Could a Russian Military Collapse Lead to Nuclear War?
Main Image Credit Rapid retreat: a destroyed tank left behind by Russian forces near the city of Lyman after the Ukrainian army liberated the area. Image: Sipa US / Alamy
Former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has suggested that a Russian defeat in Ukraine could lead to nuclear war. Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has dismissed the idea as nonsense. So what would happen if the Russian army mutinied or collapsed?
There is no exact template for mutiny or the sudden disintegration of an army. The British Army on the Western Front in the First World War never mutinied in spite of huge casualties and poor living conditions, and the Russian army endured even worse on the Eastern Front in the Second World War. In both cases the troops believed in the need to win the war and knew that it was a national effort involving all strata of society. By contrast, the Afghan army did not exactly mutiny in July and August 2021. It just evaporated because the troops no longer believed in the war as the US negotiated a deal with the Taliban behind the back of their own deeply corrupt government.
There may still be some Russian soldiers who believe their president’s myth about Ukraine being a Nazi state, but increasingly they must wonder why they are enduring considerable risk and awful conditions. Is it really for the Russian nation or for the political survival of Vladimir Putin? Furthermore, the hastily recruited and partly trained conscripts will soon experience the delta between their old Soviet-era equipment and the inventiveness with which Ukraine has integrated commercial drones and satellite imagery with precision artillery fire.
There has already been some evidence of near-mutiny. The sudden evacuation of the Kharkiv area in September bore the hallmarks of a rout, with troops abandoning their positions in a hurry and leaving equipment and personal effects behind.
For most of us in the West, a wholesale Russian collapse would be a cause for celebration, heralding a rapid end to the war and an alleviation of some of the economic effects which the conflict has engendered – in particular high energy and food costs. However, in reality, a mutiny would entail a few days of very significant risk.
Imagine the scene as Ukrainian forces suddenly find there is no resistance in front of them as Russian troops retreat in disarray. Like the British Army in August 1918, they can suddenly advance 20 miles instead of 20 yards in a day. A fast advance would test Ukrainian logistics, but within a few days Ukraine would have recovered all the territory lost since 24 February 2022. That is when things start to get difficult.
There may still be some Russian soldiers who believe their president’s myth about Ukraine being a Nazi state, but increasingly they must wonder why they are enduring considerable risk and awful conditions
The Moscow government would doubtless issue an ultimatum that Ukraine must not infringe into areas of Donbas under Russian control before 24 February and, above all, that it must not enter the Crimean Peninsula. Moscow would make plain its willingness to use nuclear weapons to protect its territorial integrity.
President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany would send urgent messages to President Volodymyr Zelensky not to go beyond the 24 February line. The UK might take a more robust line encouraging Zelensky to retake all of Donbas but to pause before crossing into Crimea pending consultation among NATO and G7 allies. US President Joe Biden would probably lean more towards the latter position, conscious that Crimea is a much more sensitive issue, the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and traditionally under Russian control until a somewhat whimsical decision by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 ceded it to Ukraine (which was anyway part of the Soviet Union at the time).
How would Zelensky react? The probability is that he would give his troops a tight deadline by which to secure both Donbas and Crimea. He would plead to Paris and Berlin the need for a day or two to halt the forward momentum of his army while stressing the importance of protecting the citizens of Donbas and Crimea from war crimes inflicted by the retreating Russian soldiery. He might calculate that he could turn a Nelsonian blind eye to Western blandishments for 72 or 96 hours at the most. He would also assure Russia that there would be no incursions into pre-2014 Russian territory, while reserving the right to return artillery fire across the national border.
Meanwhile, Ukraine would have taken tens of thousands of Russian prisoners. Again, there would be French and German pleas to release them at once and allow them to escape home. But Zelensky would have two countervailing thoughts. Firstly, the prisoners would doubtless include some war criminals. This would argue for them being moved into central Ukraine and formally processed over a period of months. They might also include officers with access to important intelligence about Russian capabilities, some of whom might be willing to defect. Secondly, the prisoners would be an important equity for any future peace agreement. There would be some similarity here to how India retained 93,000 Pakistani troops for eight months after the collapse of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971 until after the Simla Agreement was signed the following year.
The detonation of a nuclear device over the Black Sea or over central Ukraine as a warning shot to stop the Ukrainian advance might even be at the lower end of the spectrum of options presented to a Russian leadership in disarray
Moscow would be in turmoil following the mutiny and the loss of so much territory. Putin would doubtless blame and sack Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Army Chief Valery Gerasimov, but his own fingerprints are too firmly on the war to avoid some consequences. This might be the moment when Alexander Bortnikov (Director of the FSB) or Nikolai Patrushev (a previous FSB Director) makes a move to supplant Putin. The strong probability is that any new leader would be from the same ex-KGB stable as Putin and equally or even more hawkish.
Medvedev is right that no nuclear-armed country has ever lost a war of national survival. This would be new territory for the whole world, and it would be a high-risk moment. Furthermore, a power struggle in Moscow would raise questions about the command authority over the Russian nuclear arsenal. In the words of a former senior UK defence official, ‘Mutiny would by definition destroy the reliability of the chain of command’.
This is when bad or even disastrous decisions could be made. The detonation of a nuclear device over the Black Sea or over central Ukraine as a warning shot to stop the Ukrainian advance might even be at the lower end of the spectrum of options presented to a Russian leadership in disarray. A new nationalist leader in Moscow might argue that NATO countries had enabled the Ukrainian success and should therefore be regarded as targets.
None of this is an argument for not pushing Russia out of Ukraine, but it is a prompt for Western leaders to communicate their intentions to Moscow with absolute clarity. Fundamental would be an assurance to the Russian government and people that their pre-2014 territorial integrity is not at any risk. It would also be important for all Western allies to agree that Crimea still belongs to Ukraine and that Russia’s Black Sea Fleet would remain the property of Russia so long as it offered no resistance following Ukraine’s recapture of Crimea. Its future basing rights would be a matter for a subsequent peace conference.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Tim Willasey-Wilsey CMG
Senior Associate Fellow
- Paraic WalkerInterim Media Relations Manager+44 (0)7917 373 069ParaicW@rusi.org