The internal Russian propaganda, e.g. discussions on Russian TV, is discussing the usage of Nuclear Weapons quite openly, both against Ukraine and other Western countries. It is possible that this creates an internal pressure on politicians and military leaders to take such a step, believing in their own propaganda. In a sense, this "propaganda trap" led both Germany and Japan into their total wars and destruction during WW II.
Russian rationale for using Nuclear Weapons
In the "Expected Outcomes" analysis, the usage of a "Tactical Nuclear Weapon" was seen as a possibility if Russia loses territories west of the Dnipro conquered during the first phase of the conflict. As often happens, the timescale of this, set to several weeks, was wrong, although Ukraine was able to liberate large parts of their country, first in the north and then in the region east of Charkiv. The Russian forces in the region around Cherson are under pressure, but currently holding their positions. Therefore, the original prediction is still open.
For Russia, an important goal would be to end or at least limit Western support for Ukraine. Antiquated Soviet arms stocks are now being activated, while more modern missiles and arms have been used up to a large part by the Russian army. Technology import sanctions hinder the production of sufficient volumes of modern weapons. Newly drafted soldiers cannot be equipped accordingly, while Ukraine is receiving modern arms from the West and surely is producing some of them in their own country using modern technology.
To stop the flow of arms and ressources to Ukraine, Russia needs to stoke fear in Western democracies. Propaganda methods are being used, with the support of politicians who can be regarded as Russian puppets. The attack on the gas pipelines Nordstream 1 and 2 can be seen in this context, too, as a way to induce fear. But these methods are at their limit now, as further steps would be seen as attack on NATO territory.
There are still some options to raise fear levels in Europe. Destroying other Russian gas pipelines leading to Europe would be an option, although this would push Hungary back into the Western community and also create anger in other Balkans states. Another option would be to detonate the munitions storage site in Cobasna, Transnistria (Moldova). It has no military value for Russia, but would be valuable for Ukraine. Also, new incidents at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant could be arranged, but that would fall back on Russia, too.
We therefore hold it probable that Russia will finally resort to Nuclear Weapons to generate the fear levels they assume will stop Western aid to Ukraine. Seen from a "fear" perspective, the ideal point of time would be in the middle of winter, when nervousness regarding gas supplies has already reached a peak. From a military perspective, a pending or successful rout of the Cherson region could be the trigger, as originally predicted. Again, we point out that JCOT and SDFM predictions tend to underestimate the duration of complex military-political decision processes.
With the Ukraine war, Russia has started a conflict which was deemed "irrational" and "unthinkable" by most Western analysts. The ongoing annexation process is also irrational, as it removes any option of negotiation and as it is linked to the threat of Nuclear weapons. Therefore, it is logical to assume that Russia will continue to escalate, and, as argumented above, the only major pathway to escalate is the usage of Nuclear weapons.
Internal arguments against the usage of Nuclear Weapons
For Putin, there is a double risk that a Nuclear attack fails. The army leadership or command chain could block such a command coming from Putin, which would make a coup against him necessary for those involved. A successful coup would mean he would be eliminated without process, e.g. via an "accident". Also, the Nuclear strike could fail for technical reasons, with possibly the same consequences for Putin as he would interpret this as insubordination by the military.
Of course, the risk of further isolation, a massive conventional Western strike or even a fully fledged Nuclear exchange will be regarded as factors by Putin, although we do not believe this would deter him sufficiently.
Expected Russian attack method
The usage of Nuclear Weapons could be simulated at first, with a full sequence of transferring warheads to the delivery systems and other preparative messaging acts. As it is not guaranteed this would be taken for full by Western media, it has limited "fear propaganda" level, although it would allow to detect countermeasures.
A genuine usage of Nuclear Weapons would probably target traffic nodes in Western Ukraine with sufficient distance to the western border of Ukraine. A direct first strike on NATO territory is highly improbable as it would lead to a massive return strike, with high probability of a global nuclear war. A demonstration explosion in the Black Sea is also seen as improbable and would only lead to more Western aid flowing into Ukraine, plus pressure by "allied" nations like China or India. An attack on Snake Island might be an option. This could also support a landing operation near Odesa, although we do not believe Russia has sufficient units left for a genuine landing operation.
