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Would Putin Start a Nuclear War if Ukraine Invaded Crimea?

Ukraine
2S19 Msta S of the Ukrainian Army.

What is the red line which, if crossed, would push Russian President Vladimir Putin to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine? An attack on Russia by Ukrainians using Western-supplied munitions could be just such an event. Ukraine invading Crimea could also lead to a nuclear crisis.

Let’s take a look at just that last scenario and ask whether a Ukrainian move into Crimea would push Russia to use weapons of mass destruction.

Ukraine’s Crimea Attacks

Crimea had not seen a high level of fighting until Aug. 9, when Ukrainian special operations forces attacked a Russian military air base near Novofedorivka. Two airbases and an ammunition dump were targeted with heavy explosives.

On Oct. 8, another blast hit the region. This time it is believed that a truck bomb set up by Ukrainian fighters exploded on the 12-mile Kerch Strait Bridge, which connects Crimea to Russia and serves as a supply line for the Russian military. The bomb destroyed a part of the bridge and caused it to collapse, while setting fire to tanker cars on the rail line. Putin was furious and called it a terrorist act. He promptly ordered bombardment of Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.

While Ukraine calls for Russia to vacate all the Ukrainian lands that it has occupied, taking back Crimea would be a risky and costly affair for Kyiv. In mid-November, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said in a press conference that he did not think Ukraine could fully re-take lands annexed by Russia in the near future. The probability for such a decisive operation is “not high,” Milley stated. It is also worth noting that the Kremlin has said a deployment of NATO troops to Crimea would trigger a nuclear attack by Russia. 

Airborne, Amphibious, or Armor Land Invasion 

A Ukrainian attack against Crimea would be difficult due to the logistics of getting troops there. Ukraine would probably need to carry out an airborne operation to send paratroopers into Crimea. Alternately it could conduct an air assault, carrying troops in by helicopter. That would require assets that Ukraine does not have, according to retired Australian Army Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan, speaking in an interview with Defense One. Ryan said the Ukrainians don’t have the type of force posture needed for an amphibious operation, nor do they possess the needed number of amphibious vehicles. 

Such an attack would also have to account for Russian surface fleet vessels and submarines that operate out of Sevastopol and would foil a Ukrainian beach landing. The Ukrainians would need to cover an amphibious attack with ample air strikes from fighters, bombers, and drones. They would also need naval bombardment to support the landing. Ukraine simply does not have the forces to make it work.

The only other option for Ukraine would be a land invasion over the three-mile-wide Isthmus of Perekop. This would require a high level of Ukrainian shelling from conventional artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems. Ukraine could probably make the initial attack work, but it would require a massive number of tanks and armored personnel carriers to dart into Crimea. Then the Ukrainians would have to hold the territory that they retake.

This would not be easy.

The Reality of Nuclear Options

Despite these drawbacks, Ukraine could still try to attack Crimea – if nothing else, to test the resolve of Russian forces. There could be border clashes and artillery exchanges in the area this winter.

Would Putin then use a tactical nuclear weapon to stop the Ukrainians? This would, of course, damage lands that Moscow considers to be part of Russia. A nuclear weapon could kill pro-Russian civilians, and the fallout could incapacitate Russian troops and Russian-speaking residents. Russian forces would need to be supplied with nuclear, chemical, and biological gear, and it is not clear that Russia has enough of this to supply all of its forces. 

It is plausible that Putin could do the unthinkable and use a low-yield device to stop an invasion of Crimea. But a Ukrainian attack on Crimea would be complicated for Zelensky’s army and navy, and Russia might be able to thwart it without resorting to its nuclear weapons.

It is still useful to examine every scenario since both sides hold Crimea in such esteem as a decisive strategic point of focus.  

Expert Biography: Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. 403Forbidden

    November 29, 2022 at 6:21 pm

    Russia needs to remind world, no, whole bloody humanity, the lesson taught by US in 1945.

