June 27, 2023 - 3:30pm

A Russian nuclear strike is “likely to happen” if Putin comes to believe that he will lose the Ukraine war, according to a retired US brigadier-general. Speaking to UnHerd’s Freddie Sayers, General Kevin Ryan claimed that if Ukraine were to retake territory in the Crimea such as Zaporizhzhia, Kherson and Donetsk, Putin “would ask his military to increase the violence”, which could entail the use of nuclear weapons. In the wake of last weekend’s Wagner mutiny, the stakes may now be even higher.

In an interview conducted on 15th June, before the revolt, Ryan assessed Putin as “either a bully or a bluffer,” continued Ryan. “I don’t believe he’s a bluffer. I think he does bully other nations.” One indicator that the Russian leader will carry through on his destructive ambitions, the former US general said, is the “recent change of command of the operation in Ukraine”, with the Russian leader cycling through numerous generals and commanding officers over the course of the conflict.

Particularly noteworthy is the beleaguered Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, given that the incumbent in that position has not headed up a military operation for the country since the Second World War. According to Ryan, Gerasimov, along with the heads of the Ground Forces and Air Force, “control the use of tactical nuclear weapons once an authority has been given by Putin to use them”. 

Another ominous sign is the Kremlin’s movement of nuclear weaponry into Belarus earlier this month. For Ryan, this is “a very visible sign that Putin and his inner circle see these weapons as something that might be needed, something that might be used.” What’s more, “Russia is not a rich country, and they don’t have a lot of money to spend on bluffs and fakes and feints.”

Even in the face of increased Russian aggression, however, Ryan does not believe that Kyiv’s wartime strategy will be significantly dented. “I don’t think Ukraine will stop fighting when a nuclear weapon is finally used,” he claimed. “I think for the first time in history we will have a nuclear battlefield where conventional fighting continues, while nuclear weapons have either been used or might still be used in a war.” Nuclear strikes from Moscow could target the contested Crimean territories, but equally could impact major Ukrainian cities such as Kyiv.  

When asked whether radiation could spread across Europe and have a fatal effect far beyond the boundaries of the conflict, Ryan was more sanguine. “It is not Armageddon,” he clarified. “People will not be dying of nuclear radiation hundreds of miles away. They won’t be dying of nuclear radiation tens of miles from the actual target, if this is a tactical nuclear weapon.” 

On the much-debated question of responsibility for the Kakhovka dam and Nord Stream 2 attacks, Ryan argued that the former was most likely a Russian operation “because they have mined the dam. They’ve controlled it since early in the war. So they were in the best position to do this and they benefit from it by closing off an area to the Ukrainian military.” On Nord Stream, he conceded that it was “very credible” that the Ukrainians executed the sabotage, as suggested by former US presidential advisor Fiona Hill in UnHerd earlier this year. Indeed, the retired general said, “Ukraine would benefit to some degree by closing off Russian oil supplies into Germany.”

It is against this backdrop of secret operations and frenzied finger-pointing that the possibility of nuclear warfare becomes ever more feasible. Ryan, though, is careful not to exacerbate the tensions between Russia and the West. The US “has been pretty clear with Russia that we will not respond with a nuclear weapon,” he said.

Read Kevin Ryan’s piece for UnHerd, “Why Putin will use nuclear weapons”, here.