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Atomic Bluff? Why Putin Placed Russia’s Nuclear Forces on High Alert

Russian nuclear weapons. Image Credit: Russian State Media.

Perhaps because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not gone nearly as quickly or decisively as he expected, Vladimir Putin is now trying to raise the stakes. Or at least pulse rates and blood pressures among skittish Western elites. His Sunday announcement that he had ordered Moscow’s nuclear deterrent forces to high alert produced all the publicity he must have expected, at home and abroad.

The actual operational consequences of the announcement remain unclear, but whether it is something more than information statecraft is doubtful. Overreacting or underreacting would give Putin more than he deserves.

For the Kremlin, this is an unusually late salvo in the Ukraine propaganda battle that Russia has been losing badly. Since launching the invasion Thursday, official pronouncements from Moscow have been very few, and mostly innocuous at that. In stunning contrast, Ukrainian officials, at the national and local levels, have been prolific disseminators of information, in traditional and social media.  Western media reporting on Ukraine have amplified this information with videos, photos, and interviews with private Ukrainian citizens and soldiers, facilitating widespread dissemination of every piece of good news. There have even been media coverage adverse from around Russia, behind the lines, which Moscow has had mixed success in suppressing.

As in any propaganda war, the veracity of much of what is being said is still open to question, e.g., whether the Ukrainians on Snake Island were killed as Kyiv claimed, or taken prisoner as Moscow now says, after their iconic response to Russian admonitions to surrender. Winston Churchill rightly said that “[I]n wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” No one should be surprised if Ukraine isn’t well aware of that unpleasant but very omnipresent necessity.

By playing the nuclear card in Russia’s information-warfare deck, Putin aims to achieve two goals. First, he is appealing to his fellow citizens, continuing efforts to persuade them he simply had no choice but to invade Ukraine, largely because of NATO threats and historical grievances dating to World War II. That propaganda campaign inside Russia has not gone well, and Putin could readily have concluded he needed something more sensational to get people’s attention and rally them around his flag.  And it couldn’t hurt the morale of Russian troops already in combat in Ukraine to know that Putin was showing their ace of spades as a backup. Whether this gambit works domestically or not is a different matter.

Putin’s real audience, however, was almost certainly political leaders in America and Europe that he considers week-kneed. Critical to producing the desired propaganda effect in foreign countries is the well-known reality that Russian military doctrine explicitly contemplates the first use of nuclear weapons, emphatically so at the tactical or battlefield level. Those in the West predisposed to assume the fetal position at the mere mention of nuclear weapons, and their numbers are substantial, are likely Putin’s main target. How well he succeeds, we shall soon see.

There must be no wavering in NATO’s continued urgent supply of weapons and other assistance to Ukraine’s government. There is nothing negotiable here with Russia, including at the possible peace talks coming soon at some point on the Ukraine-Belarus border. If the United States demonstrates any hesitation here, it will only ignite even more jitters in Europe, where displays of fortitude in the Ukraine crisis have been higher than expected, so far.

There remains the possibility that Putin is actually deadly serious about the imminent use of Russian nuclear capabilities in the Ukraine theater. Perhaps things are actually going even worse for Russia than already reported in Western media. Putin could worry that a coming military debacle would suffice to have him removed from power, and perhaps even collapse the entire regime he and his cohorts have created. In such a desperate situation, using nuclear weapons would create an entirely new scenario. Putin could assign blame to others for Russia’s conventional military failures, and use the radical uncertainty of the first wartime use of nuclear weapons since 1945 to cling to power.

This scenario is unlikely, but obviously deeply concerning. To date, the Biden administration has flooded the airwaves with intelligence information about the Kremlin’s capabilities and plans before Putin’s invasion began, unfortunately to no deterrent effect, and perhaps too promiscuously. If, however, there is ever a moment to use intelligence declassification in an information warfare effort, this is it.

In the meantime, we have much to be done both in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world where our adversaries may try to take advantage of the priority we are rightly according to Ukraine. Putin’s nuclear threat needs to be assessed seriously but not reflexively.

Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.

Written By

Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.



