Program on Global Security and International Affairs.

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