Much of Putin’s televised speech on Tuesday was a repeat of the familiar. He again blamed the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Ukraine for the current conflict. He reaffirmed the goal of “liberating” the Donbass region. Yet Putin said something new: for Russia to mobilize, albeit partially, for a long war by increasing arms production and calling up 300,000 more troops, mostly reservists. He pledged to back referendums this week that could lead to the annexation of parts of eastern Ukraine.
He also accused the West of making nuclear threats against Russia and warned that “those who use nuclear blackmail against us should know that the tide…can turn.”
Putin finally seems to realize just how badly the war is going – something his own biases and the sycophancy of his subordinates may have previously obscured. By opting for a partial mobilization, he tries to appease the diehards who have called for total war without enraging a mostly apathetic public. Its aim, presumably, is to stem the erosion of Russia’s military position and then use the threat of escalation to impose a diplomatic solution.
Whether it works is another matter. Throwing poorly trained, equipped and motivated troops into the meat grinder is unlikely to change the military equation. (Russia doesn’t even fully control the parts of Ukraine it threatens to annex.) What it will do is increase the human costs of war for Russian society – and therefore increase the political costs. that Putin would pay if he lost.
The use of nuclear weapons to avoid such a defeat has always been a possibility. Russian doctrine encompasses a willingness to use nuclear escalation to end a conventional conflict under acceptable conditions. In his speech, Putin said that Russia would use “all weapons systems at its disposal” if the war endangered “the territorial integrity of our country”.
In other words, Ukraine and the United States must accept the loss of Crimea, which Russia already claims as its sovereign territory, and all the lands annexed by Moscow in the Donbass, or risk a nuclear conflict.
Would Putin follow through on the threat? In Washington and other Western capitals, there are two schools of thought.
Optimists think Putin won’t use nuclear weapons, because that wouldn’t really help him. So-called battlefield nukes work best against large masses of troops or tanks, but fighting in Ukraine is quite scattered. Holding territory or cities that have just been struck by nuclear weapons is not an attractive proposition; the prospect of fallout returning to Russia makes the use of nuclear power even less attractive.
Putin could still use nuclear weapons to psychologically reset the conflict – to shock Kyiv and Washington into de-escalation. Yet it could just cause the United States and its allies to double down on Ukraine, perhaps going straight into the conflict themselves, because to do otherwise would set a horrible precedent that revisionist powers could just walk away from failed wars.
The pessimists are not so sure that Putin is bluffing, because the use of nuclear weapons might not have the opposite effect. An unknown part of the international community would become desperate to end the fighting immediately, even at the cost of concessions to Moscow. The United States and its allies would have few attractive options in response.
Retaliation with limited nuclear strikes against Russian forces would risk an escalating spiral. Going to war with conventional NATO forces could invite Moscow to additional nuclear strikes. Non-kinetic retaliation, such as cyberattacks or more economic sanctions, would appear pathetically weak compared to the Russian offense.
Yes, using nuclear weapons would be an existential bet for Putin. But if he was headed for a defeat that threatened his grip on power, and possibly his life, then why not play big rather than end up like Muammar Gaddafi? And if Putin ended up in his current position through a series of disastrous miscalculations, why should we expect his judgment to improve as he becomes more isolated and fearful?
It is sobering to realize that we are now in the worst great power nuclear crisis in half a century. It is even more disconcerting to think that avoiding a nuclear escalation might require Putin to be more careful and cautious in ending this war than he was in starting it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. Henry Kissinger Professor Emeritus at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, he is the co-author, most recently, of “Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China” and a member of the Department of Foreign Affairs Policy Council. ‘State.
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