Will Putin use tactical nukes?
Last Friday Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed four Ukrainian regions on the pretext of sham referendums conducted at gunpoint. Without batting an eye, he asserted that people who’ve been raped, shot and had family murdered voted to join those who did it — and that this is “the will of the millions.”
Right at the time Putin was speaking to a cowed audience in the Byzantine splendor of Georgievsky hall, the Ukrainians were routing Russian troops in and around Lyman; Russians were fleeing the country by the hundreds of thousands, and those who were stupid enough to get conscripted were sleeping at freezing degrees in the open field or facing Ukrainian HIMARS with no training at all.
The only reason Putin needs a new army is because the previous one was destroyed in Ukraine. The chaos that followed his mobilization is indescribable; the slaughter will be worse. His soldiers, appalled at the sheer level of incompetence, were resigning by thousands. Now that Putin made such a resignation punishable by 10 years in prison, their only option will be a mutiny.
It is rumored that virtually all Putin’s entourage was against the decision to escalate.
The city of Moscow, headed by the political heavyweight Sergei Sobyanin, is almost devoid of war symbolism; the prime minister of Russia has never publicly declared support for the war, and the Presidential Administration with its first Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kirienko, who is usually credited with all the mastermind schemes against opposition, is leaking like a sieve — something that never happened previously.
More specifically, leaked data includes secret polls that say the war’s rating is down and that people in the occupied territories whose cities were razed to the ground are not eager to join those who did the razing.
There were, of course, some courtiers in favor of mobilization, and foremost among them, apparently, is Evgenij Prigozhin — famous as “Putin’s chef” and sanctioned for meddling with the U.S. election — the shadow head of Putin’s private army misleadingly known as “Wagner group.” Wagner group is the only effective military force in Ukraine. Amidst the general carnage and defeat, it has been shelling Bakhmut for months — a move that is of debatable military use but enhances Prigozhin’s stature. Point is: the hawks may be even more dangerous to Putin right now than the doves.
For years Prigozhin denied his involvement with Wagner. He even sued Elliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat. Then a couple of weeks ago we suddenly saw a leaked video: Prigozhin was haranguing Russia prison inmates to join Wagner. “I’ve got airplanes, MLRS and tanks,” he was saying. He subsequently admitted to founding the Wagner Group.
Russian military commanders were expressly selected for their incompetence, so they wouldn’t be a threat to Putin. But it seems that Putin is back to square one: In the tyranny, every effective commander will be dangerous to the tyrant, whether he heads the official army or a Pretorian guard.
Prigozhin cut a dashing figure in his fatigues in that video.
The startling change in Prigozhin’s demeanor may well mean that the rat race is open. Leonid Nevzlin, 63, a former UKOS shareholder with an extensive network of sources in Russia is sure that it is on the verge of junta.
What can Putin do so we discuss him not as a joke ready to be replaced by his own hawks, but as a dangerous tyrant who must be reckoned with?
Easy — he pretends he’ll go nuclear.
Putin is paranoid enough to believe simultaneously in two things. First, that in Ukraine he is fighting a defensive war against Western aggression. “The West is seeking a new chance to strike at us,” he claimed during his annexation speech; “it’s ready to do everything to preserve the neocolonial system, the paying of tribute, the extraction of rent.” And second, that any democracy can be easily cowed.
The current alternate reality theory in Kremlin is that referendums make the annexed region part of Russia; Russian military doctrine permits the use nuclear weapons in the case of an “existential threat,” so — since this is Russian territory now, bingo! The Ukrainian advance will be stopped by their cowardly Western masters to prevent nuclear escalation.
But there’s a funny thing about Putin’ nuclear threats. All the Moscow insiders to whom I talked were scared shitless, reproducing rumors and even naming specific sites for attack: Yavorovsky military range or Dnipro bridges. But all military experts were highly skeptical. Yuri Fedorov, 76, defense analyst, is convinced that Putin would not need mobilization if he were really serious about stopping the advancing Ukrainian troops by means of a tactical nuclear strike.
Is Putin sane?
I think No.
But I also suspect he’s making it up, so that we focus on his imaginary nuclear “might” instead of his actual military impotence.
How do we tell whether he’s bluffing or not? Even a 5 percent probability of a nuclear strike is 100 percent unacceptable risk. If the West backs off, every petty tyrant will realize that nuclear weapons give him the ability to attack a neighbor with impunity, and the current world will be gone.
Here’s the beauty of it: Whether Putin’s bluffing or not, the only response is the same: be firm.
The threat can be overcome only by showing Putin that he will suffer devastating military and personal consequences he won’t survive — and this is exactly what President Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan did. “Сatastrophic consequences,” he said. “Horrific consequences,” added Secretary of State Antony Blinken a little bit later. And Mikhail Podolyak, 50, the advisor to the office of President Zelensky is sure that some of the exact details of these consequences were quite vividly explained to Putin.
Putin is a thug. It is often said that his favorite response to a crisis is escalation. But this is not so. Putin perceives democratic leaders as weak, but he never threatens Turkey or China. Right in the middle of his current aggressive spurt, Putin agreed to swap Azov prisoners — simply because Erdogan was the go-between.
There are many indications that Putin has a “Plan C,” and that this is a total isolation of Russia. This is why he didn’t close the borders — he is using mobilization to cleanse Russia of any latent opposition that is moving out under its own power.
Either way, the only way to diminish the threat is to stand up to bully.
But we also need to be aware that the only permanent safety will come from Putin losing the war, from the change of the regime and subsequent democratization of Russia.
Yulia Latynina, a journalist, worked for Echo of Moscow radio station and the Novaya Gazeta newspaper until they were shut down as part of the current war in Ukraine. She is a recipient of the U.S. State Department’s Defender of Freedom award.