World·Analysis

Russian choice between nuclear weapons and leaving Ukraine 'rapidly approaching,' expert says

Western military analysts say Russia's recent strikes are unlikely to change the course of a war going badly for President Vladimir Putin, depleting a dwindling supply of long-range missiles while hitting no major military targets.

Russia is depleting a dwindling supply of missiles as Putin seeks a dramatic change in the war's course

Time for Putin to escalate or withdraw 'rapidly approaching,' military analyst says

4 months ago
Duration 7:44
As Russia begins to lose the ability to conduct military operations on the ground in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin will soon be faced with the decision to escalate the war using weapons of mass destruction, or withdraw from Ukraine, says Nicholas Drummond, a former British army officer and now a defence analyst.

As Russia begins to lose the ability to conduct military operations on the ground in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin will soon be faced with the decision to use weapons of mass destruction or get out of Ukraine, a defence analyst says.

The invasion of Ukraine has reached a turning point where Russia's ability to conduct combat operations might no longer be realistic, given their dwindling weapon stockpiles, Nicholas Drummond, a former British army officer and now a defence analyst, told CBC News.

"Putin will reach a point where he either has to escalate using weapons of mass destruction or to withdraw, and that is the point at which we are rapidly approaching," he said.

Russia's biggest air strikes against Ukraine since the start of the war killed at least 19 people Monday, drove thousands of Ukrainians back into air raid shelters and knocked out electricity in hundreds of towns and villages.

'He needs to do something radical'

The strikes — denounced in the West for deliberately hitting civilian targets — have been hailed by hawks in Moscow as a turning point that demonstrates Russia's resolve in what it calls its "special military operation" in Ukraine.

But Western military analysts say the strikes came at a staggering cost, depleted a dwindling supply of long-range missiles, hit no major military targets and are unlikely to change the course of a war going badly for Moscow.

Putin "has a finite quantity of missiles like the ones he used to attack Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine, and once they're gone, that's it: he's done," Drummond said. "So he needs to do something radical to regain the initiative."

Rescue workers survey the scene of a Russian attack on Kyiv on Monday. Explosions rocked Kyiv early Monday following months of relative calm in the Ukrainian capital. (Adam Schreck/The Associated Press)

Drummond believes Putin is trying to decide what the West will do if he uses a nuclear weapon. The West must not back down while not provoking an escalation, he said.

Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King's College London, said Russia's attacks are a sign of desperation. The country doesn't have enough weapons to keep up the intensity of Monday's attacks, he said, adding that Ukraine has claimed a high success rate of intercepting the missiles.

The attacks on civilians are likely to only harden Ukrainian and Western resolve, he said.

"This is not therefore a new war-winning strategy but a sociopath's tantrum."

Tom Nichols, retired professor at the U.S. Naval War College, said it's all up to Putin how it will end. Unlike Drummond, he doesn't see an end on the near horizon.

"It was his decision to begin the war, and it has to be at this point his decision to end it," he said. "And I don't think there's any chance of that happening any time soon."

Russian hawks gloat

Putin described the strikes as a response to what he called terrorist attacks by Ukraine, including a blast on Sunday that damaged Russia's bridge to Crimea, which it built after annexing the peninsula it seized in 2014.

Hawks in Russia had been demanding for weeks that Putin escalate the conflict, and many of them hailed Monday's attacks.

Margarita Simonyan, head of RT, Russia's state-run overseas media channel, said Moscow had been waiting for the perfect time to demonstrate its strength. Quoting a proverb, she tweeted: "A Russian harnesses his horses slowly but drives them quickly."

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Putin's advisory security council, said Russia would now be able to widen its objectives: "The goal of our future actions, in my view, should be the complete dismantling of the political regime of Ukraine."

"The hardliners now claim to be satisfied," Freedman said. "Their problem is, of course, that none of this wins them the war."

Ukraine says Russia fired 83 cruise missiles on Monday and that it shot down at least 43 of them. Moscow says it fired more than 70 and all its targets were hit. Both sides say the attack was on a huge scale, unseen at least since Russia's initial wave of air strikes on the first night of the war in February.

