Are the chances of Putin taking the unthinkable step growing?

Did Russian President Putin’s speech on Wednesday morning bring Russia closer to a nuclear meeting with the West? That is the question that concerns not only the media and the public, but certainly experts in the field of nuclear weapons. The American magazine time reported on Wednesday that the White House has now formed a club that should list all options for President Joe Biden in case “Russia takes the unthinkable step”.

On the face of it, Putin did little on Wednesday morning than what he had been doing since the invasion began on February 24: scare Ukraine and the West by referencing Russia’s nuclear arsenal. “And that’s not a bluff,” he added this time.

Putin’s reference was reminiscent of what had happened at the end of February. Then Putin said he had ordered his defense minister, Sergei Shoygu, to “put deterrence-related parts of the Russian army on special readiness.” The world was shocked then, just as it was shocked on Wednesday.

Experts and insiders reacted in a relativistic way at the time. Western military satellites had not detected any alarming activity around Russian nuclear missile installations in February and March (as far as we know). And frightening fit in with the classic Russian Cold War scripts. “Russian leadership has so far followed the nuclear script quite faithfully,” Norwegian scientist Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, a PhD in Russian nuclear doctrine, told in March. NRC. “They have mainly used the possession of nuclear weapons to give signals to the West not to intervene, for example with more arms supplies.”

Also read this question from March: Can Vladimir Putin start a nuclear war himself?

Ven Bruusgaard said he would only become really concerned if Russia ran out of all conventional supplies (armoured vehicles, artillery) (for example, as a result of extensive Western arms supplies) without Russian war goals having been achieved. “Then the chance of using other types of weapons such as chemical or nuclear weapons increases,” she said. Ven Bruusgaard recently became head of a Norwegian intelligence institute, and no longer responds to requests for further analysis.

The Norwegian scientist’s line of thought was followed by other experts until this summer. Russian analyst Valeri Akimenko in July called it “a myth” for the British think tank Chatham House that Russia would fulfill its nuclear threats. Since Moscow started investing more in conventional military resources, the threshold for the use of tactical nuclear weapons had risen, Akimenko said.

bluff poker

Putin’s latest speech clearly changes the attitude that has hitherto been put into perspective in expert circles. Not only with the decision to mobilize roughly three hundred thousand reservists, but also in the nuclear field, Putin has taken a step higher on the escalation ladder of the conflict with the West, the conclusion is now drawn, without this having any effect on the attitude of the same for the time being. West.

Frans Osinga, endowed professor of War Studies, said Wednesday evening in news hour that Putin – more than in February – has his back against the wall because of the setbacks on the battlefield. He has to defend himself much more domestically against the pressure of nationalists. They want Moscow to punish the West much harder for massive military aid to Kiev, with both equipment and intelligence. “That makes the credibility of the nuclear threat somewhat higher than in March, April,” Osinga said.

A further step is that Moscow detonates a small nuclear bomb over, for example, the Black Sea

The influential Israeli expert Dmitry Adamsky pointed out much earlier that the West would do well to pay more attention to what is happening domestically in Russia. According to him, the influence of emotional, religious-nationalistic factors can lead to dangerous misjudgments among rationally thinking Western leaders. Under the title Russia’s Threatening Mixture of Religion and Nuclear Weapons Adamsky, a professor at the University of Haifa, wrote in March in the US journal Foreign Affairs: “A moment of greatest possible danger comes when the Kremlin does something Western leaders do not expect: connect nuclear threats to religious rhetoric. This outcome is not certain, but it is more likely than ever before.”

All possible resources

Although the Russian president’s text on Wednesday was still business-like and not religious in nature, according to other analysts, something has definitely changed. “Wednesday Putin’s speech is in any case a step up the escalation ladder,” says strategic analyst Tim Sweijs. Together with a colleague, Sweijs recently wrote a scenario study for the think tank The Hague Center for Strategic Studies (HCSS). He mentions the likely annexation by Russia of parts of Ukraine that will then be defended with the use of “all possible means” as an escalating element, Putin warned. Former President Dmitry Medvedev confirmed on Thursday that the new territorial acquisitions in Ukraine “with strategic nuclear weapons” will be defended.

Also read: Call for mobilization exposes the major shortages in the Russian army

Furthermore, according to analyst Sweijs, Putin’s threats against the West show that the Russians see the war less and less as a ‘local conflict’, but as a ‘regional conflict’ that requires a different approach, something for which Norwegian Ven Bruusgaard already had in March. warned. “The West, including the Netherlands, no longer just supplies a few helmets or armored vehicles to Ukraine,” says Sweijs. “It involves a lot of armored howitzers and carrying missiles. That has consequences, and we are now seeing them in Putin’s speech.”

In the event of permanent setbacks on the battlefield, Moscow can rattle the nuclear saber more insistently in two possible ways, says Sweijs. Moscow, highly visible to Western satellites, can “screw warheads onto tactical nuclear weapons.” A further step is that Moscow detonates a small nuclear bomb over, for example, the Black Sea or somewhere high in the atmosphere (‘airburst’).

The intention is not to make victims, but to show the West that Russia is serious, according to the scenario study by the HCSS. With such a step, Moscow still wants to enforce what, much to its own great frustration, was previously unsuccessful: to stop Western capitals from supplying the Ukrainian armed forces.

The West will not and cannot accept this, Sweijs expects, and will continue to support Ukraine militarily. What happens next, or what should happen next, is undoubtedly currently the subject of deliberation in Washington.

A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 23, 2022

The article is in Dutch

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