Nuclear Risk

“Not a bluff:” Losing ground in Ukraine, Putin raises nuclear threats

By François Diaz-Maurin, September 21, 2022

Russia’s war in Ukraine seemed to have escalated this week when, in a videotaped address to the nation, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the partial mobilization of the country’s military and made an indirect threat of nuclear weapons use. Anticipating the unpopularity of the mobilization, Putin clarified that “only military reservists, primarily those who served in the armed forces and have specific military occupational specialties and corresponding experience, will be called up.”

Accusing the United States and its allies of engaging in “nuclear blackmail,” Putin noted darkly that “I want to remind you that our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO countries have.”

Putin’s address comes at a critical juncture in his war in Ukraine, with Russia’s military facing setbacks, heavy casualties, logistical problems, and declining morale. Earlier this month, Ukrainian forces stunned Russia—and the world—with a swift offensive in the northern region, regaining over 1,000 square miles of territory from the occupying Russian forces. Ukraine also has been pushing a counteroffensive in the southern Kherson region, although with limited gains. In the latest indication of the growing offensive capability of Ukrainian forces, UK intelligence reported that the Russian Navy has removed some of its submarines from the port of Sevastopol in occupied Crimea, apparently out of concerns about their vulnerability to Ukrainian long-range missiles.

Since the start of the war, Russia has increasingly relied on the use of mercenaries through a private military company called the Wagner Group—the existence of which Russian officials have denied until very recently. The group has been hiring broadly, even enrolling convicts from prisons, to compensate for the lack of Russian military personnel in Ukraine. These efforts, however, seemed to have been insufficient to avoid the partial military mobilization Putin announced.

Putin’s address seemed to be more than merely a response to military challenges on the battlefield. It was also an apparent attempt to reassert his domestic authority as he faces increased criticism at home for his handling of the war in Ukraine. Since the start of his “special military operation” in February, the Russian president has tried to keep life as unchanged as possible for Russians, despite the unmissable economic consequences of sanctions. But Ukraine’s counter-offensive in recent weeks has changed the contours of the war. Claiming at a summit in Uzbekistan last week that Ukraine was attempting to carry out “terrorist acts” inside Russia, Putin threatened to escalate the war in response if his “warning strikes” on Ukrainian infrastructure were not taken seriously.

Even then, some interpreted Putin’s decision to go for a partial—not a general—mobilization and his renewed—but vague—nuclear threats as a clear indication of a weakened position. But many experts believe that’s precisely when Russia’s leader may be the most dangerous. A stubborn Putin, cornered on the ground, and whose authority is increasingly questioned at home is more likely to be willing to reaffirm—and use all—his power.

Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, wrote on Twitter that “today’s developments are disturbing because they suggest that Russia may not be willing to lose in Ukraine.” But military analysts say a mobilization would take several months—even up to a year—before it leads to any significant operational benefit on the ground. It is not clear how much time Putin thinks he has left to reverse the course of his war before events overtake him—politically or militarily.

Russia also changed the contours of the war this week when proxy officials installed in four occupied regions in Ukraine—Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizka—announced their plans to hold referendums on formally joining Russia. If annexed—even if not recognized by the international community—this move could potentially lead to a stark escalation of the war. Any future military operation by Ukraine in those regions could be seen as an attack on Russia itself. On his Telegram channel, Dmitri Medvedev, the former Russian president and vice chairman of Russia’s Security Council, wrote that the “encroachment on the territory of Russia is a crime and allows to use all the forces of self-defense,” which would include nuclear forces.

During his address, Vladimir Putin renewed his nuclear threats accusing the West of engaging in “nuclear blackmail” against Russia. “I am referring to the statements made by some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO countries on the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction – nuclear weapons – against Russia,” Putin said. However, several analysts immediately questioned such accusations, saying they were not documented. Putin did not provide the names of the officials who supposedly discussed using nuclear weapons against Russia or details of the supposed “nuclear blackmailing” the West was conducting.

But Putin went on and bluntly unrolled his threat: “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.”

As if anticipating such an unfolding of events, US President Biden sent a direct message to Putin on television last week, referring to the risk that Russia may use chemical weapons or tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine: “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. It would change the face of war unlike anything since World War II,” Biden said.

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View Comments

  • It's about 1 second to midnight. Biden won't back down. Putin won't back down. We are screwed. Love your family as much as you can with the time you have left. God help us all.

