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Would Putin Really Start a Nuclear War over Ukraine?

Cold War Nuclear Weapons Test. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Putin has made some very serious nuclear war-related threats over the last few months. While he says he is not bluffing no one really knows for sure what his true intentions and redlines over Ukraine are.

On October 26, President Vladimir Putin appeared on Russian state television overseeing a practice run of Russia’s strategic nuclear-deterrence forces.

The “grom,” or thunder nuclear exercise, involved nuclear submarines, strategic bombers, and ballistic missiles. As Putin looked on via video link from a control room, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu explained that the exercise simulated “a massive nuclear strike” in retaliation against a potential nuclear attack on Russia.

The drills were held in the Barents Sea in the Arctic, off the northern coasts of Norway and Russia, and the Kamchatka Peninsula in the far east, which is much closer to Alaska than to Moscow.

On September 21, Putin warned he would use “all available means to protect Russia and our people.” The televised “grom” added to Europe’s mounting worry that the war in Ukraine has put the possibility of a nuclear attack on the table.

Later that day, Putin repeated the Kremlin’s widely discredited claims that it’s Ukraine that’s preparing a provocation against Russia using a “dirty bomb” — a conventional munition laced with radioactive material.

“The desire to get nuclear weapons has been stated publicly by the authorities in Kyiv,” Putin told a meeting with the heads of special services of the Council of Independent States, a group of ex-Soviet countries and their neighbors. “It is also known about the plans to use the so-called ‘dirty bomb’ as a provocation.”

Ukraine and its Western allies have dismissed the claim.

Ukraine has charged that Russian forces are working on a dirty bomb at Ukraine’s captured Zaporizhzhia nuclear-power plant, and that dropping such a weapon on Ukrainian lands would create a pretext to retaliate against Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.

That night, over on Russian state TV, propagandist Vladimir Solovyov — who YouTube banned in March for advocating violence, including hitting civilian targets in Kyiv — wondered aloud whether Russia still has a nuclear capability.

“At least, we are holding exercises with our strategic nuclear weapons,” Solovyov, the host of Rossiya-1 TV, said. “But I hope we actually have them, and I hope we’re still capable of using them.”

Whether Putin is sincerely considering a nuclear or other catastrophic attack in Ukraine, or simply playing out an elaborate bluff to gain leverage, is still anyone’s guess.

Russia’s nuclear doctrine states nuclear weapons should be used in self-defense. However, some Russian officials have asserted that Moscow reserves the right to use nuclear strikes if there is an existential threat to the country or if there is an attack against Russia, even if the attack uses conventional weapons alone.

The conflict has revived Cold War-era fears of nuclear war across the region. Earlier this month, Ukraine’s neighbor to the west, Poland, ordered an inventory and inspection of its 62,000 bomb shelters.

Mounting losses and limited supplies

In Russia and abroad, there’s concern that Putin is growing increasingly desperate for a speedy victory — or at least to crush Ukraine to the satisfaction of his allies and supporters.

In the more than eight months since attacking Ukraine on February 24, Russia has absorbed four regions in eastern and southern Ukraine via annexations of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia and created a land bridge to Crimea. But as the conflict drags on, Russia has resorted to mobilizing 300,000 reservists and acquiring weapons and drones from Iran and North Korea.

An estimated 90,000 Russian soldiers have died, according to independent Russian media outlet iStories. In August, a Ukrainian official said that 9,000 Ukrainian military personnel had been killed, though another source said the number could be far higher. The UN reports that nearly 8 million Ukrainian refugees have fled the country since February, and multiple war crime-related investigations are underway.

Meanwhile, Russia appears to be running out of weaponry, including everything from missiles to helmets and boots.

Andrei Gurulyov, a Duma deputy and a retired general, estimated on Rossiya-1 two weeks ago that more than half of Russia’s arsenal is gone, including more than 80% of the powerful Iskander systems. He has called on the Kremlin not “to waste missiles.”

