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.

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Putin’s Continuing Accusations of Ukrainian WMD

Vladimir Putin is throwing it all against the wall today. Today’s statement includes that Ukraine has become an instrument of US foreign policy, has practically lost its sovereignty, its territory has been turned into a testing ground for biological experiments, and now it is being pumped up with weapons. I think that included nuclear weapons. Moar:

Putin has used nuclear fear since the beginning of his war. He started with threats when he declared war on February 24.

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.

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Putin’s Nuclear Threats In His Own Words

Update 10/25/2022: I’ve added an April 20 quote at the suggestion of François Heisbourg and September 30 from  Gene Dannen. Thanks to both.

As we try to decipher Sergey Shoigu’s phonecalls to the Defense Ministers of the US, UK, and France, I decided to look at the threats Vladimir Putin has made since February 24. I combed through all his speeches on the President of Russia website, and this is what I found. Let me know if I’ve missed something. I have left out threats by others like Dmitri Medvedev and the Russian tv brigade.

I’ve included context with each quote, and you can link back to the speeches to find further context.

February 24, 2022: Address by the President of the Russian Federation

I would now like to say something very important for those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside. 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. I hope that my words will be heard.

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Be Careful What You Wish For

What effect will Putin’s war have on Russia? There’s an active trade in historical analogies, but the more I look at those analogies, the more I become convinced that few of them work. They don’t even rhyme.

War in Europe because of an attempted grab by a declining power with no strong allies. It doesn’t fit the Cold War Soviet attack through the Fulda Gap, the objectives of which were never clear – control of West Germany? Disruption of Europe’s prosperity? Perhaps it’s a little like Vietnam, with the technologically favored side being undercut by defenders of the homeland and now a draft of unwilling fighters.

World War I started between major powers who were spoiling for a war and did it very badly. Russia has mobilized three times, I’ve seen more than once on Twitter: World War I, World War II, and now. It went badly for them in World War I.

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Would Vladimir Putin Use Nuclear Weapons?

As Russia’s situation deteriorates on the battlefield, concerns grow about the possibility that Vladimir Putin might try to change the situation with a battlefield nuclear weapon. The war is so far confined to Ukraine, which makes it highly unlikely that Putin would reach out with strategic nuclear weapons to begin World War III. That’s all I’ll say about that.

Early on in Russia’s war, Putin was quick to remind the world that Russia possesses nuclear weapons. That brought on a spate of commentary about a nuclear umbrella for war and the circumstances in which Russia might use those weapons. The conclusion was that Russia might use battlefield nuclear weapons to stave off a defeat, but not before.

General mobilization of the Russian population would allow Putin to increase military numbers. But it would be an admission that the war is going badly. In the same way, the use of a nuclear weapon would be an admission that the war is going badly. Putin seems to be firmly resisting the first. The admission of failure might be enough to prevent the second.

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Nuclear Weapons And Russia’s War On Ukraine

Would Russia use nuclear weapons in Ukraine? A number of people have approached this question boldly in recent days and have boldly asserted that we don’t know. I join in that conclusion, but it’s always interesting to work through the argument.

Over the past year, I’ve been reading Fred Kaplan’s The Wizards of Armageddon closely. It’s a history of the development of nuclear strategy. A great many of the recent articles have reproduced that development in short form. That’s because, I would argue, there’s not much to nuclear strategy. Clausewitz tells us that it’s easy for war to run out of control. When the weapons of war are potentially world-ending, it is essential that war not run out of control. That limits actions and responses.

The deterrence properties of those weapons have been working in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Part of the reason NATO has not joined the war directly is that its entry would move everything too much closer to a nuclear exchange. Similarly, Russia has not attacked NATO members. Nuclear deterrence limits the geographic scope of the war.

Russia’s stated threshold for nuclear weapons use is “an existential threat to the country.” Given Putin’s rhetoric about the reasons for making war on Ukraine, it is hard to know what he considers an existential threat to Russia. Although he has claimed that Ukraine’s sovereignty poses an existential threat to Russia, he allowed his military to back off from a general conquest of Ukraine when it looked like that would not work. There is evidently some flexibility in Putin’s understanding of that phrase.

What happens if the war starts going very badly for Putin? If it looks, say, like Russian ammunition is running out and Ukrainian troops are pushing Russian troops toward the border? Might Putin consider using a nuclear weapon to change the course of the war?

This article gives a bit of the historical background on nuclear strategy and lays out the options clearly, although leaning toward the military ones. Let’s say Russia drops a small nuclear weapon on, say, the Zaporizhzhye nuclear plant. What are NATO’s response options? I say NATO because they’re the ones with nuclear weapons, not Ukraine.

  • Do not strike back, but proclaim Russian inhumanity in using nuclear weapons
  • Nuclear attack on an equivalent target within Russia
  • Escalate a nuclear attack to a higher-value target
  • Strike with a conventional force

The downsides, respectively, are

  • Russia may take this as having a free hand to attack its neighbors.
  • Could go into a slow-motion tit for tat situation or escalate to more nuclear use.
  • Very likely to escalate.
  • Nuclear escalation possible, but less likely.

