Putin’s Nuclear Bluff: How the West Can Make Sure Russia’s Threats Stay Hollow
Putin’s Nuclear Bluff: How the West Can Make Sure Russia’s Threats Stay Hollow

Putin’s Nuclear Bluff: How the West Can Make Sure Russia’s Threats Stay Hollow

Few if any wars have been launched with as much nuclear posturing as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One week before beginning its offensive, Moscow conducted previously planned exercises of its nuclear launch systems. A few days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin falsely accused Ukraine of building nuclear weapons. When starting the invasion, Putin warned that any outside country standing in Russia’s way would face “consequences such as they have never seen in their history”—a thinly disguised nuclear threat. Almost as soon as the fighting began, Russia’s military attacked and seized Ukrainian nuclear facilities while falsely claiming that Kyiv wants to build dirty bombs. And as Russian forces began to meet stiff resistance, Putin announced that Russia’s deterrence forces—which include its nuclear weapons—were shifting to “a special regime of combat duty.” It then ran another set of (possibly routine but still notable) launch drills.

Many analysts and observers have been frightened by Putin’s actions, and for good reason.  Whenever the leader of a nuclear-armed state signals a readiness to use nuclear weapons, it is worth taking seriously. That is especially true when the threats come from a man who controls the world’s largest nuclear stockpile and who is simultaneously conducting an unprovoked, full-scale military invasion of a neighboring country. Putin is powerful, belligerent, and evidently unconcerned about casualties.

But although the Kremlin has shown a willingness to kill civilians and wreak havoc, using nuclear weapons would deviate from Russia’s own nuclear doctrine. The country does not need them to defeat Kyiv, and even if it did, detonating weapons of mass destruction would provoke international retaliation, including, quite possibly, direct military involvement from NATO. This risks both massive conventional war and further nuclear escalation—an outcome that Putin does not want. Rather than seriously considering strikes, Putin is more likely using the specter of nuclear escalation as cover for increasingly brutal tactics on the ground and to pressure Kyiv into surrendering. He may also hope that by threatening attacks, he can scare NATO away from increasing its involvement in the conflict or even get the West to make Ukraine submit.

The full article can be read on the Foreign Affairs' website.

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