Western officials claim the Kremlin’s reserve of cruise missiles is running low, and that it’s had to rely on Iranian Shahed “kamikaze” drones. Speaking via video link at the G7 summit on October 10, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia had used the Iranian drones to attack dozens of civilian targets across Ukraine.

A rallying cry from the hawks

Back when Putin came to power in 2000 — becoming just the second Russian president following the demise of the Soviet Union — his main selling point was the promise of relative stability as Russia sought to regain its place on the world stage.

Now, there is real fear that Putin has become hostage to ultra-nationalists and hardliners. These figures, who are given far more freedom to speak their minds than nearly anyone else in Russia, cheered the war, and have since pushed the Kremlin to be more decisive and brutal in Ukraine.

Evidence that the pressure campaign was having an effect seemed to come earlier this month when Putin ordered the bombing of 12 Ukrainian cities on October 10 with 500kg cruise missiles in revenge for the attack on the Kerch bridge in Crimea two days before.

The response from the hawkish mix of generals, pro-Kremlin TV personalities, and ultra-nationalists was largely, if cautiously, positive.

Aleksandr Kots, the pro-Kremlin war correspondent, questioned on his Telegram channel whether the bombings were “a one-time action of retaliation” or signaled a shift in the war or a new system of warfare. Kots, who has 686,0000 followers on his Telegram channel, said he favors the use of cruise missiles until “the Ukrainian state loses its ability to function.”

On October 13, Russian military expert Alexander Sharkovsky appeared on an NTV panel urging Putin to use nuclear “carpet bombings from the air” to obliterate swaths of Ukraine and regain the front foot in the invasion.

He echoed the concern of other hawkish commentators that Democratic Party leaders in the US might be pushing for a major strategic victory in Ukraine as a show of strength ahead of midterm elections on November 8. The US has   committed to sending nearly $18 billion in weapons and other equipment to Ukraine since February 24, according to the Associated Press — including another $275 million announced on October 28.

Over on the Rossiya-1 channel, Gurulyov has called on the military to build on recent strikes that targeted Ukraine’s power stations and the distribution grid — and destroy Ukraine’s electricity grid completely.

“We will turn off all the electricity in Ukraine and everything will come to a standstill, including railways and transportation,” he said. “Those crowds of refugees that will start flowing can clog up the highways.

“It could get very interesting if their sewers are blocked for a week as epidemics will start,” he said. “Dysentery and other nasty stuff will crop up.”

Zelenskyy previously estimated that 30% of Ukraine’s power stations have been damaged or destroyed, though the figure is now likely to be greater.

One figure who has gone quiet in recent days is Igor Girkin, a leading ultra-nationalist who led the pro-Russian separatists in 2014 trying to wrest the Donbass region from Kyiv’s control, and now boasts 750,000 followers on Telegram. According to a statement his wife made on Instagram, Girkin has gone to the front lines.

Ukraine has responded by putting a $100,000 bounty on Girkin’s head.

The Kremlin, too, seems to be losing patience with Girkin and other popular, ultra-nationalist bloggers. In mid-October, several Russian media outlets reported that law-enforcement agencies were checking Telegram for posts discrediting the army and other “fake news.”

Meanwhile, domestic opposition to the war appears to be building. Since the mobilization was announced, an estimated 700,000 Russian men have fled the country. In Moscow, where young men were being rounded up on the metro, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced suddenly on October 17 that conscription was over. Other regions with less influence may have to make up the shortfall.

In the Republic of Bashkortostan — an oil-rich, predominantly Muslim region of central Russia — activists said the plan was to seek independence rather than fight and die for “a Russian world.” According to news reports, they are organizing an armed resistance.

Kadyrov and Prigozhin

While Putin has publicly declined to acknowledge any criticism of the war, The Washington Post reported that Evgeny Prigozhin, the billionaire founder of the Wagner mercenary group who is known as “Putin’s Chef,” confronted him about his military’s failings.

