Gen. Drewniak: Putin Raised Stakes to the Maximum – A Nuclear Attack Is an Option

“If you had offered me an interview a year ago about whether an attack with tactical nuclear weapons were possible, I would not waste my time. Today, I think about it seriously,” says Brigadier Gen. Tomasz Drewniak, former Polish Air Force inspector. Can Vladimir Putin really use nuclear weapons, and will Warsaw be his target?

Juliusz Ćwieluch: Have you ever dropped a tactical nuclear bomb?

Tomasz Drewniak: I did. I only found out about it years later, when it turned out that the maneuver we were practicing was just that.

J.Ć: Is it difficult to drop a nuke?

T.D: The tactical nuclear load must be dropped at the correct angle. Two drop techniques were used on the MiG-21 planes of which I was a pilot. Generally, drops should occur on the climb during the departure maneuver to make the bomb fly in a parabola. We dropped it at a 75-degree or 110-degree angle, which is like making the maneuver while you are nearly on your back. The idea was to extend the time needed by the pilot to leave the target.

J.Ć: The late General Stanisław Targosz also practiced this maneuver on the slower Su-7 and later Su-20. He told me that he had no moral dilemmas because he assumed that he would not survive the real mission.

T.D: In class, they said it was possible to escape it. But I guess everyone knew different. It was not only the maximum load force that was important. With bombs, power can be graded. It seems there was three-level graduation. A lot depended on the setting, but it was not the pilot who decided.

J.Ć: A lot? For whom?

T.D: Overall, for everyone. The pilot is just a cog in a machine. He has to approach the target at the right height. Catch the angle. Press the button at the right moment, and that’s it. Everything else happens beyond that. He may not even know if the bomb will be detonated as it was in Hiroshima at an altitude of 600 meters (approximately 1,968 feet) above the ground; then the effects of the attack are the most devastating and with the greatest range. Or will the detonation occur after contact with the ground? Then the effect of the attack has a smaller range. But let’s not lie to ourselves. We are talking about whether we burn a 15 km (approximately nine miles) or 30 km (approximately 18 miles) area to the ground. And how great the shock wave and radiation will be. Nasty business overall.

J.Ć: And yet someone had to invent it, design it, order practice with it, take it seriously.

T.D: In the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ military doctrine, tactical nuclear weapons were treated almost on a par with conventional ones. During the attack, the decision to destroy the target was made at the division level. Each commander had at his disposal 10 to 15 tactical nuclear charges placed on various types of platforms and theoretically could use them without any consultation with his superiors. That is theoretical, because I assume that no one would want to bear such a responsibility on their own and would strive for someone to tap his decision, colloquially speaking. But technically, any general could make several Hiroshimas. The USSR is gone, but their doctrines have remained, slightly modified. Their mentality probably, too.

J.Ć: That’s why you agreed to this interview?

T.D: If you had offered me an interview a year ago about whether an attack with tactical nuclear weapons were possible, I would not have wasted my time. Today, I am serious about it. Especially considering how seriously the Americans treat such a scenario. They have strengthened their entire intelligence surveillance and directed all possible satellites at Russia. The Americans are also considering the scenario of using nuclear weapons for the third time in human history during an armed conflict. The use on a relatively small scale. I believe that we go beyond theory on this point.

J.Ć: The first two came easily. The United States did not have to fear that someone would reply the same way.

T.D.: Vladimir Putin may also think that he does not need to be afraid of this because, in all of NATO, only the United States has tactical nuclear charges in the form of Mk-61 bombs. This was due to the Western military doctrine in which no offensive actions were assumed. Most of all, it was inconceivable to allow entire cities or formations to disappear from the face of the Earth after a single charge hit.

J.Ć: For such a dictum they had the MAD doctrine – Mutual Assured Destruction, assuming that nuclear war cannot be limited and that it will lead to mutual destruction of opponents.

T.D: The MAD doctrine assumes that if a player uses a strategic nuclear weapon, the other side’s response will be, first, more devastating, and second, automatic. We are talking about unleashing total destruction, where Russia and the United States combined have enough charges to crumble this planet and possibly annihilate all forms of life on it. One Russian Sarmatian missile carries 15 warheads that could theoretically erase all the most important European capitals from the surface of the earth. The Americans have a few hundred fewer warheads than Russia, but there are still more than 5,000 loads with a destructive force that we cannot even imagine.

J.Ć: Fifteen capitals including Warsaw?