    In august 1945, truman, in his own true fashion (“god is with us, is on our side”) gave the green light to nuke 2 japanese cities.

    Hiroshima and nagasaki were two cities largely spared the merciless b-29 firebombing raids in late ww2 but hit by world’s first guinea pig nukes in a US bid to show off its newly acquired power.

    To win, one must use the power (given by god of heaven) even if the victim is already on his knees and near collapse.

    That was the mantra imposed by great teacher US in 1945.

    Today, in 2022, russia is being cornered by fascismo forces possessing unprecedented power.

    The enemy, far from being on his knees, is receiving all kinds of latest weapinry.

    Russia must use nukes. As a reminder to us of what washington taught humanity in 1945. To win, ONE MUST USE the power.

  2. 403Forbidden

    November 29, 2022 at 6:54 pm

    US today is the KING of fascismo forces. The leader of global fascism, the global force destined to impose the grand fascismo dream of a one-world government, or one-world order.

    A one-world puree, a one-world worship of woke existence and establishing a one-world US-is-god-on-earth body politik.

    Today, with unprecedented global economic control, unrivalled global influence, a truly globalized war machine and a globalized media footprint, US wants to impose itself on the rest of humanity. All other choices or alternatives are verboten.

    That, in the briefest of brief definitions, is what defines or marks US as the true king of global fascismo forces.

    Today, mankind must STAND UP and reject such imposed artificial will, or ersatz made-in-babylon-on-the-potomac fascismo belief.

    In a couple of years’ time the US will give itself even more humongously great great power, power hitler and tojo and mussolini could only dare to think of in their dreams.

    Soon, US will acquire its long sought hypersonic arsenals and like a natural-born fascismo power, deploy them overseas.

    Deploying them right next to the front door and front window and even the front bedroom of rival nations.

    Global fascismo forces will never have to look back. It’s a guarantee unprecedented power comes with unprecedented control. Be in the know.Today.

  3. pagar

    November 29, 2022 at 7:31 pm

    Many enlightened humans simply fail to connect or view neoconized democracy or fascismo democracy as an existential threat or very extremely dire fascismo threat to human civilization.

    Some instead even actually connect trumpism to a home grown fascismo belief even though trump wanted to end all forever wars, wanted to leave syria, derided NATO and rejected article five and the prospect of welcoming ww3.

    Today, the first preacher of neoconized democracy or fascimo democracy denounces half his citizenry as a threat, calls putin ‘killer’ and threatens war and economic blockade against rivals while refusing to arrest his long time benefactor who also incidentally shares his dream of total globalist conquest.

    In a nutshell, neoconized democracy is just another name for global fascismo-ism.

    When a leader publicly and loudly praises his democracy, just inspect or check his prisons, the prison conditions and jailhouses.

    You will quickly conclude he’s either the greatest snake oil salesman on Earth or the biggest fascismo leader ever or both.

  4. Steve

    November 29, 2022 at 7:37 pm

    Russia can’t win a conventional war but some apparently think nuclear bluster will save it from defeat? Not likely.

  5. YS

    November 29, 2022 at 8:07 pm

    No need to when UAF losses are in thousands every day. Factor in civilian lives lost (and will be lost) due to electrical/water/heat infrastructure failure.

    Ukrainian forces doing it first is more likely than Russian, same as in case of “Nord Stream 2” destruction IMO.

    “assume nothing question everything”

  6. Jim

    November 29, 2022 at 8:27 pm

    Who let this guy out of the insane asylum?

    I forgot… they let inmates have computers.

  7. Dave Nelson

    November 29, 2022 at 9:20 pm

    If the Ukrainians could drive a wedge south from Zaporizhzhah to the Sea of Azov it would bring the Kerch bridge into HIMARS range. Take that out and Crimea is cut off. No need for an invasion… Crimea has no water, no more food, no more ammo.

  8. Jimmyf40

    November 29, 2022 at 9:32 pm

    Russia and vladimir putin must be on guard against two globalist powers chasing after hugely massive globalist dreams of global conquest.

