How many times can Putin threaten nuclear escalation?

Associated Press
Russian President Vladimir Putin in a February 2022 file photo.

As Russian forces continue to fail at the goal of bringing Ukraine under Russia’s control, and Finland and Sweden have intensified their talk about joining NATO, Vladimir Putin’s propensity to threaten nuclear escalation has increased proportionately. This threat appears to be Putin’s way of guaranteeing that the United States and NATO keep their distance while his military destroys an independent neighboring country. Though the threat is real, it may be starting to lose its desired effect.

Putin isn’t shy about getting his message to his intended audience. He was seen with the Russian version of the “nuclear football” while attending the recent funeral of ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and he was quick to dispatch Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, to threaten the use of nuclear weapons if Sweden and Finland follow through on their aspirations to join NATO.

Escalating the conflict into the nuclear domain has become a familiar tune, but fortunately, Putin has limited this escalation to verbal threats, strategic messaging and invasions of airspace. At the onset of the invasion of Ukraine, he warned the West, “To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside — if you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history.” On Feb. 27, three days into the invasion, Putin raised the alert status for his nuclear forces to “special regime of combat duty,” and on March 2, two Russian SU-27 and two SU-24 fighter jets violated Swedish airspace.

But short of another country invading Russia, would Putin actually use nuclear weapons? Would he risk everything — the proverbial “fall on his sword” — over Ukraine? Since the 1980s, the United States and other nuclear powers have relied upon the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian implied when he said, “I think that Vladimir Putin must also understand that the Atlantic alliance is a nuclear alliance.”  

President Biden’s comment that “this man [Putin] cannot remain in power,” his labeling Putin a war criminal and describing his actions as genocide, may have gaslighted Putin. Russia’s failure to seize Kyiv and the sinking of its Moskva warship, the flagship vessel of its Black Sea Fleet, have increased the pressure upon him as well. He understands the cost of failure.

Factor in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement in Kyiv that the United Kingdom would provide additional weapons and funding, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who also visited Kyiv, offering Ukraine a fast-tracked European Union membership, and Sweden and Finland’s renewed interest in joining NATO — and the pressure is mounting, indeed. Then Biden announced the U.S. would send $800 million more in security assistance to Ukraine, including artillery, coastal defense drones, anti-aircraft and anti-tank armored vehicles, and Mi-17 helicopters.

The response was predictable: Russia warned the U.S. and NATO that there could be “unpredictable consequences” if they continued to send Ukraine “sensitive” weapons, and then launched a second offensive into eastern Ukraine. “Unpredictable consequences” apparently translates to weapons of mass destruction. The hypocrisy of that statement underlies the Russia propaganda effort, however; one needs only to look at the utter devastation that Russia has inflicted upon Ukraine and the war crimes that Putin’s military has committed in this unprovoked invasion.   

CIA Director William Burns and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres have expressed their concern over what may happen if Putin feels undermined and cornered. But short of allowing him to exert his will upon weaker nations, what are the options?

Yes, the nuclear threat is real — but so are the lives of every Ukrainian fighting for the country’s independence and freedom. Putin’s aspirations are not contained within Ukraine’s borders, as he clearly delineated in his July 2021 manifesto. The U.S., NATO and the rest of the free world cannot let the threat of nuclear escalation tie their hands. We cannot be forced into a position where we trade sovereign countries for negotiated peace with Russia, or any other country with nuclear weapons.  

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. 

Tags Dmitry Medvedev Jean-Yves Le Drian Mutual assured destruction NATO Nuclear escalation Russian invasion of Ukraine Ursula von der Leyen Vladimir Putin

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