Far from being a lunatic about to use the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be being “cautious” in his recent actions in the Ukraine war. Not out of ethics or benevolence, but because Putin seems to be afraid of the military capacity of NATO (Western military alliance), of an eventual turnaround in public opinion in Russia and of the country being “swallowed” by the Chinese economy.
The most recent indication of this caution was Russia’s response to the explosions at the Russian air base in Saky, Crimea. The Russian military installation was devastated by detonations on Tuesday (9). They ended up with ammunition and fuel stores, would have left at least 60 dead and destroyed eight fighter planes – the largest number of Russian fighters liquidated at once since the start of the war.
Ukraine has publicly denied responsibility. But American newspapers, including the New York Times, published interviews with Ukrainian officials claiming that the explosions would have been the result of a Ukrainian attack.
This possibility was reinforced by Western analysts who evaluated satellite images of the base, provided by the North American company Planet Labs. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank told the BBC that two buildings used to store munitions may have been attacked with the aim of causing as much damage as possible to fighter planes stored outside hangars.
After the information leaks to the New York Times, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reprimanded his officers and advised them not to give information to the press about war tactics.
Thus, do not be knows what kind of weapons could have been used in the alleged attack. The closest Ukrainian military position to Saky is 160 kilometers away – and the most powerful missiles and rockets the Ukrainians have, designed for attacks against ground targets, have range maximum of 80 kilometers.
An eventual bombing could also have been carried out by Ukrainian fighter planes or helicopters. But this scenario is unlikely, because the base had strong anti-aircraft defenses.
One of the hypotheses that has been gaining strength is that the Ukrainians have adapted national Neptune anti-ship missiles to attack land targets. They have a range of 280 kilometers.
The second possibility is that commando teams (highly trained light infantry forces) have invaded the base with of partisans (Ukrainian resistance guerrillas) and dynamited the ammunition dumps.
Despite these speculations, Russia’s reaction was to claim that the explosions were not caused by a Ukrainian attack, but by an accident . Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov stated: “I think that the Russian soldiers at this base flouted the most basic rule: no smoking in dangerous places.”
In other words, Moscow played down the event and also any casualties – initially saying that only one person died. The conduct was the same adopted in April, when Ukraine attacked and sank the flagship of the Russian navy in the Black Sea, the cruiser Moscow.
The vessel was located through intelligence information provided by the Western powers and destroyed by a likely combination of drone strikes and Neptune missiles.
But the Kremlin attributed the loss of the ship to an accidental fire at an ammunition depot. The Russian response was given through a series of precision attacks on Ukrainian military installations in Kyiv, such as fuel and ammunition depots and factories for armored vehicles and missiles.
But why does Moscow not respond to the How high are your military losses?
In general terms, Russian military doctrine authorizes retaliation with the use of nuclear weapons in the event of an attack on national territory, according to the American think tank ISW. Institute for the Study of War). Crimea was annexed to Russia in 2014 in a referendum that was not recognized by the international community.
But a massive Russian retaliation for the explosions at the Saky base it could also provoke a reaction of great intensity from NATO. It could happen through increased military aid to Ukraine, the provision of more powerful attack equipment – such as fighter planes, for example – or it could even mean NATO’s entry into the confrontation through the implementation of a no-fly zone.
Putin seems to be trying to avoid any of these scenarios. This is because the current scale of the war has allowed Russia to conquer territory little by little, but in a systematic way. In other words, Moscow is fighting a war of attrition, in which the superiority of its artillery has conquered city after city in eastern Ukraine.
But the Kremlin can use nuclear weapons, right?
In theory, yes. But this could provoke a NATO nuclear response and a consequent limitless escalation of the conflict.
Or even: if Moscow were to detonate a small tactical nuclear bomb (with a tenth of the power of the Hiroshima bomb) , for example), the most likely scenario would be a major non-nuclear retaliation by NATO. According to Western analysts, Russia is not in a position to win the Western alliance in a conventional war.
In addition, an escalation in the intensity of Ukraine’s war would require the Kremlin to mobilize more troops and equipment. For the time being, the need for additional troops, arising from battlefield casualties, has been largely supplied by the private military company Wagner Group.
But if Russia needed to significantly increase its offensive power, would need to declare national mobilization for that. Even with all the apparatus of repression and media control, the massive recruitment of Russian soldiers could undermine Putin’s high popularity ratings.
In other words, Ukraine is fighting an absolute war for the survival of Russia. nation. In other words, a war in which all the efforts of the State and the people are aimed at conflict. A war without limits.