    On one hand is the USA led by biden now actively pursuing global supremacy and global conquest via full-court press political and military means.

    On the other end, china which now under xi jinping, is dreaming of world domination via trade and economic control and brazen bribery for winning mega projects in the so-called BRI global initiative.

    Thus russia and putin must ally closer with iran, north korea, cuba and india.

    Moscow could exchange ICBM tech, poseidon underwater drone tech, avangard glider tech and nuclear tech with those truly independent countries which have no desire for global conquest.

    The whole world stands on the brink of making history. On the brink of destiny for wresting control of mankind away from the grasp of unholy global moguls or global devils. From biden and xi.

  9. Goran

    November 29, 2022 at 11:26 pm

    Ukraine should not use force to liberate Crimea nor the city of Donetsk; taking Melitopol should be the last Ukrainian counteroffensive, while the rest can be transferred back to Ukraine over the next decade or so in exchange for lifting sanctions imposed on Russia.

  10. Jiri Novacek

    November 30, 2022 at 3:52 am

    Putin and others in russian leadership have wives, children, lovers, billions in property etc. in the west, and they were always most interested in personal well being. Will they nuke own children or wife? No. Will the russian generals committ suicide by using nukes, when they very well know that russia started the war and no russia proper is threatened? No. Should Biden administration continue to be so cowed? No.

    BTW. there are russian trolls active in discussions on this site.

  11. Leidsegracht

    November 30, 2022 at 9:40 am

    Exactly right Dave, but let me add some strategic color. For Ukraine to be a successful/viable/robust economy it needs two things: access to the sea and the mineral wealth of the Donbas.

    Access to the sea (Odessa, Chronomorsk and Kherson) allows them to export ag commodities which are a primary source of foreign currency, while the mineral wealth and industrial capacity of the Donbas gives them heavy industrial capacity which will now be crucial to rebuilding.

  12. Fred Adams

    November 30, 2022 at 12:08 pm

    At the end of WWII, Japan was being burned down by strategic air attacks. Civilian death rates were appalling, but Japanese authorities refused to concede. The US used two atomic bombs in the hope that the “shock and awe” thus produced would force a change in the existing situation. That succeeded and Japan surrendered, at the cost of two cities. Horrendous, but the argument is that it was kinder to Japan than continuing the conventional attacks, which would ultimately have destroyed the entirety of the country.

    This, after a virulently aggressive Japan started and prosecuted a war against the US and East Asia. Japan was in the wrong, a real villain, and most would see the use of atomics against them in the circumstance as justified.

    Russia invaded the Ukraine, bringing destruction and havoc to a peaceful neighbor. Russia’s justification of this immoral act is a ridiculous screen for naked Russian imperialist aggression. One can only laugh at Putin’s inane excuses for his “special military action”, which, unprovoked, is tantamount to murder of peaceful civilians. Ukraine only seeks to maintain itself and exist peacefully. Russia’s actions stink to high heaven.

    The world will raze Russia if it uses nukes. The moral equation demands it.

  13. roger colman

    November 30, 2022 at 4:42 pm

    The author displayed none of a PHd’s intelligence in writing this article. The Kherson lesson is applicable to Crimea, and that is what he studiously ignored. It doesn’t take much to siege Crimea.
    For the pro Russian trolls here , the breakup of your empire is so good after centuries of evil. Russia has contributed so little to the advancement of civilization. Its irrelevant. You have lost the Stan’s (Kazakhstan now under Chinese security guarantee) Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and soon Belarus.

  14. Gary Jacobs

    November 30, 2022 at 5:10 pm

    Pagar, 403forgotten, et.al

    LoL, this article sure did bring out the Putinista troll farm in full force.

    You are projecting Putin’s Russian fascism onto others again. Nobody is buying the BS you are selling any more. Just an FYI. It is good for a few laughs when you spew it though.

