Is it all a bluff?
Renewed nuclear threats from Russian President Vladimir Putin have raised fears that his escalation plans in Ukraine are not limited to mobilizing more troops.
While he has issued apocalyptic threats against the West before, Putin’s thinly veiled warnings in a rare national address on Wednesday indicated he was willing to up the risk of nuclear conflict to avoid an embarrassing military defeat.
The Russian leader accused the United States and its allies of “nuclear blackmail” and said without elaborating that high-ranking officials from NATO states had made statements about the possibility of “using nuclear weapons of mass destruction against Russia.”
He then delivered a remarkable reminder:
“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people,” Putin said, in an apparent reference to Moscow’s sizeable nuclear arsenal.
“It’s not a bluff,” he added.
Whether Kyiv and its allies should now be more concerned about the threat was up for debate, analysts said.
“I think it indicates that he wants people to think he would risk nuclear war,” Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “I don’t think it means he’s more likely to do it than he was yesterday.”
In his February speech announcing the start of what the Kremlin calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine, Putin warned that anyone who dared to intervene would face the full force of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
This time, however, he faces a different reality: his army has experienced humiliating setbacks, his troops are demoralized and depleted, and he faces rare criticism at home.
Desperate for victory, the Russian leader tied his nuclear threats and appeal to reservists to a plan to annex occupied territories in eastern and southern Ukraine.
“It’s doubling down politically because it’s losing militarily,” said Michael Clarke, professor of war studies at King’s College London. “Creating more ‘Russian’ territory is an attempt to scare the West because Russian nuclear doctrine has always held that nuclear weapons would only be used in defense of Russia directly. He says, ‘This is not a bluff,’ which shows that it is.”
While the country’s military doctrine limits the use of nuclear weapons to direct threats to the existence of the Russian state, observers noted that in his speech, Putin used the ill-defined term “territorial integrity” when discussing the conditions that would merit a nuclear response. .
Apparently, extending the conditions for possible nuclear use in the middle of a war, and just as Russia plans to absorb four Ukrainian regions, means that Putin had “boxed himself in”. analysts said.
“If Ukraine continues to try to liberate its own territories after a referendum has been held, a fake referendum, does that mean it is going to attack immediately?” O’Brien, the strategic studies professor, said. “I think he has locked himself in with this. It’s certainly aggressive rhetoric, but it’s not necessarily smart policy.”
Kyiv has already indicated that Russia’s attempts to annex new territories do not change anything and promised that its army will continue to press on the battlefield. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was also skeptical on Wednesday that Putin would use nuclear weapons.
Washington largely dismissed the threats as irresponsible but nothing new, though NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg denounced Putin’s “dangerous and reckless rhetoric.”
While they may not be a precursor to nuclear war, O’Brien said Putin’s threats should be taken seriously considering Moscow’s capabilities.
“But I think it shouldn’t be, ‘We’re going to end the end of the world,’ either,” he added.
In fact, when Ukraine launched attacks on annexed Crimea this summer, a territory that Moscow considers Russian, Putin did not reach for the nuclear button, O’Brien noted.
“If he says that any attack on the ground that he calls Russia is going to be a nuclear tripwire, Ukraine already broke it in Crimea,” he added.
Putin may also be trying to dissuade Western countries, including the US think tank.
“Putin’s speech is full of indicators that he recognizes that Russia has not been able to defeat Ukraine on the battlefield, so it has to look elsewhere for victory. And that victory, Putin hopes, could come through the erosion of Ukraine’s international support,” Giles said. “That is why Russia challenges the West to further support Ukraine and appeals to the most fearful and timid Western leaders, particularly those who are most susceptible to repeated Russian nuclear threats.”
Pro-Kremlin voices have reveled in Putin’s escalation, which comes after months of state media coverage dominated by talk of the possibility of nuclear strikes on European capitals.
As Russian plans to annex new Ukrainian territory surfaced on Monday, one of the Kremlin’s leading propagandists declared: “This week marks either the eve of our imminent victory or the eve of nuclear war. I can’t see a third way.
Neither, apparently, can Putin.
Source : www.nbcnews.com