Russian President Vladimir Putin has made repeated nuclear threats since he ordered the Ukraine invasion, sparking backlash and concerns across the world. Putin could even decide to attack Ukraine with a tactical nuclear weapon if he gets desperate enough, Western governments and top Russia analysts have warned.
But a former KGB agent is throwing cold water on the worries that Putin — a KGB officer during the Cold War who is now extremely powerful and reportedly a multibillionaire — would use such a devastating weapon.
“During the Cold War, it was pretty tense and we got pretty close to nuclear war a couple of times. But the Soviet leaders were not suicidal. They didn’t wanna die. This was guaranteed mutual destruction. Vladimir Putin is not a suicide bomber. Vladimir Putin wants to live,” Jack Barsky, who served as an undercover agent in the US for the KGB during the last decade of the Cold War, told Insider.
Barsky, who was born Albrecht Dittrich in East Germany before getting recruited by the KGB, said that Putin might be a “maniac” but he’s not suicidal.
“He’s still working on his legacy, and he pretty much knows that if he explodes a nuke — he’s toast. That’s not the kind of legacy that he’s interested in,” Barsky said of Putin, adding, “Putin may pretend to be very spiritual because he wears a cross, and he now goes to church. But he’s a rational thinker. And for him to start something that pretty much guarantees his demise is highly unlikely.”
Barsky served during the same era at the KGB as Putin and has interacted with one of the Russian leader’s former KGB bosses, Oleg Kalubin. Barsky eventually became a US citizen and consulted the FBI and NSA — offering insights on the KGB — after being exposed as a former sleeper agent in the 1990s.
Barsky also questioned how the use of a tactical nuclear weapon — whose explosive force can range from conventional blasts to ones larger than the US’s 1945 attack on Hiroshima, Japan — would fundamentally change the war and benefit Putin.
“How do you get more territory by exploding a nuke and killing a hundred thousand people?” Barsky said, going on to say that such an attack could backfire by also exposing Russian troops to potentially deadly radiation.
Shortly after the war began, Putin claimed to have placed Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces on high alert. He’s consistently made references to Russia’s nuclear arsenal, which is the largest in the world, in public remarks on the war on Ukraine. “This is not a bluff,” Putin said in September after making a veiled threat to employ nuclear weapons while vowing to defend Russia’s “territorial integrity.”
Top Russian military officials recently had conversations on the circumstances under which Russia might use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, according to recent reports citing new US intelligence. But Putin was reportedly not involved in the discussions, and a report from CNN suggests that US officials are divided over the intelligence and aren’t sure what to make of it.
Some officials were quite alarmed by the intelligence and are worried about the desperate actions Russia might take as it becomes increasingly frustrated in Ukraine. But other officials believe that the intelligence may have been taken out of context and isn’t a sign that Russia is taking steps to use such a weapon, CNN said.
Putin in late October also tamped down the nuclear rhetoric somewhat, suggesting using such a weapon in Ukraine would serve no purpose. “We see no need for that,” Putin said in remarks at a conference attended by foreign policy experts, per the Associated Press, adding: “There is no point in that, neither political, nor military.”
Top Russia and military experts have also assessed that there is not an imminent risk of Putin employing a tactical nuclear weapon, but have underscored that the Kremlin’s threats should be taken seriously and that the risk will go up as Russian forces continue to suffer losses and Ukraine’s forces recapture territory.
John Haltiwanger is a senior politics reporter at Business Insider (where this first appeared). He reports on all things politics with a particular focus on national security and foreign policy. John has a BA in History from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and an MSc in International Relations from the University of Glasgow. When he’s not reporting, John is likely searching for the best pizza slice in Brooklyn or watching/playing soccer.