‘Ukraine War Will Escalate to the Use of Nuclear Weapons’: Conflict Expert David Betz

By William J. Furney

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a year old, and there is seemingly no end in sight to the biggest conflict in Europe since World War 2, with over 8,000 civilian deaths, according to verified figures from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and around 80,000 military casualties on both sides, the vast majority of them Russian troops, an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies says. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, buoyed by his soldiers’ successes in repelling the attackers and with overwhelming support from Western nations, has succeeded in getting military hardware including tanks from the United States, Britain and Germany. But so far, no ally has pledged his desired modern fighter jets — what he called “wings for freedom” in a recent speech in London — to replace Ukraine’s outdated Soviet MiG and Sukhoi planes, for fear of being dragged into the conflict. 

Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s gamble that his “special military operation” would be over almost as soon as it began has blown up in his face and left him an pariah on the world stage. Is a rumoured “spring offensive” by Russia in the works, might Putin resort to using his nuclear stockpile to get his way in Ukraine and is he eyeing up invasions of other countries?

To answer these and more questions about the Ukraine war, I asked David Betz, Professor of War in the Modern World at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London for his analysis. 

King’s College London Professor of War in the Modern World David Betz.

With the Ukraine war now in its second year, many military analysts say it will likely drag on for years. Is this your view?

Yes, I think it will continue, because with NATO’s statement that Ukraine will be a member, there is no incentive now for Russia to not take all of it. To do that they need the West to be completely politically and economically exhausted, which I think will require another year or more.

Did you think at the beginning it would all be over quickly, given Russia’s military might and its annexation of Crimea in 2014? 

I thought that Ukraine was going to do the sensible thing and surrender with an agreement to the loss of Crimea, neutrality and recognition of autonomy of Lugansk and Donetsk. We now know that this would likely have occurred if not for the intervention of Boris Johnson, particularly.

What do you think of Putin’s rationale for sending his troops into Ukraine, that it was to “demilitarise and denazify” the country? Especially given that Zelensky is Jewish. 

I take Putin at face value. Yes, Zelensky is Jewish. Yes, his government, Ukrainian society, particularly that of West Ukraine, the armed forces, including a significant fraction of the senior leadership, openly display Nazi iconography, sacralise the fascistic Stepan Bandera, as well as the Galician SS, and one must presume, therefore, are in actuality sympathetic Nazis. 

I think that your question presupposes also that Zelensky matters somehow as an actual head of state. The other possibility is that he is a puppet of the corrupt and powerful Ukrainian oligarchy domestically. I don’t think that Ukraine has much agency in this war anymore. It is NATO vs Russia with Ukraine mostly doing as it is told.

I don’t think that Ukraine has much agency in this war anymore. It is NATO vs Russia with Ukraine mostly doing as it is told.

Professor David Betz

As an expert on the mechanics of war, where do you think Putin and his generals’ strategy has gone wrong?

I don’t think that their strategy has gone wrong. I am pretty sure that they wished for a different result than what we see now, but they are perfectly able to sustain the path they are on now, which is leading either to the attritional defeat of NATO or to an escalation of the war that’ll mean you and I and everyone we know is dead or wishing they were dead. 

Russian casualties have been grossly exaggerated. The Russian economy has been minimally harmed and is looking likely, according to the IMF, to be moving back into growth, while the West is staring down the barrel of a structural recession.   

In a speech last week marking the first anniversary of his “special military operation” in Ukraine, Putin said the West “started the war” — an assertion also made by his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who said at a G20 meeting of foreign ministers in Delhi on March 4 that the conflict was “launched against us using the Ukrainian people”, a claim met with laughter. Why do you think Russia is pushing this obvious falsehood? Is it to shore up support among the domestic audience?

It is not a falsehood — that is the point. The West was warned back in the 1990s by a range of strategic authorities including Kennan, the architect of Cold War containment strategy, that NATO expansion was a colossal mistake and that has proved to be the case. 

In 2014, we took down one Ukrainian government and replaced it with one that suited us better. The Minsk accords were a gambit to rearm and retrain Ukraine, as now openly admitted by Angela Merkel. No one batted an eye at the eight-year-long Ukrainian bombardment of Donetsk, killing thousands of civilians. The West’s narrative on the conflict is historically and politically absurd and self-serving and no one outside of the West buys it. 

