LONDON: President Vladimir Putin’s latest warning that he is ready to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia amid the war in Ukraine has made a troubling question much more urgent: Is the former KGB spy bluffing?
Putin cautioned it was no bluff, and Western politicians, diplomats and nuclear weapons experts are divided. Some say he could use one or more smaller, tactical nuclear weapons to try to stave off military defeat, protect his presidency, scare off the West or intimidate Kyiv into capitulation.
Putin’s warning, which was followed by a more specific threat to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine from an ally, might mean the Kremlin is considering an escalation after Russia annexes four Ukrainian regions which it only partly occupies.
Russia’s parliament is expected to declare the regions part of Russia on Oct 4. Once that happens the way would be clear, from Moscow’s viewpoint, for a possible defensive strike if it felt the territory was under serious threat.
Breaking the nuclear taboo would be a sign of desperation, however, so whether or not Putin does go nuclear may ultimately depend on how cornered he feels in a conflict which has, thus far, humbled rather than defeated a former superpower.
Putin controls the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, including a new generation of hypersonic weapons and ten times more tactical nuclear weapons than the West, and the United States and the NATO military alliance are taking him seriously.
“If the choice for Russia is fighting a losing war, and losing badly and Putin falling, or some kind of nuclear demonstration, I wouldn’t bet that they wouldn’t go for the nuclear demonstration,” Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Russia, told Reuters in August, before Putin stepped up his warnings.
In his most recent comments, Putin explicitly warned the West that Russia would use all available means to defend Russian territory and accused the West of discussing a potential nuclear attack on Russia.
“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,” he said.
Such blunt Kremlin rhetoric is very different to the much more nuanced nuclear signals preferred by late Soviet leaders after Nikita Khrushchev took the world to the brink of nuclear war in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told US TV networks on Sunday that President Joe Biden’s administration was taking Putin’s comments “deadly seriously” and had warned Moscow of specific “catastrophic consequences” if it used nuclear arms.
Washington has not spelled out its likely response, but using a nuclear device could trigger a nuclear escalation, which is why most experts believe a massive conventional attack on Russian military assets would be more likely.
Asked if Putin was moving towards a nuclear attack, CIA Director William Burns told CBS on Tuesday: “We have to take very seriously his kind of threats given everything that’s at stake.”
Burns, though, said US intelligence had no practical evidence that Putin was moving towards using tactical nuclear weapons imminently.