The attack could be executed from the Black Sea, from Russia or from Belarus. A Black Sea attack is the most probable one as it would avoid Western counterstrikes at the launch base if started from Russia, or a pre-emptive action if Belarus was used as launchpad.
Expected Western response
According to multiple sources, the US have already informed Russia about the military consequences of a Nuclear attack on Ukraine. This response is deemed to be non-nuclear, but massive. Attacks on the Black Sea fleet are a possibility. They would probably require the usage of US bases in Turkey, though. Strikes on Russian territory itself might also be executed, but only on a limited scale, e.g. at the launch base of the Russian Nuclear missile.
One probable step would be to destroy Russian air bases in Ukraine and its vicinity, especially on Crimea. The resulting air superiority could be used for ground attack aircraft and strategic bombers to break up Russian occupation forces in Ukraine, at least in the the Dnipro region.
To deter a second Russian Nuclear strike at that point, we expect that the US would take up patrolling with nuclear armed strategic B-52H bombers over large parts of Ukraine, with the implied instruction to react to further Nuclear attacks with Nuclear armed Cruise Missiles.
Expected Western reactions
In most European countries, there will be disbelief and panic at the start, especially in those regions and among those groups which are strongly influenced by Russian propaganda. Due to this, actual political and military reactions from the European states (except maybe the UK) will be relatively limited, in contrast to those from the US. But the attack will make it impossible to maintain any hidden pro-Russian position, both as a state (eg Hungary) or as an individual.
If the EU is able to take the initiative, it can strengthen the cohesion and determination of Europeans. An European Nuclear deterrence ability might be a longer term result. In the short term, a complete blockade of Russia might be implemented.
Consequences in Russia
The failure of a single Nuclear strike to break Ukraine and the West, together with Western military and economic reactions, might be enough to lead to a removal of Putin by the military. Panic would also be widespread in Russia itself, with refugees from regions deemed to be threatened by a counter strike or by fallout flooding the country.
In any case, we expect the result of a single strike would be catastrophic for Putin, as the country will be completely isolated - their major allies, with their respective Nuclear based deterrence situations, cannot accept the introduction of Nuclear warfare into standard war practice.
Expansion of Nuclear warfare
For Russia, a second strike in the days or weeks after the first would be difficult to implement, as the West would try to extend missile defense over Ukraine, using e.g. Patriot systems deployed currently at the Polish border or B-52H bombers to provide a protective umbrella. Also, the additional strategical or psychological effect of a secondary strike would be very limited.
The alternative would be a Nuclear attack on one or several NATO countries, e.g. destroying the (well defended) weapons transfer hubs or other bases. This would probably lead to a compareable answer by NATO, possibly including the destruction of the Russian Black Sea fleet. At this point, the risk of further expansion into a ICBM exchange is quite high.
JCOT - 2022.09.29
Further Analysis - 2022.10.07
In the West, the number of high level warnings regarding potential nuclear strikes is rising, with US President Biden now warning about a potential Armageddon.
There are different levels how nuclear weapons could be applied. The lowest level would be "tactical weapons" with an explosive power below 1kT, delivered via short range artillery or rockets. As a comparison, the Hiroshima bomb had a power of 15kT. But such weapons only make sense to stop a large column of enemy forces, less so if a defense line is breaking down in a wide area. It also has a relatively low "shock" factor, but still carries a high "punishment" price, as any use of nuclear weapons would force the US to execute a strike on Russian forces in Ukraine. Also, positioning such weapons near the frontline exposes them to the risk of seizure by Ukrainian forces or even by mutineers. Therefore JCOT believes such weapons will not be used in this phase of the conflict.
Therefore, we still believe the most probable attack type would be the usage of mid range missiles to attack crucial logistical points in western Ukraine, far enough to the border to avoid them to be interpreted as attacks on NATO allies, but near enough to incite fear in the West. That would mean several nuclear bombs would be detonated, as the transport network is relatively wide. Even now, Russia is attacking such towns with conventional weapons and drones.
Such an attack level would of course lead to a very strong response by the US and UK. In addition to a full naval and aerial blockade of Russia, we would expect air attacks incapacitating Russian forces and bases in all of Ukraine, plus an enhanced level of support for Ukrainian forces, possibly also with troops. There also might be activities in Moldova, to finally resolve the Transnistria issue.