T.D: I do not know if Warsaw is one of the most important European capitals. But these considerations are still fiction. I had the opportunity to be in one of the U.S. bases from which the attack with strategic nuclear weapons would be carried out, and I even saw these missiles, because I had the chance to look into the silos. The F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, which I have visited, has several hundred such missiles, over a hundred of which are on standby. The base is protected by 100 helicopters. In addition, the entire complex is buried deep in the ground, because we are talking about something that is the ultimate weapon. One of these rockets has a power of 300 to 450 kilotons, which is 30 times greater than the load dropped on Hiroshima. And I emphasize – this is a strategic nuclear weapon. And my fears are related to the use of tactical weapons, of which the Russians have full arsenals. And Russia still insists that nuclear weapons can normally be fought on a small scale. Small — that is, to be precise, we are talking about a load whose destructive force will be slightly less than what was dropped on Hiroshima. There, a load of 15 kilotons of TNT was dropped. And here, we are talking about a force of 10 kilotons, maybe slightly less.

J.Ć: “Little Boy” dropped on the city of Hiroshima was 3 meters long and weighed 4 tons.

T.D: Of which, scientists calculate, only less than half a kilogram of uranium U-235 was successfully stimulated to start a chain reaction. What Russia has in its arsenals today is much more efficient. The Russian arsenal had unusually small rounds, 122- or 152-mm caliber, that could be fired from a regular 2S1 Gvozdika or 2S19 Msta gun-howitzer. The main means of destroying tactical nuclear weapons, however, were to be air bombs or rocket systems such as Scud, OTR-21 Tochka, or now 9K720 Iskander or Kh-47M2 Kinzhal. Possibly fired from the 203-mm caliber 2S7 Pion self-propelled guns, which are in the arsenal of both Russia and Ukraine. Except that they are firing conventional missiles for now.

J.Ć: What needs to be done to change that?

T.D: Nothing, really. A single car may drive up to the stand. Give the soldiers a missile which, from the outside, they may not distinguish from a conventional one. If they have more knowledge, they will find out from the red line and markings on it. Soldiers standing 100 meters away may not even know what is going on. And that’s why it’s all so dangerous.

J.Ć: Won’t it be a military decision?

T.D: And it is all the more dangerous. I think the Russian military is more predictable today than Putin is. I know the mentality of these people. In 1993, I was sent to do my post-graduate studies at the Gagarin Air Force Academy in Monino near Moscow. I studied there for three years. I studied with them; we spent our free time together. I learned a lot about aviation there, because the academy was at a very high level. And I learned quite a lot about the Russians too. They were greatly traumatized by their defeat in Afghanistan. The times were such that they could already speak of defeats. And they were able to point out their mistakes. They knew what they were doing wrong.

J.Ć: Then why did they make mistakes?

T.D: Because they followed orders and served in an army ravaged by corruption and because their equipment was too inadequate to confront what the West sent to the mujahideen. Too many to count. Now, the situation is repeating. They don’t fight in their own area. The opponent is extremely brave and supported by Western technology. And they are ordered to conquer one of the largest countries in Europe with a small expeditionary army. This is an impossible task. You must outnumber your enemy when attacking. And now Ukraine has a larger army. Hence the many months’ delayed decision on mobilization and threats to use tactical nuclear weapons.

J.Ć: Deputy Chair of Russia’s Security Council Dmitry Medvedev, when talking about the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons, confirmed that this was not a bluff. Was he bluffing?

T.D: Are you asking me seriously? I cannot even answer if anyone outside Putin’s closest circle of people would be able to answer this question, let alone me, a retired Polish general.

J.Ć: I am asking because your colleague, and our journalist Major Michał Fiszer, says that Putin buys international fear with nuclear weapons. Adolf Hitler also said that he would not hesitate to use chemical weapons to destroy the world, but they remained in warehouses throughout all of World War II.

T.D: I will not agree with Michał here. Until 1943, Hitler did not have to use chemical weapons because he was winning. And after 1944, he had already lost his air superiority so drastically that by attacking with chemical weapons, he would have provided the Allies with an excuse to use them and annihilate Germany. The lesson from the carpet bombing of Germany also made him hold back. But Saddam Hussein was no longer hesitant to attack Kurds with chemical weapons. Bashar al-Assad did not hesitate to use them either. A cornered madman makes crazy decisions.

J.Ć: Putin is a madman?

T.D: Again, that’s not a question for me. Possibly for a psychiatrist. What Putin called a “special military operation,” because, in my opinion, he believed it would be an ordinary special operation, has turned into a conflict that has been going on for more than seven months, which Russia no longer has a chance of resolving on its own terms. Hence the hasty referenda and the brandishing of tactical nuclear weapons. If you have nothing to lose, you cross boundaries that used to be impossible to cross.

J.Ć: For example, blowing up gas pipelines?

T.D: For example. Although the official perpetrator of this sabotage has not been identified.

J.Ć: Does Russia frighten or is it frightened?