An injured woman reacts after Russian shelling in Kyiv on Monday. Western military experts say such intense attacks are unsustainable and not a winning war strategy. (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

The Institute for the Study of War said the attacks wasted weapons on civilian targets such as playgrounds instead of militarily significant ones.

"Russian attacks on the Ukrainian energy grid will not likely break Ukraine's will to fight, but Russia's use of its limited supply of precision weapons in this role may deprive Putin of options to disrupt ongoing Ukrainian counter-offensives in Kherson and Luhansk Oblasts," the institute said in an analysis.

$500M US worth of missiles in 1 day

Each Kalibr cruise missile is estimated to cost more than $6.5 million US, meaning Moscow fired around half a billion dollars worth of missiles in a single day.

Western military analysts have no firm figures for how many missiles Russia has left, but for months have pointed to indicators suggesting the supply is limited.

As far back as July, Joseph Dempsey and Douglas Barrie of the International Institute for Strategic Studies noted that Russia was increasingly using anti-ship missiles to strike targets on the ground. This "suggests that Moscow is having to muster its remaining conventionally armed land attack cruise missile resources more carefully," they wrote.

WATCH | Putin's motivation is desperation, experts say:

Setbacks, desperation behind increased Russian attacks: experts

4 months ago
Duration 3:42
Russia says the increase in missile strikes against Ukraine were a response to an attack on a vital Russian bridge in occupied Crimea. But experts say Vladimir Putin's motivations are also linked to setbacks on the battlefield and a desperate gamble to turn things around.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said securing more air defences for Ukraine is his No. 1 priority. Western leaders including U.S. President Joe Biden have promised more systems, though it takes time to deliver them.

Ukraine now relies on Soviet-era air defence systems such as the S-300. Washington promised several months ago to send its sophisticated NASAMS system, but said in late September that delivery was still around two months away.

Stopping all missiles nearly impossible

In practice, military experts say, Ukraine will probably never be able to defend its entire land area — the second largest in Europe after Russia itself — from attacks on scattered low-priority targets.

Air defences, such as the U.S. Patriot missile system, are designed mainly to protect specific, high-priority targets. Others can provide broader protection but over a comparatively small area, such as Israel's vaunted "Iron Dome" system which protects a country around one-twentieth the size of Ukraine.

Destroyed Russian equipment is seen placed in an area at the recaptured town of Lyman, Ukraine, Tuesday. (Francisco Seco/The Associated Press)

"Bottom line: Just like it was difficult to stop Saddam [Hussein] from launching SCUDs, and as much as we want to help Ukraine, it's challenging to completely counter all Putin's war crimes that unfortunately include launching missile strikes against civilian targets," tweeted Mark Hertling, a former commander of U.S. land forces in Europe.

Still, Russia faces the same strategic difficulties it did before Monday's attacks: demoralized and poorly equipped forces spread along a 1,000-kilometre front line, with long supply lines vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks.

Russia's initial advantages, above all the massive firepower of its artillery, allowed it to destroy and capture cities in May-July. But since September, its artillery-heavy forces have proven a poor match for defending occupied territory from mobile and increasingly well-equipped Ukrainian units.

Moscow still lacks control over Ukrainian air space, which would allow for the intensive strikes by jet and helicopter that helped it defeat rebels in Syria and Chechnya.

Ben Hodges, another former commander of U.S. ground forces in Europe, said that despite Monday's attacks, Ukraine still appeared to have "irreversible momentum" on the battlefield.

"Russia's logistics system is exhausted and no Russian wants to fight in Putin's war in Ukraine," he tweeted.

A man walks past a crater by a children's playground.
A man passes past a rocket crater at playground in city park in central Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday. Russia on Monday retaliated for an attack on a critical bridge by unleashing its most widespread strikes against Ukraine in months. (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

With files from John Mazerolle, CBC News Network, The National and Reuters

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