n Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine, could he conduct a nuclear strike on a Ukrainian city? Unfortunately, but unquestionably, the answer is: yes. As CIA director William Burns said last week directly when asked this question: “…none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to … nuclear weapons.” As Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy told CNN in an interview aired last Saturday: “We shouldn’t wait for the moment when Russia decides to use nuclear weapons … For [Putin], life of the people is nothing.”
Russia certainly has an arsenal of nuclear-tipped Iskander missiles that could deliver a tactical nuclear warhead with a yield of 10-15 kilotons to targets within a range of 300 miles. 15 kilotons is roughly the size of the blast of the atomic bombs the United States dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II.
Will Putin order a nuclear strike on a Ukrainian city? I’m betting not. But the reason I remain hopeful is that I’m expecting that the combination of Russian success in the battle that is shaping up in the Donbas, on the one hand, and increasing pain caused by the U.S.-led and continually tightening noose around Russia’s economy and society, on the other, will lead to a stalemate where both Russia and Ukraine will settle for a ceasefire. This could include a negotiated agreement along a line of control—similar to the armistice at the 38th parallel that ended the Korean War in 1953. Or it could be something less formal like the line of contact between Russia-supported separatists in the Donbas and Luhansk, and Kyiv along which there has been sporadic, low-intensity fighting since Russia seized Crimea in 2014.
Additionally, with the West flooding weapons into Ukraine, if Ukraine were to “win” the battle for the Donbas, as many Ukrainians now imagine they could, and indeed if they could push Russian forces entirely out of occupied Ukrainian territory, then what? In this case, my bet about whether Putin goes nuclear flips. To state the central analytic point more clinically: if conditions on the battlefield force Putin to choose between losing and escalating the level of destruction, I’ll give it three-to-one odds that he escalates.