Nuclear sabre rattling

Ukraine

Russian authorities have reaffirmed their “right” to use nuclear weapons.[1] They keep bringing this up. No one else started this conversation.[2]

And the fourth case [in which the Russian Federation is entitled to use nuclear weapons] is when an act of aggression is committed against Russia and its allies, which jeopardised the existence of the country itself, even without the use of nuclear weapons, that is, with the use of conventional weapons.[3]

Vladimir Putin has rationalized his invasion of Ukraine on precisely these grounds, that the “expansion” of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, really countries joining NATO because they fear Russia, constitutes an aggression against Russia, indeed a mortal threat.[4] And the simple fact is that, thanks to so-called “strategic ambiguity,” really meaning NATO leaders want to sound threatening without actually being threatening and certainly without actually promising to do anything, we don’t know how NATO would respond.[5] But I continue to believe that at some point NATO leadership will accept that Putin must be confronted, just as Adolf Hitler had to be.[6]

That Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has not gone well[7] really only raises this risk: If Russian leadership indeed conceives of Ukraine as an existential threat,[8] then it must be subdued by any means necessary, including, it would seem, by nuclear obliteration.[9]

Further, we must understand that regardless of what Putin really thinks about Ukraine as a threat, if his ambition is indeed the restoration of the Russian empire to whatever boundaries he deems fitting,[10] and it is clear that his military is incapable even of subjugating Ukraine by conventional means, then to fulfill that aim, he will need to resort to unconventional means, including, quite possibly nuclear means.

Michael Levenson, Marc Santora, and Valerie Hopkins, “Deadly Strike on Ukraine Barracks Punctuates Russian Military Gains,” New York Times, March 19, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/19/world/europe/mariupol-russia-ukraine-war.html

Warren P. Strobel and Michael R. Gordon, “Reported Detention of Russian Spy Boss Shows Tension Over Stalled Ukraine Invasion, U.S. Officials Say,” Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/reported-detention-of-russian-spy-boss-shows-tension-over-stalled-ukraine-invasion-u-s-officials-say-11647687601

Devan Cole, “Zelensky: “I’m ready for negotiations’ with Putin, but if they fail, it could mean ‘a third World War,’” CNN, March 20, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/20/politics/zelensky-putin-ukraine-negotiations-war-cnntv/index.html

Michael R. Gordon and Alex Leary, “Russia, Failing to Achieve Early Victory in Ukraine, Is Seen Shifting to ‘Plan B,’” Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/russia-failing-to-achieve-early-victory-in-ukraine-is-seen-shifting-to-plan-b-11647824374

Loveday Morris, Annabelle Timsit, and Jennifer Hassan, “Russia bombs Mariupol art school where 400 people in besieged city were sheltering, Ukrainian officials say,” Washington Post, March 20, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/20/mariupol-art-school-civilians-russia/

Liz Sly and Dan Lamothe, “Russia’s war for Ukraine could be headed toward stalemate,” Washington Post, March 20, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/20/russia-ukraine-military-offensive/

Nataliya Vasilyeva, “Russians borrow from Nazi playbook with forced deportation of Ukrainian civilians,” Telegraph, March 20, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/terror-and-security/russians-borrow-nazi-playbook-forced-deportation-ukrainian-civilians/

Larisa Brown and Richard Spencer, “Struggling Russians ‘plant mines’ and dig in for a long war,” Times, March 21, 2022, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/retroville-mall-a-symbol-of-new-kyiv-is-destroyed-by-cruise-missile-0znsr9zc9

Samantha Lock, Jennifer Rankin, and Julian Borger, “‘Clear sign’ Putin is weighing up use of chemical weapons in Ukraine, says Biden,” Guardian, March 21, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/22/clear-sign-putin-is-weighing-up-use-of-chemical-weapons-in-ukraine-says-biden

Isaac Chotiner, “The Purges in Putin’s Shrinking Inner Circle,” New Yorker, March 22, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/the-purges-in-putins-shrinking-inner-circle

Julia Ioffe, “Hacking Through Putin’s Media Cult,” Puck News, March 22, 2022, https://puck.news/hacking-through-putins-media-cult/

Richard Kemp, “The Russian army has run out of time,” Telegraph, March 22, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/2022/03/22/russian-army-has-run-time/

Luke McGee and Claire Calzonetti, “Putin spokesman refuses to rule out use of nuclear weapons if Russia faced an ‘existential threat,’” CNN, March 22, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/22/europe/amanpour-peskov-interview-ukraine-intl/index.html

Adela Suliman, David L. Stern, and Steven Mufson, “Forest fires near Russian-held Chernobyl nuclear plant raise radiation fears, Ukraine says,” Washington Post, March 22, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/22/chernobyl-forest-fire-radiation-ukraine-russia/

Tom Ball, “Ukraine war: Putin ‘at risk of coup’ by Russian security services,” Times, March 23, 2022, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ukraine-war-putin-at-risk-of-coup-by-russian-security-services-vm6qgxtnp