The West’s narrative on the conflict is historically and politically absurd and self-serving and no one outside of the West buys it.

Professor David Betz

Various accounts say the Russian people are generally indifferent to what’s happening in Ukraine, believing it’s just some project of Putin’s and that it’s best to let him get on with it, despite international companies and brands fleeing Russia at the war’s outset and Western sanctions slapped on Russia. Do you think that’s a fair appraisal, even with Putin calling up Russian men of fighting age to help with his flagging battle?

No, I don’t think that is a fair appraisal. There is frustration with Putin domestically for not going hard enough — for being too soft. A great deal of what is said about the mood of the Russian population emanates from the Ukrainian government, which peddles two parts fantasy and two parts lie for every one part of truth. 

The Western media recycles and amplifies a lot of this garbage, abetted by government outlets like British Defence Intelligence, which is frankly uncredible. Few international companies actually have fled Russia and most of those which have continue to operate through proxies. The Russian consumer is not missing McDonald’s or PornHub or Twitter. Stores are not empty. The West, epitomised by Liz Truss at the start of the war, hit Russia with what was supposed to be a multimegaton economic bomb that turns out to have had little effect on Russia while seriously harming Western consumers and producers. With the explosion of Nord Stream 2 — by someone but not Russia — Germany is being actively deindustrialised.           

Is there a risk of other nations being dragged into Putin’s war, with their aid of military hardware including tanks? Might it morph into a third world war?

You are begging the question in calling this “Putin’s war” and with the words “dragged into”, to my mind, for its responsibility, as I have noted above, is rather more complicated and Britain, Poland, USA are not being dragged into anything. They are very deliberately and stupidly driving forward toward escalation of their own free will. One might say that Germany, perhaps, is being dragged into it despite its better instincts. That aside, yes, there is the very distinct possibility that this war will turn into a hot World War 3. NATO’s involvement/non-involvement in the conflict stretches credulity. 

Do you think the West should also supply fighter aircraft to Ukraine?

No. It’s stupid and dangerous and pointless. 

If Putin succeeds in Ukraine, and either swipes more territory or takes over the entire country, do you think he will stop there? Or might he be emboldened, as some observers suggest, to invade other countries too?

I doubt it. Putin is 70 years old and, as his pre-war speech made clear, is extremely realistic about Russia’s real strength. He’ll be dealing with the conquest of Ukraine until the end of his days, politically if not also literally. I do think that the Baltics are in a pretty tenuous situation but their fate, I suspect, ultimately will hinge on the fact that their rate of procreation is far sub-replacement, a demographic problem compounded greatly by the ability of Baltic youth to seek their fortunes elsewhere. 

There is the very distinct possibility that this war will turn into a hot World War 3.

Professor David Betz

Is it apt, or fair, to compare Putin to Hitler?

No. It is not fair or apt. The tendency of Western strategic communicators to turn every potentate into Hitler when they think they need to rile up their population is an increasingly, embarrassingly dumb cliche. People in the media should not parrot such language.  

Should Putin be tried for war crimes, as some, like Sir Geoffrey Nice, who headed the prosecution of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, have urged? 

Putin should not be tried for war crimes before George Bush or Tony Blair. Sir Geoffrey Nice’s line of reasoning is, in my view, frankly pathetic, morally and practically. Does he really imagine that Russia is going down like Serbia? I fear he may be dreaming of a victor’s justice that he will never get. 

For that matter, Russia would clearly like the opportunity to state its case. When it did so most recently, at the OSCE, the rest of the delegates walked out of the room. That’s not diplomacy; it’s petulant childishness — dangerous and dumb. The rest of the world sees this. The moral, political and economic standing of the West is completely sunk. It’s been torpedoed and blown to smithereens. I’m sorry. It is very important that people get their heads around this immediately.        

Is it reasonable to assume that if Putin’s gamble goes even more horribly wrong and he’s further backed into a corner, that he will use nuclear weapons against either Ukraine and/or the West?

I do think again that you are begging the question. However, if the gist of the matter here is should we fear that this war will escalate to the use of nuclear weapons, then the answer is, unequivocally, yes. The situation is extremely perilous.

  • Title image shows explosions in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, on February 23, 2022, days after Russia invaded the country. (Courtesy local media)

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