T.D: One may be the result of the other. Russia has long officially reserved the right to use tactical nuclear weapons, even against a country that does not have such weapons in its arsenal, if its territorial unity is threatened.

J.Ć: It’s not, though. The Ukrainians slowed down the momentum of the last offensive so as not to breach the borders of the Russian Federation.

T.D: Right. But Putin, by hurriedly organizing referenda in the conquered regions and rapidly annexing almost 107,000 square kilometers of Ukrainian territory, is raising the stakes in the game to the maximum. By trying to recapture Donetsk or Luhansk, do the Ukrainians violate Russia’s territorial unity and have to reckon with nuclear retaliation or not?

J.Ć: I thought I was the one asking the questions.

T.D: The whole world is asking itself these questions. It is clear to everyone that the main player today is fighting not only for Ukraine, but also for its own survival, so it becomes unpredictable. In the Russian reality, you rule as long as you are strong. You weaken — you die. And Putin knows that he may not survive the surrender of power.

J.Ć: Khrushchev survived; Yeltsin survived.

T.D: Yeltsin gave up power to survive. And Khrushchev ended his life in the wilderness, at the dacha where he was recording messages on a tape recorder that no one wanted to listen to. Putin is not a man with remorse that keeps him awake at night. He knows that the use of tactical nuclear weapons would have a chilling effect. On the other hand, he should realize that Russia would already be completely politically and economically bankrupt.

J.Ć: Ukrainians will never come to terms with these losses.

T.D: I would not like to sound like a cold bastard, but today, Ukrainians live on an I.V. tube from the West. Without the military and financial aid, this country would not be able to resist and survive for so long, or even go on the offensive. The thing about I.V. tubes is that it is the doctor, not the patient, who decides when they will be withdrawn.

J.Ć: Are you suggesting that America can force Ukraine to accept this state?

T.D: I’m not suggesting. I’m saying that’s an option. Currently, President Joe Biden has made an unequivocal statement both on the question of referenda — calling them fraudulent — and on the question of the territorial unity of Ukraine — indisputable. The message on the security of NATO states, including Poland, of course, is also clear.

J.Ć: Anne Applebaum suggested on Twitter a few months ago that Warsaw may be the target of a nuclear attack.

T.D: While I can seriously discuss whether the Russians are ready to attack Ukraine with tactical nuclear weapons, I consider the scenario in which such an attack takes place on Polish territory to be ordinary science fiction. I do not know what benefits such an attack could bring to Russia. But the losses would be total. Russia is today too weak to conquer Ukraine, let alone try to deal with all the might of NATO. When Biden says that America will defend every inch of NATO territory and underlines the word twice more – “every,” it means that it will be so. Seven months of war and drastic sanctions have also bled Russia economically. After all, war consumes billions. One rifle bullet is half a dollar. One shell for a tank is several thousand dollars. One rocket is already hundreds of thousands of dollars. And there, almost every day, hundreds of thousands of bullets, missiles and rockets are fired. Planes are falling from the sky for tens of millions of dollars apiece. No matter how deep Russian magazines are, they are not inexhaustible. Hence the attempt to save what has already been achieved, that is, the inclusion of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts into the Russian Federation. And with that, more than 4 million people.

J.Ć: Four million Ukrainians.

T.D: The referenda are rigged, that’s for sure. How can a referendum be held under the barrels of rifles? But I wouldn’t be so sure that each of these 4 million feels Ukrainian. The successes of the Russian army were the fastest in these areas. Almost dazzling. They could move up to 30 km a day. This means not only that the defense of these areas was weaker, but also that the Ukrainian army had less support from the local population. By seizing these areas, Putin, in his own way, implemented the minimum plan. He provided drinking water for Crimea. And he almost cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea. This is a heavy blow for the Ukrainian economy. More than 70% of the country’s economic exchange took place along this route. President Zelenskyy cannot let go. Putin either. Both of them have too much social pressure.

J.Ć: Or perhaps the social pressures will crush Putin.

T.D: Personally, I do not believe in the scenario of Russia’s democratization. Failure in Iraq, and failure in Afghanistan, why should it succeed in Russia, which also did not have any democratic traditions? During my three years of study in Moscow, I did not notice that democracy was the object of their desires. Rather, they expected someone to come to tidy up. And from their perspective, Putin is establishing order. Hence the high support for his policy. Support, which even according to independent research after the outbreak of the war, increased even more.

J.Ć: The high support was best seen in the line of cars at the Finnish and Georgian borders.

T.D: The fact that someone is fleeing conscription does not mean that he does not condone an attack on Ukraine. He just doesn’t like giving up his own life for it. But others could make sacrifices. You cannot apply our measures to their thinking. Hence my fear of using nuclear weapons. Fear, but not a certainty, just to be clear.

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