  1. Commentar

    February 27, 2022 at 1:52 pm

    Putin knows what’s he doing, unlike Biden, who’s suffering from early stage dementia.

    NATO sec-gen Stoltenberg has insinuated NATO intention to send a fast response team to fight in ukraine, about same threat voiced by UK’s Johnson.

    Biden has already sent bombers & fighters to Europe, thus NATO & US intentions are crystal clear – to fight Russia to the death.

    Then there’s the undisguised threat of financially choking Russia to death by the west.

    But Russia has nuke missiles, including RS-28 Megaton killer ICBM that’s capable of giving armageddon to mankind.

    Nobody benefits from nuclear armageddon; the smoke and ash from burning cities & regions will produce massive clouds that’ll eventually rise to altitudes of 20-50 miles high up circling entire globe, blocking sunlight for several years – the dreaded nuclear winter !

    Putin knows what he’s doing. You want to die with me, I welcome you with all means ! But I don’t think you will dare to die as you have much more to lose than me ! ! !

  2. Alex

    February 27, 2022 at 1:55 pm

    Propagandists and “hotheads” in Washington did not understand that Russia would not retreat any more? Have you asked the American people if they want war? You considered it a bluff that Russia said that it would hit the decision-making centers around the world. This did not stop you, you again began to knock on the door at the threshold of Russia. You were recently told that Russia is ready for anything, incl. and for nuclear war. You laughed again. Now Russia has brought nuclear forces into a special combat status. Are you still funny? When will you leave Russia alone and let it decide for itself what happens on its borders? Do you want war? So the war will end with the offspring of the island of Britain, scorched Europe and the Canada-Mexico Strait. Stop, madmen, Russia is not joking!!!

  3. Alex

    February 27, 2022 at 1:56 pm

    Britain was meant to go under water.

  4. Slack

    February 27, 2022 at 3:04 pm

    Putin’s nuclear forces, especially his strategic forces, is the one trump card that he’s able to wield over the NATO-US-minions nexus.

    Putin’s 200-ton RS-28 Sarmat ICBM carries enough warheads on just a single rocket to wipe out a country as large as France or the state of Texas or the entire small continent of Australia.

    Moreover, Putin’s nuclear arsenal has the most number of mega-size or Megaton thermonuclear warheads. The Rs-28 for example can lunge up to >50 megatons of destructive punishment.

    You definitely have to think twice before messing with Putin’s nuclear forces.

  5. Commentar

    February 27, 2022 at 3:18 pm

    It is crystal clear the old man is totally senile,on the verge of entering a mental asylum and has completely lost his marbles. He’s just being only used by puppet masters of the dreaded deep state ruling cabal.

    The old man thought he could harangue, browbeat, scare, bark from the bully pulpit at putin to score an easy victory.

    But Putin has hit him with a bolt of earth-shaking lightning strike, and now the old man has runnout of options or run out of gas.

    Thus he is being drawn and trapped by deep state to get into a scrap with Putin. But Putin just snarled and showed old man his nuclear teeth.

    How’s old man gonna do this time? Sacrifice euro minions by a limited nuke exchange or high stakes nuke gamble ? Old man must have lost all his marbles by now.


    February 27, 2022 at 3:28 pm

    Donald trump is correct that Putin is smart, and a genius. Putin knows who can play games and who can’t.

    Trump has faulted his successor for being most responsible in starting the conflict in ukraine through his inept leadership and inability to deal with difficult situations.

    He has warned the world is near another world war, due to the consequences of a rigged election which are now becoming unavoidable and inescapable. Putin’s powerful nuclear forces are proof of his very sensible assertion. One press of the button, and the world is finished.

  7. BuzzBoss915

    February 27, 2022 at 3:43 pm

    Yeah, sure! So Russia drops that RS-28 and incinerates France….or Australia. That would be the one trigger for reluctant western countries to retaliate and turn Moscow into ashes. Then what?

    The fact that Putin is threatening nukes because western Europe has started talking aggressively lends credence to those that suggest he is losing his mind, as if this phony invasion has not already proved he’s just an irrational thug.

    I think he would be wise to hire more tasters.