Prigozhin, who has personally toured Russian prisons to recruit 1,000 convicts, reportedly told Putin that his Defense Ministry was leaning too heavily on Wagner while giving them insufficient support.

In addition to Prigozhin, another big gun with some immunity to criticize Russia’s war effort is the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. On the day of Putin’s Valdai address, Kadyrov wrote in a Telegram post that Prigozhin was a “born warrior” who should be listened to carefully.

“As Yevgeny Prigozhin correctly noted, tactical and personnel changes are needed,” Kadyrov’s post said. “Now, not tomorrow.”

In the same post, General Alexander Lapin, the commander of the Central Military District, also sharply criticized him. According to Kadyrov, Lapin had been incommunicado for the “past few days” after Ukrainian forces had broken through and seized the towns of Terny, Torskoye, and Yamplovka in the Donetsk region.

“If I had my way, I would demote Lapin to a private, deprive him of his awards and, with a machine gun in his hands, send him to the front lines to wash away the shame with blood,” Kadyrov, who claims his three underage sons are now fighting on the frontlines, wrote.

Kadyrov and Prigozhin have, in recent months, been engaged in a very public bromance designed to undermine Shoigu’s position and create a power structure to rival Russia’s Armed Forces.

Conflicts between different power centres is a familiar pattern for Kremlinologists. Putin frequently employs an old KGB tactic of encouraging competing factions of power and permitting feuds between different camps. The logic would suggest it is better that the clans fight one another than try to oust him.

But it’s one thing for such machinations to happen during peacetime. The stakes are far higher in times of war.

A rush to heaven?

On October 27 — the day after supervising the military exercises — Putin insisted the “special military operation” in Ukraine was “still going according to plan.”

Appearing at the annual conference at Valdai, a Kremlin-backed think tank, the Russian president downplayed talk of a nuclear escalation in Ukraine, insisting that Russia’s military doctrine was defensive and that he had no desire to be in the place of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader whose brinkmanship with US President John F. Kennedy brought the world to the precipice of a nuclear war in 1962.

“We see no need for that,” Putin told the delegates. “There is no point in that, neither political nor military.”

Fyodor Lukyanov, Valdai’s research director and the session’s moderator, reminded Putin of his comments at the same forum in 2018.

Back then, Lukyanov had asked Putin about his statement, “Why do we need a world if Russia isn’t in it.” In a wide-ranging answer, Putin had offered, almost as an aside, that Russian victims of nuclear war “will go to heaven as martyrs” while Western citizens would perish without having “time to repent.”

Raising those comments again, Lukyanov said: “Many people became slightly nervous remembering what you said on this very platform, at our event four years ago, that we would all go to heaven.”

“But we are in no hurry, right?”

The assembled foreign-policy experts in the hall laughed nervously. Putin pursed his lips and fell silent for an almost interminable four or five seconds.

Lukyankov intervened; it was “somewhat alarming” that Putin was so lost in his thoughts, he said.

“I became absorbed in thought for a purpose, to disturb you all,” Putin eventually replied, to more nervous laughter. He then added quietly: “The goal has been achieved.”

Jason Corcoran is a journalist who lived for 12 years in Russia and who has reported and travelled around the former Soviet Union region for 16 years. In Moscow, he was a senior reporter at Bloomberg News and Dow Jones. Prior to moving to Russia, he worked in London for Financial News, the Sunday Times, the Financial Times Group and the Evening Standard. This first appeared in Insider. 

Written By

Jason Corcoran is a journalist who lived for 12 years in Russia and who has reported and travelled around the former Soviet Union region for 16 years. In Moscow, he was a senior reporter at Bloomberg News and Dow Jones. Prior to moving to Russia, he worked in London for Financial News, the Sunday Times, the Financial Times Group and the Evening Standard.