  • This is a very good article. John Mearsheimer predicted that this was going to be a long war and Russia would not allow itself to loose. Russia sees nukes on it's borders as an existential threat. We almost started WWIII over the Cuban Missile crisis finding missiles right at our border unacceptable. In 2008 much to the dismay of the Europeans Bush junior doubled down and pushed for having Ukraine become a member of NATO. And Putin has been screaming foul to the top of his lungs ever since. Albeit Putin is as guilty as guilty gets by invading but I fear Bush was playing with matches around a barral full of gasoline by insisting we groom Ukraine for NATO membership.

    • Everybody knows Russia killed any hope of Ukraine becomong part of NATO with its 2014 invasion. There is no way NATO would admit Ukraine with an active Russian military and paramilitary presence within its borders since that would effectively immediately put NATO at war with Russia, and Russia understood this perfectly well. Its at least half the reason for the 2014 invasion and any serious concern Russia had over Ukraine joining NATO ended then. Everything to that effect since is just pretext.

      • You have a good point. Thank you. I would have rather hoped Biden would have been able to negotiate a gentle peace between Russia and Ukraine instead of sending arms and inflictiog sanctions. Putin seems to want revenge on Ukraine. Maybe a psychopath? This is why being armed to the teeth with nukes is a very bad idea for humanity, I think they call it mutual assured destruction. You never know when a loony tune is going to get in power.

  • So, Nuclear war? or Putin replaced with a much worse leader? Or, -- we win! and Russia is no longer a threat.
    For the nuclear Warhawks in the US, this last is the worst. With only China as a Cold War enemy, funding for 'deterrence' (aka, global nuclear Uber-dominance,) may go way down.

  • The Bulletin imho is doing a terrible job of following this situation with Ukraine v Russia, China v Taiwan and all the other smaller squabbles that could lead us to nuclear war. People don't seem to car that they and their families will be vaporized at any time. Or worse burned alive. Civilzation destroyed, they are pre occupied with trash on tv and social networks.

  • Isn’t the rules of engagement on the battlefield the biggest threat? Russian field commanders have freedom to use tactical nukes at will while with US/NATO it must come from the President

    • This is correct. A brigade/division commander in Russia can choose the target of a tactical nuke and give a command. Two caveats: 1) He must be authorized to use nuclear weapons by the top brass 2) Top generals and Putin himself tend to micromanage so this is unlikely ever to happen this way.

      • Therefore, the top command must grant authorization first. It is not like unruled freedom to use nukes.

  • Too me it sounded more for Russian consumption than anything else.
    He's calling up the reserves and is promising them and the families he'll go all the way if needed.
    "You aren't going to your possible death in a war we won't do what it will take to win" is what I heard.
    Internal propaganda; Biden and the GOP does it here on all sorts of topics/issues too including this war.

  • I think Putin would be frustrated to have lost the conventional war , his frustration would have pushed him to consider using the nuclear weapons . I thing that he will be the big loser if he persist in the way .

  • What will happen in the next few days is certain.
    Russia is pursuing a formal legal approach. After the referenda, the territories of the DPR and LVR will be declared Russian territories. Since Ukrainian troops are partially on them, this will be considered a Ukrainian invasion. This will lead to a formal declaration of war on the part of Russia.
    The first consequences of this will be the bombing - which has not yet taken place - of Ukraine's energy infrastructure and transportation hubs such as train stations and bridges. In addition, previously unused Russian weapons, such as vacuum bombs, will be deployed. Further escalations are not excluded.

  • An old Physical Therapy saying: "Use 'em or lose 'em."
    Putin has never backed down. His actions, in game theory, entirely predictable, if he used nukes to change the outcome of the war.

    Wouldn't it be cool if the same energy, blood and treasure spent on 'deterrence' were spent on disarmament? Where is the already drawn up 'disarmament scenario', where the West uses its vast resources to end nuclear weapons on the face of the Earth?
    No? Then we're all damned, and like a fading Putin, we will strike out rather than die by slow attrition.
    Nukes are a dialogue. Neither side is talking.
    The West, that holds the whip hand, will never lose its grip on 'deterrence', aka, global nuclear dominance in all places and all theaters.
    We may as well start writing civilization's epitaph.

    • Your disarmament plan requires everybody to disarm which isn't going to happen. Russia is now even rebuffing efforts to negotiate a new START treaty. They are not going to disarm their nuclear forces. They were never going to, but especially not now with their conventional military weakness on full display. Then there's N Korea, Pakistan, India, and Israel which certainly views its nuclear weapons as a vital deterrent against all the Islamic nations surrounding it. Disarmament is not happening. No nation is giving up its nukes as long as any other nation keeps theres, especially after what's happened to Ukraine after giving theirs up.

      • Surely Russia is sceptical about new treaties. The US has already refused to sign treaty extensions. It takes two to tango.