Make no mistake: the war in Ukraine has just moved into dangerous gear. Rather than turning into the frozen conflict that could have tested the West’s stamina, Ukraine’s recent major counter-offensive has so humiliated Putin that there is every expectation that he will now play even uglier than he already has.
Ukraine’s success was textbook deception. As with the D-Day landings where Calais was the outspoken target – weakening Hitler’s defenses in Normandy, where the invasion then took place – President Zelensky made great fanfare of a counter-offensive east of Odessa, only for the main attempt to hundreds of miles to the north, near Kharkov.
The few Russian troops that had not shifted south were easily overwhelmed. They were poorly equipped and low on ammunition and morale, but they soon abandoned their positions.
For Ukraine to pull off such a comprehensive land grab and take them to the Russian border is arguably Putin’s biggest setback yet, and has fueled a sense of optimism that Ukraine could indeed win.
But it would be irresponsible to assume that this turning point in the war will spell the clear demise of Russia.
This is Putin’s war and part of a much broader strategy to re-impose Russian influence in Eastern Europe.
Putin cannot afford to lose. He may have misjudged Ukraine’s heroic efforts to stay on course and fight, but he bet on the West’s unwillingness to get directly involved.
We should anticipate that Putin will further advance his unconventional war tactics (along with military attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure) to compensate for the poor performance of his conventional forces. Expect more interruptions to remaining oil and gas flows and delays in grain departures to cause more economic hardship as winter approaches.
More disturbing is his threatening use of weapons of mass destruction – chemical, biological or tactical nuclear weapons. These are lines that we should not assume he will not cross, but if he does, what will be the reaction of the West?
Whether by accident or by design, there is also the possibility that Ukraine’s nuclear power plants could be turned into improvised nuclear weapons.
The West can pour money into the food and fuel crisis to alleviate problems in homelands and less developed countries, but not the nuclear conundrum.
Money will not stop Zaporizhzya, the largest Ukrainian nuclear facility, potentially blowing up and spreading radioactive contamination across Europe, if that’s what Putin wants to wage this war with. Just this week, Russian forces carried out a rocket attack that narrowly missed a nuclear power plant in Pivdennoukrainsk, southern Ukraine.
As this conflict enters a more dangerous chapter, we need to show more confidence in determining the nature of this conflict rather than reacting to events as we have done so far.
If we want to avoid a major disaster, we need to be much more proactive in establishing and defending precedents for modern nuclear warfare before it’s too late.
Both the IAEA and the UN are calling for a demilitarized zone to shut down Zaporizhzhya and other nuclear power plants. This must now be pursued. The situation in Zaporizhzhya is untenable and has the potential to cause the most devastating nuclear accident in history, worse than Chernobyl.
If a missile strike resulted in a radiation plume drifting westward, there would be serious criticism as to why more was not done to prevent it.
So first we need a no-fly zone around the factory. The UN could deploy air defense systems to enforce it. There could be an anti-missile system to prevent missiles from hitting the reactors.
Ukraine’s state emergency services want to set up a radiation detection system across the country, and no doubt the Ukrainian military is doing the same to protect their own troops to ensure they don’t accidentally wander into contaminated areas.
Unfortunately, we still lack the confidence or political will to stand up against Putin directly. Opportunities such as sending a NATO division to deter a Russian invasion or taking the initiative through a UN maritime coalition protecting the grain convoys from Odessa were lost. Frankly, they weren’t even considered.
Doing nothing is not an option. Putin is now in a corner; this is arguably when he is at his most dangerous. Ukraine’s recent military success requires us to think more strategically about what happens next. This is far from over and will get worse before the situation improves.
Tobias Ellwood is Conservative MP for Bournemouth East and Chairman of the Defense Select Committee
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE is a former commander of the British and NATO CBRN forces.