The only thing now preventing a Ukrainian victory is Russia’s nuclear brinkmanship

A united West can defeat Putin by using its economic muscle to get China on board to stop the despot from making his apocalyptic threats

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon

31 August 2022 •

In the background to Ukraine’s counter-offensive, much talk is still focused around nuclear weapons and nuclear power —  whether it is Liz Truss appearing to be over casual in contemplating when she might press the “Red Button”, Russia threatening the UK with nuclear strikes or the potential meltdown of Zaporizhzhia  nuclear power station. 

But what would the situation be like in Ukraine without nuclear weapons, or if they were completely nullified? Putin’s 20th century tactics and weapons have been found wanting against determined defenders being supported by Nato’s 21st century weapons and intelligence. It is only the nuclear conundrum that is keeping Western forces outside Ukraine. Would Britain have charged into Europe in 1939 if we believed the Nazi’s had a nuclear capability? 

Axiomatically, many believe Hitler did not use his vast chemical weapons capability, which would likely have suffocated the Allies into submission pretty quickly, because he believed we had the “bomb”. And it was the “bomb” which eventually ended that dreadful global war.

Much of the hubris around nuclear weapons can best be seen as strategic brinkmanship — President Putin, the master of this art, is threatening the UK directly with nuclear attack presumably to keep our troops out of Ukraine. He’s turned Zaporizhzhia  nuclear power station into an improvised nuclear device and has threatened to use “smaller” nuclear bombs on the Ukrainian battlefields. It is clear in this high stakes’ poker game that Putin’s one and only ace is nuclear in all its guises. 

The challenge for the West is to nullify this ace. Without it we can flex our more powerful conventional military capability to see off the Russian hordes, bring peace to Ukraine and economic stability to the globe, as fuel and food prices should rapidly return to near normal.

So how do our less talented brinks-people suppress and remove Putin’s ace? We could sit it out and wait for Russia to blink. Whatever their propaganda machine is saying, the Russian people will eventually overthrow this corrupt regime that is devastating their economy and throwing their young men and women, barely trained, into a losing fight in ever increasing numbers. But this war is also hurting us, with rocketing inflation caused by huge fuel rises and a cost-of-living crisis which even the well off in this country will feel. 

Us Brits probably have the stomach for this fight more than some of our European cousins, who are already beginning to wobble. It only needs one of them to blink and Putin prevails. The German love of Russian gas means I expect they will only endure one cold winter, and who would blame them?

China no doubt could play the key role in nullifying Russia aggression, but I expect it will not lean on Russia by its own volition. Economic growth and stability are key to China’s place in the world order, and counter intuitively drives their brand of communism. The US and European markets for Chinese goods and services dwarf probably by many trillions that of Russia. I am sure if the West threatens to wean itself off Chinese products, as it has off Russian gas, the Chinese hand will very quickly tighten around the Russian neck. 

It is most likely that money, or rather lack of it, will eventually remove Russian nukes from the Ukraine battlefield.  Whatever approach is taken, it is going to be economically painful for all of us for some time to come — but anything is better than Armageddon. Perhaps what has allowed the nuclear issue to dominate the Ukraine war over the last few weeks is that many Western leaders have been absent or too focused on their own future. I am pretty certain that if nuclear weapons are used in this conflict it will be due to miscalculation or misunderstanding rather than a deliberate act. 

Our new Prime Minister must realise that enabling Ukraine to prevail, as quickly as possible, will be their number one priority and must be dealt with above all other issues.  I expect their only chance of winning the next election is to win in Ukraine, and this sad political reality is what will drive them more than any other concern.

This is an occasion when the other permanent members of the UN Security Council  —  all nuclear capable, US, UK, France and China  — need to squeeze Russia out of nuclear brinkmanship.  Only then can we restore the world order and prevent the first global conflict of the 21stCentury.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE is former commander of UK and Nato CBRN Forces. He is now a fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge


  1. “But this war is also hurting us, with rocketing inflation caused by huge fuel rises and a cost-of-living crisis which even the well off in this country will feel.”

    It’s all about the money. But, much of our problems are our own fault, or rather, the fault of our politics. It’s Ukraine that’s paying the ultimate price for the countless mistakes that were committed in the past decades. With less cowardice and more balls and foresight, this war wouldn’t even have been started. If Biden hadn’t destroyed our energy sector, the price of fuel would be much lower. Indeed, the prices are kept high artificially, so that the energy companies earn fat profits and the various governments too, through fuel taxes.
    While the West snivels and cries about the pain it’s going through, it’s Ukrainian men, women and children who are getting killed each and every day.

    And, speaking of the chinks, I seriously doubt that they would welcome any sort of nuclear strike by their little buddies. I can imagine that they told the little runt that he can use nuclear threats every day, if that turns his crank, but never follow through with it!

    Liked by 2 people

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