Russia, on the other hand, sees the action in Ukraine as a conflict that has great strategic importance, but which for the time being has no potential to determine Russia’s destiny. Among other reasons, this is why Putin calls the war a “special military operation”.
The United States and its European allies are also not interested in entering an absolute war and, like Putin, fear an escalation of the conflict. Perhaps that is why, for fear of losing support, the Zelensky government did not openly sing victory over the alleged attack on Saky.
Is China a salvation or a threat to Russia?
Another fear that influences Russian thinking regarding the war in Ukraine is China’s role in the economic sphere of the conflict.
Putin and Chinese dictator Xi Jinping signed in February 4, before the war, an “unlimited partnership” – which was interpreted by Western analysts as a momentary pact against hostility from the United States and its allies.
In the short term, Beijing became a major supplier of products and buyer of energy from Moscow – replacing European trading partners that adhered to international sanctions led by the United States and aimed at isolating the Russian economy.
To give you an idea, the Russian oil and natural gas sales to China reached 8.4 million tonnes in May – 55% more than in the same period of the previous year, according to the General Administration of Customs of China. Thus, Russia displaced Saudi Arabia (7.8 million tons) as the largest supplier of hydrocarbons to China.
But economic salvation comes at a price. As time passes and sanctions continue, Russia will have to accept unfavorable conditions in trade negotiations with China, according to an article by analyst Alexander Gabuev, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, published in the journal Foreign Affairs.
According to the researcher, in the diplomatic field, China can force Moscow to give up defense partnerships with India and Vietnam, in addition to supporting Beijing in its demands on Taiwan and the maritime region. south of China. The Kremlin will also have to negotiate and build up financial reserves based on Chinese currency.
In the field of armaments, China could benefit from the purchase of Russian technology. In exporting heavy machinery, the Chinese should try to replace the Germans as major suppliers to Russia.
In this process, Xi Jinping will have to worry about avoiding US sanctions on account of aid to Moscow. But it cannot force its new partner to the point of weakening Putin’s government too much – because the fall of the Russian and his replacement by a leader less hostile to the West could harm Chinese interests.
That is, Moscow must receive the economic support it needs to continue fighting in Ukraine. But if it doesn’t know how to deal with the Chinese, in the long run Russia could lose a lot of its strategic autonomy – becoming a kind of “junior partner” of China, whose economy can surpass the American one by 2030. This dependence is another fear that has spurred Putin to exercise caution.
Threat of nuclear catastrophe
The Russian Armed Forces have the capacity to hit virtually any target in Ukraine from a distance. Until now, despite all the destruction caused, they have been sparing centers of high population concentration, such as the capital Kyiv.
But the cautious attitude in the war strategy as a whole is not happening in relation to to the Enerhodar nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzia, southern Ukraine.
The biggest nuclear power plant in Europe was taken over by the Russians on March 4th. At the time, Russian troops bombed and set a fire in part of the plant – which did not result in radiation leakage. At the time, the Kremlin tried to blame Ukraine for the fire.
In recent days, the plant has been bombed again, on the 6th and of August. According to the Ukrainians, Russia has positioned artillery pieces between the nuclear reactors. The objective is to fire on nearby Ukrainian positions without risking retaliatory fire.
The Ukrainians have been trying to hit the Russians outside the plant as soldiers enter and exit the complex in shift changes.
Russia, on the other hand, accuses Ukrainian troops of being responsible for the attacks on the plant. Kyiv, in turn, says that it would never bomb nuclear facilities, as a radiation leak would endanger its population and contaminate the country’s territory for decades.
It is not possible to independently verify who were responsible for the recent bombings. But this is the first time that a nuclear power plant has been the scene of a high intensity war.
An artillery fire that hits a critical structure of the plant can result in two scenarios. At worst, the destruction of a nuclear reactor’s core cooling systems could lead to its meltdown and explosion. In that case, a radiation cloud comparable to those of the Chernobyl disasters in 1986 or Fukushima in 2011 could reach not only Ukraine , but Russia or European countries, depending on wind conditions.
The other possible scenario would be a more limited radiation leak, but which could also affect Ukraine and neighboring countries. In both cases, the number of victims would be counted in the thousands, large areas would be uninhabitable for decades and the environmental damage would be of catastrophic magnitude.
The UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been calling for fighting in the region to cease immediately and for Russia to allow international technicians access to the plant and create a demilitarized zone around it. Ukraine has supported international calls for the entire area to be excluded from the conflict zone, but all these calls for the time being have not been heeded.