Defcon Watch: Red lines and warning signs
Russia could use EMP weapon to signal worse
Call it flashing a little nuclear leg.
The more the situation in Ukraine worsens for Russian forces, the more desperate the Kremlin will become—and the greater the desperation, the greater the possibility that Putin will order the use of a tactical WMD, whether chemical or even nuclear, to settle accounts with Kyiv once and for all. There are three factors at play here:
The Kremlin’s own recently expanded nuclear doctrine, that: “Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, and in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation using conventional weapons which threatens the existence of the state itself.” This could include Western economic sanctions if they go so far as to threaten his cadre’s power and Putin decides to tie their survival to the survival of the state and the country as a whole—as in, without him, without the siloviki, there is no Russia. The doc further goes on to describe “Russia’s definition of nuclear deterrence as signaling to adversaries ‘the inevitability of retaliation in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation and/or its allies.’” (NATO just upped the ante by pouring “billions of dollars worth of arms…” into Ukraine, “including for the first time, offensive arms,” while Russia has sent a formal letter warning the United States to stop arming the Ukrainians, citing “unpredictable consequences.”)
That the Kremlin’s own warnings to NATO and the United States employ language identical to that used in the offical documents outlining its nuclear deterrence policy.
And that Russia’s primary tactical nuclear delivery system, the Iskander-M variable ballistic/cruise missile, has proven deadly accurate after heavy use at the start of the war, with over 200 fired as of the end of March. While a nuclear-capable Russian TU-160 Blackjack strategic bomber recently buzzed the Ukrainian border in an ominous warning to Ukraine and NATO, it is more likely that the Iskander would be the delivery system of choice for any tactical nuclear strike.
But before we even get there, it is very possible that Russia could flash us that leg—in the form of an electromagnetic pulse strike with a non-nuclear EMP warhead that the Iskander is also very capable of putting on target, likely Kyiv, blacking out all immediate communications, electricity, and digital circuitry within a seven-mile radius, not to mention the knock-on ripple effect if that includes a power-grid or other key civil infrastructure. A penultimate escalation on the way to what would come next in the toxic strategic stew of the current status quo.
Alex Holstein is the co-author of Warfighter: The Story of an American Fighting Man, due out May 15, 2022, from Lyons Press. He holds an MSc in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies from the London School of Economics, where he wrote his thesis on the Soviet KGB.