Vladimir Putin has a well-earned reputation for saber-rattling that in the end amounts to nothing. But when the saber is the most destructive weapon known to humanity—nuclear weapons some seven hundred times more powerful than those used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—it is dangerous to be dismissive.
When the Russian leader announced in a speech that the nation was to be partially mobilized (a policy that now looks more like full mobilization), with it was an open threat of nuclear force:
I would like to remind those who make such statements about Russia that our country also possesses various means of destruction, and in some cases they are more modern than those of Nato countries. When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we, of course, will use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.
This is not a bluff. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them.
The sham referenda in four regions seem to allow Russia to rubber stamp at least two of those regions as annexed Russian territories, thus giving Putin the permission he needs to use nuclear force if Ukraine continues to “attack” them (rather than to liberate them).
Hypocrisy aside, are Western nations genuinely worried about such a possibility, and what has been the response?
On the one hand, Western governments are making contingency plans, preparing for the worst of eventualities. This has included discussing scenarios directly with Ukraine. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan admitted to CBS on Sunday that this was “a matter that we have to take deadly seriously.” No one wants to be caught off guard when the stakes are this high.
On the other hand, and surprising to many, key players are reaching out to the Kremlin in secret. “We have communicated directly, privately at very high levels to the Kremlin that any use of nuclear weapons will be met with catastrophic consequences for Russia,” added Sullivan, “that the United States and our allies will respond decisively, and we have been clear and specific about what that will entail.”
While Russia may know what that entails, it is something of a mystery to the general public. Normally, one might espouse “strategic ambiguity” here, but if the US has been open and forthright with Russia here, there will have been no ambiguity.
The question that might be more pertinent concerns Putin’s intentions. Making nuclear threats is unlikely to significantly affect the Ukrainian public since they are already fighting for their lives and homeland. Instead, the intentions may lie in the heart of Europe. Along with other parts of the world, Europe is suffering a lurch to the right. Serbia and Hungary are almost overt allies of Russia, but we may see major players adding themselves to this list in all but name.
Italy’s general election this weekend was won by the far right. The Brothers of Italy, a neofascist party, and their leader Giorgia Meloni are entering into a coalition with far-right Matteo Salvini’s League, and former (corrupt) right-wing PM Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Berlusconi, an erstwhile friend of Putin’s, has already tried to relieve the Russia leader of responsibility for the war. As The Guardian reported:
During his time as prime minister, Berlusconi nurtured close relations with Putin, praising his leadership and helping to forge energy deals that some blame for Italy being so dependent on Russian gas today.
Forza Italia and the League supported sending arms to Ukraine when they were part of Mario Draghi’s broad coalition, which collapsed in July, as did Brothers of Italy.
Putin has always seen Europe as his enemy and as a threat, hence his clandestine technological involvement in the Brexit referendum. By helping to fragment European unity, so vital for the continued success of the Ukrainian defense, Putin is killing two birds with one stone: deconstructing Europe and relieving Ukraine of crucial support.
Saber-rattling with nuclear arms is a way to force European sympathizers into pressuring Ukraine into concessionary talks, while simultaneously leading to those nations decreasing military and financial support to Zelenskyy.
The Financial Times reported statements by five anonymous Western officials involved with such strategizing. One said, “If he thinks the threat is going to intimidate Ukraine into capitulating or giving up 20 percent of its territory, or intimidate the rest of us away from helping Ukraine, the opposite has happened.”
Three of these five think that nuclear retaliation “would continue to be the best deterrent.”
Responses vary depending on the type of nuclear missiles that might be used.
Though some strategists differentiate between tactical nuclear weapons and their larger cousins, “tactical nukes” share the unique and long-lasting danger of radioactivity with other nuclear weapons. Designed to be used with Russian military doctrine in destroying areas of the battlefield of maybe a few square kilometers. It is what the Russians have long trained for: using these weapons, and moving troops in afterward in radiation-protected vehicles.
Two other officials believed that the West would not retaliate to a tactical nuclear strike with nuclear arms but in a conventional military manner, perhaps because the Ukrainian war has revealed the weakness of Russian forces. Many now believe the combined forces of NATO could eliminate Russian armed forces in a remarkably short time.
Then, of course, there is China.
There is no guarantee that Russian nuclear stocks are in good working order, and Ukrainians would also have a decent chance of shooting such missiles down with their own air defenses. For the time being, Intelligence indicates that Putin has not moved or readied any of his weapons, a complex affair that is easy to detect with current close monitoring.
Should we be worried? It’s never good to be complacent. But at the same time, if Putin moves to use nuclear weapons, it will be a clear sign that he is flailing in a corner with no alternative, having already lost. This is the paradox: The better Ukraine does, the worse the outlook is because Putin will be forced into more and more extreme responses. Mobilization was the first step.
Before Putin gets to the point of being an injured bear in a cage, lashing out with his biggest arms, the other animals in the enclosure will pick up the heavy scent of both opportunism and self-preservation. Before he succumbs to his own nuclear winter, Putin may be mauled by his own.