  8. ZivBnd770

    February 27, 2022 at 7:48 pm

    Putin is the school yard bully who just got punched in the nose. And his response? Raise the alert level of our nuclear weapons! And the lackeys are saying that this makes Puty look stronger. Holy cr**, Putinistas are stupid.

  9. Jimmy John Doe

    February 27, 2022 at 8:59 pm

    The ruthlessness exhibited by the expensionist banderite US-Nato-zelenskyy nexus against Russia should provide the impetus for forging nuclear cooperation between Russia and Iran.

    Iran needs to become a nuclear power. Forget peaceful uses of nuclear technology. Since when has the western nations been ‘peaceful’ to others? They have tested live nuclear weapons on Japan and the marshall Islanders and have weaponized almost everything under the sun, from food, oxygen, medical supplies to refugee camps, jihadists, gas pipelines, oil, trade and international currency usage.

  10. Observer

    February 27, 2022 at 10:20 pm

    I grew up in totalitarian country which included both Russia and Ukraine. I couldn’t imagine that after its collapse Ukraine will become involved in confrontation between Russia and the West as an eager puppet. It’s remarkable that Western media presents Ukraine as a hero opposing evil force. Instead of making Ukraine neutral the West made Ukraine a flashpoint in order to suck in Russia in a bad war and use it as a reason to make it a villain and punish for that. Any critical thinker would see that the West did everything to make this conflict possible and succeeded in that. Unfortunately we all may pay for this unbelievably idiotic spectacle and prey that price will be bearable.

  11. Slack

    February 27, 2022 at 10:21 pm

    Sunday, feb 27 2022, Putin put his nuclear forces on high alert. This is very sensible, considering that US is only nation to hurl nuclear bombs.

    Not just nuclear bombs, US in past history has hurled bio weapons on people in south America, destitude people in America, especially blacks, and long-serving people in prisons.

    Bio-warfare research is tops in nowhere else but in US. Today, there are over 300 US labs and research centers that have access to pathogens highly infectious, rare or outright dangerous.

    The US DoD has bio labs around the globe, including several in former Soviet republics like ukraine and Georgia. There’s the Lucas center in tbilisi (which also rears highly special bio-modified insects), and several in ukraine.

    Ukraine signed a hush hush agreement with the US defence dept in 2012 to set up the first in Kyiv followed by later ones in Vinnytsia, uzhgorod, Odessa, and others

    The world must not be surprised if suddenly, or overnight, US state dept start accusing Russia of using germ warfare in ukraine, since the germ research is already well established there ! ! !

  12. korkinovova

    February 28, 2022 at 12:02 am

    Clear heads in the comments appeared. I’ll say a little more. One politician has been talking since about half a year. I will give his quote “- If Ukraine could weaken Russia.” I will not agree, for myself what would happen after if. So the use of a nuclear strike is not a bluff.

  13. Ronald Sevenster

    February 28, 2022 at 12:21 am

    This article to me seems just neo-con expansionist garbage.

  14. Chris Kyle

    February 28, 2022 at 12:32 pm

    Yep the russian troll farm rolls out the ‘nuke card’ and choose as targets France & Texas. ffs double keks. epic seethe & cope putin penis holsters unite !

  15. Eric-ji

    February 28, 2022 at 12:37 pm

    Putin is threatening nukes because it is now very apparent his military cannot effective take on Ukraine. NATO in a conventional war would demolish the Russian military. The situation in Ukraine has made that very clear to all. Russian military is not a threat. What threat does Putin still have? Nukes.

    Let’s hope he doesn’t use them. If he does, let’s hope they’re as ineffective as the rest of his military.

  16. Alex

    February 28, 2022 at 12:46 pm

    Russia does not deal crushing blows for the reason that the Bandera Nazis use the civilian population as a human shield, have the MLRS as close as possible to city buildings – this is a terrorist tactic. Over time, even without using weapons of great power, Russia will be able to clear residential areas from these terrorists.

  17. Sanel

    February 28, 2022 at 4:55 pm


  18. cd

    March 1, 2022 at 11:03 am

    So may russian propaganda bots here. Shut up

  19. Alex

    March 1, 2022 at 3:41 pm

    No. There are only two Nazi Bandera propagandists here.

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