A Closer Look At Vladimir Putin’s Nuclear Threats

Vladimir Putin has made a number of statements that can be taken as threats to use nuclear weapons. He reminds us that Russia has nuclear weapons. The statements are ambiguous, but, in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine, can be taken as threats. Let’s look more closely at those statements.

At the beginning of the war, there was a cluster of statements: February 24 and 27, and March 5 and 16. Then a statement in the middle of April, and then a jump to June, and another jump to September and October. During the summer, the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant was under attack, which kept nuclear fears in the news.

The February 24 statement was part of the declaration of war against Ukraine.

No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history. No matter how the events unfold, we are ready. All the necessary decisions in this regard have been taken.

This statement is stronger than the customary US statement “all options are on the table” and has the tone of Donald Trump’s statements to North Korea about possible nuclear use.

The televised part of the February 27 meeting with Generals Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov was short. Putin ordered “Defence Minister and Chief of the General Staff to put Russian Army’s deterrence forces on high combat alert.” His words did not correspond to the official designations of nuclear alerts, and no signs were detected by the US government or independent organizations of mobilization of Russian nuclear forces.

On March 5, Putin walked back that “alert,” blaming it on a statement by Elizabeth Truss, then UK Foreign Secretary.

I think that our so-called partners understand what this can lead to and how much is at stake, despite their reckless statements, for example, like the statement made by the UK Foreign Secretary, when she blurted out that NATO could get involved in the conflict. And we immediately had to take a decision to put our deterrence forces on high alert.

….

We are not planning to declare a state of alert on the territory of the Russian Federation. There are no such plans and no necessity for this now.

An “alert” seems like an overreaction to Truss’s statement,

If we don’t stop Putin in Ukraine we are going to see others under threat – the Baltics, Poland, Moldova, and it could end up in a conflict with Nato.

We do not want to go there. That is why it is so important we make the sacrifices now.

but there seems not to have been an actual alert, so the whole thing may have been theater on Putin’s part. In his Valdai speech, Putin once again referred to the Truss statement.

Additionally, on March 5 and 16, Putin accused Ukraine of trying to acquire nuclear and biological weapons as a partial justification for his invasion. This is also a continuing theme through his statements during the war.

Then a month passed with no nuclear threats. On April 20, Putin watched, via videoconference, the launch of a Sarmat ICBM. His statement after the launch was similar to what any national leader might say about a new weapon, although it heated up at the end.

The new complex has the highest tactical and technical characteristics and is capable of overcoming all modern means of anti-missile defence. It has no analogues in the world and will not have any for a long time to come.

This truly unique weapon will strengthen the combat potential of our Armed Forces, reliably ensuring Russia’s security against external threats, and will be a wakeup call for those who are trying to threaten our country in the frenzy of rabid, aggressive rhetoric.

At the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 17, Putin made a general statement in his prepared talk.

We are not threatening anyone. However, everyone should know what resources we have, and what we will use, if need be, to defend our sovereignty. This is an obvious thing.

This is part of a response to a question about Donetsk in that same meeting.

With regard to the red lines, let me keep this to myself, because on our part it will include fairly tough actions targeted at the decision-making centres that you and I mentioned. Still, the country’s military-political leadership should be in the lead on making those decisions. The individuals who deserve actions of that level coming their way from us should realise what they may be facing if they cross these lines.

On June 25, Putin suggested to President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus that his Su-25 planes might be modified to carry nuclear weapons. An announcement on October 15 said that some Su-25 aircraft would be converted for Belarus, presumably in Russia.

On September 21, Putin spoke about the “referendums” held in the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine. Again, this threat is very general.

I would like to remind those who make such statements [referred to earlier as “nuclear blackmail”] regarding Russia that our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO countries have. 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.

And in the very emotional and rambling speech about signing “treaties” with the four Russian-installed leaders of the occupied Russian provinces on September 30,

The United States is the only country in the world that has used nuclear weapons twice, destroying the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. And they created a precedent.

In a press conference on October 14, Putin was questioned by Sergei Dianov of Ria Novosti about whether he thought that NATO would send troops into Ukraine.

…sending troops into direct engagement, a direct clash with the Russian Army is a very dangerous step that could lead to a global catastrophe. I hope those who talk about this will be smart enough not to undertake such dangerous steps.

At the Valdai Discussion Club on October 27, Putin said nothing about nuclear weapons in his prepared speech, although that speech contains his usual grievances about the West and nationalist history of Russia. In response to a question by Ivan Safranchuk of MGIMO University, however, he poured out a voluminous rant both threatening nuclear use and saying he had never done such a thing.

Threat: “Look, as long as nuclear weapons exist, there will always be a danger that they could be used.”

Denial: “…we have never said anything proactively about Russia potentially using nuclear weapons. All we did was hint in response to statements made by Western leaders.”

He again explains the February 27 “alert” as responding to a statement by Liz Truss, then foreign secretary of the UK and personally attacks Truss. He accuses Ukraine of shelling the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and finishes his rant with a recommendation to read Russia’s statement of nuclear doctrine.

***

Putin has made nine statements that can be taken to threaten the use of nuclear weapons is not large. Most of those statements are general, along the lines of the formulaic “all options are on the table” used by American presidents. There was a walkback of one of the statements, and what can be taken to be partial walkbacks of others.

Putin’s use of the formulaic is in the context of his unprovoked war on Ukraine. This context magnifies the threat in those formulas. Western news coverage amplifies and repeats Putin’s statements to make them feel like they are more frequent than they are. Additionally, news coverage has not taken note of the fact that Putin has at least partially walked back some of those statements.

Any or all of Putin’s statements can be lies, as was his assurance that Russia would not invade Ukraine again in February. This makes any analysis uncertain. Focusing on possible nuclear use also distracts from the reality of the war as it is now proceding. Because the use of a tactical nuclear weapon could lead to a more general war, that possibility shifts the focus from Ukraine to other countries, particularly the United States, as Timothy Snyder has observed.

For now, Putin’s denial at Valdai of plans for nuclear use are fairly strong, and even stronger was the denial by the Russian Ambassador to the UK in an interview with Christiane Amanpour.

Putin is being deterred. But, as Jeffrey Lewis observes, deterrence is terrifying. No signs have been detected that Russia is preparing for a nuclear strike, and that is the bottom line.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money