Putin’s Nuclear Bluff: Understanding the Risks to Global Stability

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Russia will react with nuclear weapons if the West dispatches troops to Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has cautioned. In his annual State of the Nation speech on February 29, Putin said any try to deploy Western troops in Ukraine “endangers  a conflict with nuclear weapons and the destruction of civilization.”

This was the most delinquent and most explicit in a series of nuclear dangers made by Putin since he first called the full-scale invasion of Ukraine just over two years ago. When promoting the invasion, Putin cautioned against any Western intervention with promises of developments “such as you have never seen in your entire history.” Four days later, he called Russia’s nuclear forces to be put on high alert.

Following Russia’s upset in the March 2022 Battle of Kyiv, Putin sought to prevent the West from arming Ukraine by pledging a “lightning-fast” response and strongly implying that he was ready to use nuclear weapons. “We have all the tools for this that no one else can boast of having,” he declared. “We won’t boast about it: We will use them if needed, and I want everyone to know that. We have already taken all the decisions on this.”

Ukraine has frequently called Putin’s bluff, uncovering the emptiness of the Russian dictator’s nuclear bluster. Just weeks after his September 2022 address, the Ukrainian military liberated Kherson, the only provincial capital captured by Russia since the start of the attack and a city that Putin himself had just touted as “forever Russian.” Rather than reaching for the nuclear button, Putin reacted to this embarrassing defeat by ordering his troops to withdraw quietly.

Russia has reacted similarly to setbacks in the Battle of the Black Sea. Kremlin officials have long desired to position Crimea as a red line for Russia, but this has not stopped Ukraine from damaging or sinking around one-third of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. This embarrassment has not provoked a nuclear reaction from Putin. Instead, the bulk of his fleet has withdrawn from its traditional home port in occupied Crimea to the safety of Russia.

While Ukraine has declined to be intimidated by Putin’s nuclear blackmail, the same cannot be stated for the West. Putin’s thinly veiled threats may be crude and primitive. Still, there can be slight suspicion that they have been instrumental in fueling the crippling fear of escalation that has haunted Western decision-making ever since the first days of the invasion. This has led to the disastrously slow delivery of military assistance to Ukraine and the outright denial of weapons procedures that could have set the stage for a Ukrainian victory.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has recognized this Western fear of escalation as the biggest obstacle to his country’s war effort. “Nothing has damaged our coalition more than this concept,” he remarked in January 2024.

Unless this changes, the harm will not be limited to Ukraine. Suppose the mere suggestion of a possible nuclear escalation is sufficient to deter the West from preventing Russia’s takeover of Ukraine. In that case, Putin will inevitably utilize the same tactics against other countries. He is already openly showing the current invasion as a sacred task to reclaim “historically Russian lands.” With more than a dozen other countries also potentially permitting as “historically Russian,” it is all too easy to imagine further attacks in the coming years accompanied by more of Putin’s thinly veiled nuclear threats.

This has the possibility of sparking a dangerous arms race. If Russia operates to normalize nuclear intimidation as a foreign policy instrument, numerous countries will soon be scrambling to develop atomic arsenals of their own. There are signs that this issue is already being debated in some quarters. Speaking in February 2024, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski cautioned that if additional US support for Ukraine is not forthcoming, “some nations will start hedging, and others will be thinking of developing their own nuclear weapons programs.”

By allowing themselves to be threatened by Putin’s nuclear threats, Western leaders risk slipping the whole world into a dark new era of insecurity and aggression. Russia’s successful usage of nuclear blackmail in Ukraine will transform attitudes toward atomic weapons and damage decades of nonproliferation efforts. Nukes will become a vital tool for any country that wishes to bypass being bullied by its neighbors. 

The possibility of nuclear war will increase dramatically, as will the chance of stray nukes falling into the hands of non-state actors. Vladimir Putin’s determination to use nuclear intimidation as the domain of his Ukraine invasion is a foolhardy gamble that mirrors his firm belief in Western weakness. Unless the West demonstrates him wrong, the consequences for global security will be disastrous.

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