    As well. This author fails to take into account that HIMARS fired GMLRS can already reach the north western edge of Crimea..and Ukraine will continue to decimate Russian forces east of the Dnipro that remain in HIMARS range. At some point they will realize their positions in South East Kherson are just as unsurvivable as they were in the north west of Kherson.

    And in the last couple days comes the news that the US will likely provide Ukraine with the Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb [GLSDB].

    GLSDB will give Ukraine a readily available weapon that can more than double its precision strike range capability to 150km, compared to the current MLRS/HIMARS at 70km. At the same time, it still lacks the punch and the range of ATACMS, making it politically more viable.

    It also can be fired from HIMARS and M270s that Ukraine already has. And to make them it’s as simple as tapping into existing rocket motors and SDB stocks…then assembling the two pieces together. There are literally thousands of GLSDBs ready to be made.

    Proof of concept test firing has already taken place.

    Just as significantly, its range would increase the options for Ukraine to hit DEEP into Crimea, and well into the Russian rear in the east and south of Ukraine. The way the lines are right now, almost no Russian in Ukraine would be safe from the GLSDB.

    My favorite part is that they do not follow a pure ballistic trajectory. They can be fired and redirected in just about any way, even coming in behind mountains from the other side. That makes counter battery fire nearly impossible so the launch systems are that much more survivable. It’s quite a weapon.

    As well cost of the GLSDB is an attractive factor, with a single GLSDB priced at around $50,000. In contrast, a Guided MLRS round costs approximately $150,000 or more.

    The SDB portion of the weapon has the added value that it was developed for the kinds of low intensity warfare that we’d been fighting in the MidEast and Afghanistan in the previous two decades so there’s a strong argument that these munitions would be better served being converted to GLSDB for use in Ukraine anyway as they wont be used against an actual high end adversary like China.

    Have a liberating day.

  15. Ben Leucking

    November 30, 2022 at 7:37 pm

    Well said, sir. The three-mile-wide Isthmus of Perekop, which connects Crimea to the Ukraine mainland, is a strategic choke point that controls the fate of Russian forces in the Donbas. Destroying Russian logistical capability by cutting off the Isthmus will starve the Russian military of supplies, ammo and heavy weapons systems, rendering their occupation of the Donbas unviable. Once Ukraine has moved its forces closer to the Isthmus it can continue the strangulation by destroying the Kerch Strait bridge. From a strategic standpoint, Russian forces are on borrowed time and Russia knows it.

  16. Johnny Ray

    November 30, 2022 at 8:10 pm

    Sevastapol is the prize and in particular the naval base. A concentrated guided missile attack on that location, plus all the land, air and sea resources (however limited) that are available to Ukraine could swing a win at Sevastopol. That would break the Russians will to fight (such that it is) and they would be ready to run, talk turkey or both. Leave the Kerch Bridge alone as an escape route.
    Sevastopol: I think a thousand cruise missiles would turn it for Ukraine.

  17. Rumen

    December 1, 2022 at 1:20 am

    If America can use nukes for attack 3 times already in history I don’t see why you say Russia can not use it for defense.

    NATO loose the war – fact (Scott Ritter said that very clear and he is top specialist). I don’t think Russia will use nukes first. NATO will. And I’m sure it will be a US / UK kind of provocation. But this conflict will finish as nuclear war for sure.

    Let’s be honest. The war was started by CIA before 2014. The US financial minister Paul Craig Roberts said US paid 5 billion USD to prepare that conflicts in Ukraine 2014 (Crimea and Kiev) and George Friedman said in 2015 that USA “is terrified by possible economic union between Russia with it’s resources and Germany with it’s technologies, so USA need a war in Ukraine to weaker Russia and – yes we can not win that war, but that’s not our target, just to hurt Russia and we hope Germany will support us to create a line from Black sea to Baltic sea” the man was clear. So please stop the stupid propaganda and be more precise with the analysis.

  18. Ben

    December 1, 2022 at 7:48 am

    If you are afraid of a nuclear war you are more likely to get one…

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