He is vacillating from war to peace – talking about peace negotiations one day and nuclear weapons during other news cycles.
The war in Ukraine is far away from a cease-fire considering that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wants the Kremlin to agree to war crimes tribunals and a complete withdrawal from Ukrainian territory, which Russia resists.
Ukraine War Is Slowing Down for the Winter
Ukrainian forces are not advancing as they did during the raging counteroffensive it waged earlier this year.
Russia and Ukraine are digging in for the winter. Russian generals are attempting to train the hundreds of thousands of conscripts Putin called up to prepare for his own counteroffensive in January or February.
Ukraine Has Hit Russia Within Its Borders
These do not seem to be the conditions that would force Putin’s hand and encourage him to deploy a nuclear weapon.
But Ukraine is using its own drones to attack bases in Russian territory. So far, these strikes have been more annoying than decisive, but that could change.
The U.S. and NATO Have Unwavering Support for Ukraine
Also, the United States and NATO continue to supply military hardware and ammunition to the Ukrainians which gets under Putin’s skin.
Putin needs his army to make some sort of breakthrough in the war and that could lead to Russia using battlefield tactical nuclear devices to punch a hole through Ukrainian lines and freeze the West into inactivity as Ukrainian allies figure out what to do – a situation where a crisis could be escalated then de-escalated.
Escalation to a Nuclear Crisis Is a Russian Option
This “escalate to de-escalate” stratagem does not require a nuclear weapon detonation as it is designed to frighten the West into curtailing its support for Ukraine and a way for Putin to exit the war in his favor.
The United States would likely respond to a Russian nuclear weapon with the destruction of the Russian Black Sea naval fleet and perhaps limited conventional strikes against the Kremlin’s nuclear infrastructure.
It probably would not mean an American nuclear response, at least at first. It would depend on whether Russia would choose to go nuclear a second time.
The Threat Is Always There
Since Russia is a nuclear power, Ukraine’s allies must take Putin’s threats seriously. Russian television, the source where many Russians get their news, often makes nuclear threats against American cities. This prepares the public for plausible nuclear use.
Arms Control Agreements Are Less Restrictive
One problem that Putin is exploiting is the lack of arms control mechanisms aside from New START treaty that is still in effect. The United States pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019. In 2002, the Americans dropped the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty it had signed with the Soviet Union in 1972.
This creates an environment in which Russia can expand its various nuclear programs such as improving intercontinental ballistic missiles with the Satan II and developing nuclear-tipped torpedoes like the Poseidon.
No American or NATO Active Participation in the War
Putin enjoys an advantage with Russian nuclear weapons. He can ensure that the United States and NATO would not directly attack Russia for fear of sparking nuclear Armageddon. This is an effective deterrent for Russia to focus on its Near Abroad former Soviet states such as Ukraine, Latvia, and Georgia.
Russia has a definite sphere of influence, even if Moscow waves the white flag and stops the war or enters into peace negotiations with a cease fire.
Thus, nuclear deterrence is a major part of Russian strategy, and if this means making threats, so be it. Moscow will not be afraid to escalate toward a nuclear crisis and de-escalate the situation once it has frightened the West. Russia’s use of nuclear weapons is always a plausible scenario, even if their use is not probable at this time. Russia can always play the final nuclear card. Putin has control over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal at around 6,000 warheads.
The nuclear option creates a situation that puts Ukraine and the West at a distinct disadvantage, even if Russia continues to maintain that it would only go nuclear in a defensive situation.
Author Expertise and Experience: Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.