The last seems to be the most likely NATO response, although much depends on specifics.

These options add up to everything that is possible in a nuclear war that starts on the battlefield, rather than a transcontinental attack. Even there, the options are similar.

Nuclear strategists have been struggling with the simplicity of this pattern since the first bombs were dropped in 1945. They have not come up with new answers. The edgier among them like to try to game out scenarios involving a few small hits, which involve enormous assumptions as to the fear or good will of the other side. Usually they will lament the American lack of tactical nuclear weapons in contrast to Russia’s two thousand or so. But those “small” weapons might be the size of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki weapons. Too small, and there’s not much difference in destruction from conventional weapons. Larger, and at some point someone is likely to target beyond the battlefield.

The two atom bombs dropped by the US on Japan were the only ones in existence at that time. Nobody could retaliate. But that’s no longer the case. And, just as in any war scenario, much depends on the specifics of the situation and the people involved, perhaps even more so with nuclear weapons. Right now, it looks like we’re a long way from nuclear weapon use.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Putin’s Associates At The Long Table

The old Kremlinology was one thing – whether Khrushchev or Molotov was standing next to Stalin above Lenin’s tomb may have had meaning – but Vladimir Putin’s Kremlinology is something else.

Putin assures us that he is sitting at his long table next to Peter the Great and Alexander Nevsky, and it looks like Ivan the Terrible is there too. But Khrushchev and Molotov had a record we could (more or less) look at in terms of their climb to Kremlin power, and their other public dealings. The Soviet Union, indeed, was obscure in some ways, but what is important about Putin’s associates is what he thinks their roles and identities were. What he thinks is often at odds with what the rest of us know of history.

Most recently, Putin has invoked Peter the Great to justify a land grab against Ukraine but left out Peter’s opening to Europe. It’s clear that Putin is grabbing at the pieces of Russian history that he feels most comfortable with or that help him justify his war. We don’t know to what degree he believes any of this, nor do we know how much the people around him influence him.

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Vladimir Putin’s Red Mercury Scam

Y’all know about red mercury, right? It’s the secret to making nuclear weapons out of something that isn’t uranium or plutonium. Or it makes those fissile materials more fissile. Or it’s in the detonators. If you’re interested, I know a source…

C. J. Chivers wrote the ultimate story on it back in 2015. It’s allegedly been for sale to terrorists in the Middle East, and Russia was buzzing about it in the 1990s, after the Soviet breakup. I recall questions about it circulating at Los Alamos at that time, which was the first I heard of it.

Sergei Dobrynin and Robert Coalson have written about the role of a St. Petersburg official in a red mercury scam of the 1990s, as a part of an RFE/RL series on corruption scandals and scams that swirled around Vladimir Putin and his associates as he began his political ascent.

It’s a complicated story, involving a number of companies whose relationships I leave to the RFE/RL article. The central company, Alkor, actually manufactured mercury pyroantimonate, which is industrially useful but not capable of red mercury’s amazing nuclear feats. But if you sold it that way, you could get hundreds of times what it was worth industrially.

So yeah, that was one of the things Putin did while he was in the St. Petersburg city government. Probably gave him valuable experience in setting up shell companies.

There’s lots more in those articles. If you’re interested in red mercury, read them.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

What Is Putin Thinking?

Vladmir Putin started this war, and he could stop it today if he chose. What he thinks is important. He’s told us what he thinks. The way Russia is conducting the war supports what he’s said.

It’s easy to dismiss Putin’s screeds as historically inaccurate and a bizarre reading of current events. They are. But listing how they’re incorrect misses the point, which is that Putin believes these things: Ukraine was never a separate entity from Russia. Lenin and others made mistakes that separated Ukraine from its appropriate place in the scheme of things. Russia and Ukraine can never fulfil their true destiny apart from each other. Those are the central points.

Also in his belief system is that NATO, the United States, and the EU, which are lumped together as “the West,” are dedicated to undermining Russia’s proper place in the world. It’s less clear that he buys the whole long-standing Pan-Slavic myth that Russia has been specially designated by God to redeem the world. But at least Russia is a superpower that the rest of the world must recognize as such.

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Reading Material On Putin’s War

There are a lot of bad takes coming out on the war. Two documents provide the background necessary to evaluate them.

Masha Gessen talks about how authoritarianism works in Russia in this extended interview by Anand Giridharadas. Gessen has experienced that authoritarianism first hand and now lives in the United States.

What Putin has been doing for many, many years is building up to a big war. At a certain point, I felt crazy for saying it because the big war kept not starting. But the logic of his rhetoric, the logic of his actions, the logic of totalitarianism in general — all of these things required a big war. Since his Munich speech in 2007, there has been a constant and open insistence on re-establishing Russia as a great power and a refusal to recognize what’s referred to as the world order.

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