Putin’s Nuclear Threats Improbable but ‘Must Be Taken Seriously,’ Expert Tells TML
The threats must be seen in the context of the Kremlin’s ‘irrational decision-making process’ since the war started
Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons during a televised speech on Wednesday during which he also announced the “partial mobilization” of the military reserves, adding 300,000 troops to Russia’s forces in Ukraine.
“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without a doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people. … This is not a bluff,” said Putin in his speech.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin has indirectly used nuclear threats. In mid-February, Russia conducted a maneuver with its nuclear forces. As the invasion began, the president warned that there would be unprecedented consequences if third parties attempt to “obstruct” Russia, and a few days later, the Kremlin announced that Russia’s deterrent forces, which include nuclear weapons, would be placed on a “special regime of alert.”
This is not the first Russian nuclear threat, nor Putin’s, and experts believe it is unlikely to materialize. However, they caution, it must still be taken seriously.
Anthony Borden, executive director of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, who also spent time in Ukraine, told The Media Line that in risk management, both the likelihood and the severity of a potential risk must be calculated.
In this case, he added, “it’s a risk that remains very unlikely to happen, but the impact of that risk is enormous, and therefore you have to take it seriously simply because of the severity of the topic at hand.”
Even to start this war was an irrational decision
Arkady Mil-Man, former Israeli ambassador to Russia and Azerbaijan and the head of the Russia Program at the Institute for National Security Studies, stressed that as irrational as the use of a nuclear weapon by Russia might be, it is important to take it into consideration in the context of the series of “irrational decisions” that the Kremlin has made since the war started.
If we try to analyze Putin’s decision-making process, he told The Media Line, we see a chain of irrational decisions since the beginning of this war. “Even to start this war was an irrational decision,” he said.
Therefore, “we have to be ready also to understand that there is a possibility – now, it’s at a very low level, but still, there is the possibility – of this scenario of Russia using a tactical nuclear weapon.”
Alice Gower, the director of geopolitics and security at Azure Strategy, said that Putin had shown himself to be pragmatic and a strategic thinker.
On the other hand, she told The Media Line, “he is also obsessed with the objective of returning Russia to former glories, along with maintaining his own hold on power, sometimes taking unpredictable decisions in pursuit of both.”
As a result, she added, the international community is wisely taking these threats seriously.
It is hard to see a scenario in which any nuclear use would not harm Russia as well
Borden stressed that one should stay calm; while the threats must be taken seriously, they remain unlikely.
“It is hard to see a scenario in which any nuclear use would not harm Russia as well and bring, therefore, no improvement in the position it currently finds itself in. That escalation will only make its situation worse, no matter how you map out and game-plan the strategy,” he said.
Having said that, continued Borden, “the first most likely use would seem to be on the territory of Ukraine.”
Gower also believes that a tactical strike ordered by Moscow would most likely target Ukraine first, “both to further Russian aims and allow Moscow to peddle disinformation about the origin of the attack,” she explained.
However, she stressed that Putin would be taking a huge gamble as he could not predict the scale of response from the US and other nuclear powers.
Mil-Man agreed and added that if a nuclear weapon were to be used by Russia, it would probably be a tactical nuclear weapon, meaning “that if the strike happens, the explosion will not destroy a whole country with hundreds of nuclear bombs; it will be maybe one strike on Ukrainian territory with great damage to this territory.”
Gower says that the rhetoric around this announcement and threats of nuclear action are intended to scare the West and Ukraine into making concessions at the negotiating table and to step back from reprisals against Russia, particularly in terms of sanctions.
But it will actually have the opposite effect, she said, resulting in further consolidation of the US, EU, UK, and other major international players’ efforts to isolate Russia economically and diplomatically.
“These announcements also serve Putin’s agenda for his audience at home,” she continued, explaining that the Russian president needs to continue to push the narrative of threats to Russia’s existence and, in response, Russian strength, to maintain support and counter the realities on the ground.
It’s not a liberation war, it is an occupation war, a brutal one, and it’s not looking very successful
Borden pointed out that Russia’s invasion had not gone as planned. And although many voices in Russia still consider the invasion of Ukraine to be a war of liberation, as Putin claims, it’s increasingly hard to sustain this position.
“It’s not a liberation war, it is an occupation war, a brutal one, and it’s not looking very successful,” he said.
However, Mil-Man noted that there are “a lot of propagandists, and a lot of supporters of this regime, who talk openly about the use of nuclear weapons.” But, he added, “of course, there are still rational people in Russia who understand that it could be a tragedy and a catastrophe for Russia if they use a [nuclear] weapon.”
Borden added that people do question whether the military infrastructure in Russia would even allow the use of nuclear weapons “because it really is a reckless step that would signal the end of any prospect for Russia reemerging in the world.”