Nataliya Vasilyeva, “‘Unwell’ Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu disappears from public view,” Telegraph, March 23, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2022/03/23/unwell-russian-defence-minister-potential-vladimir-putin-successor/

Alex Gangitano, “Biden has sharp response to reporter: ‘You’re playing a game with me,’ Hill, March 24, 2022, https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/599641-biden-has-sharp-response-to-reporter-youre-playing-a-game-with-me

Ashley Parker, Tyler Pager, and Emily Rauhala, “Leaders add sanctions on Russia, warn against chemical weapons,” Washington Post, March 24, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/24/biden-nato-europe-russia-ukraine-war/

Tarini Parti, Robert Wall, and Catherine Lucey, “Biden Calls for Russia to Be Expelled From G-20,” Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/biden-meets-allies-in-brussels-seeking-to-end-war-in-ukraine-and-punish-putin-11648112332

Matthew Luxmoore, “Russia Refocuses on Ukraine’s East After Month of Heavy Losses,” Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/russia-refocuses-on-ukraines-east-after-month-of-heavy-losses-11648243627

Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom, “Will Russians Toss Their Leader?” Tyee, March 25, 2022, https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2022/03/25/Will-Russians-Toss-Their-Leader/

Daniel Boffey, “Russia reasserts right to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” Guardian, March 26, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/26/russia-reasserts-right-to-use-nuclear-weapons-in-ukraine-putin


  1. [1]Daniel Boffey, “Russia reasserts right to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” Guardian, March 26, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/26/russia-reasserts-right-to-use-nuclear-weapons-in-ukraine-putin
  2. [2]Daniel Boffey, “Russia reasserts right to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” Guardian, March 26, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/26/russia-reasserts-right-to-use-nuclear-weapons-in-ukraine-putin; Julia Ioffe, “Putin’s New Iron Curtain,” Puck News, February 24, 2022, https://puck.news/putins-new-iron-curtain/; Yuras Karmanau, “Putin puts nuclear forces on high alert, escalating tensions,” Associated Press, February 27, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-kyiv-business-europe-moscow-2e4e1cf784f22b6afbe5a2f936725550; Tom Nichols, “How Should the U.S. Respond to Putin’s Nuclear Provocation?” Atlantic, February 27, 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/02/how-the-west-should-respond-to-putins-nuclear-provocation/622943/; Jordan Michael Smith, “Would Putin Really Go Nuclear? Well …,” New Republic, March 7, 2022, https://newrepublic.com/article/165634/putin-nuclear-weapons-ukraine-us-response; Robin Wright, “What Does Putin’s Nuclear Sabre Rattling Mean?” New Yorker, March 1, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/what-does-putins-nuclear-sabre-rattling-mean
  3. [3]Dmitry Medvedev, quoted in Daniel Boffey, “Russia reasserts right to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” Guardian, March 26, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/26/russia-reasserts-right-to-use-nuclear-weapons-in-ukraine-putin
  4. [4]Anne Applebaum, “The U.S. Is Naive About Russia. Ukraine Can’t Afford to Be,” Atlantic, January 3, 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/01/ukraine-russia-kyiv-putin-bluff/621145/; Julia Ioffe, “Putin’s ‘Nightmare’ Threat to Europe,” Puck News, December 6, 2021, https://puck.news/putins-nightmare-threat-to-europe/; Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss, “Ukraine: Putin’s Unfinished Business,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 12, 2021, https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/11/12/ukraine-putin-s-unfinished-business-pub-85771
  5. [5]Ashley Parker, Tyler Pager, and Emily Rauhala, “Leaders add sanctions on Russia, warn against chemical weapons,” Washington Post, March 24, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/24/biden-nato-europe-russia-ukraine-war/; Tarini Parti, Robert Wall, and Catherine Lucey, “Biden Calls for Russia to Be Expelled From G-20,” Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/biden-meets-allies-in-brussels-seeking-to-end-war-in-ukraine-and-punish-putin-11648112332
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Nuclear survival,” Not Housebroken, March 22, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/03/13/nuclear-survival/
  7. [7]Larisa Brown, Charlie Parker, and Richard Spencer, “Ukraine forces ‘counter-attack’ as Russia loses estimated 7,000 troops and 230 tanks,” Times, March 18, 2022, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ukraine-crisis-world-war-three-may-have-already-started-warns-zelensky-f5fs72vq5; Larisa Brown and Richard Spencer, “Struggling Russians ‘plant mines’ and dig in for a long war,” Times, March 21, 2022, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/retroville-mall-a-symbol-of-new-kyiv-is-destroyed-by-cruise-missile-0znsr9zc9; Helene Cooper, Julian E. Barnes, and Eric Schmitt, “As Russian Troop Deaths Climb, Morale Becomes an Issue, Officials Say,” New York Times, March 16, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/16/us/politics/russia-troop-deaths.html; Mark Galeotti, “How does Putin extract himself from this nightmare of his own making?” Times, March 5, 2022, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/how-does-putin-extract-himself-from-this-nightmare-of-his-own-making-v2ktvw08g; Michael R. Gordon and Alex Leary, “Russia, Failing to Achieve Early Victory in Ukraine, Is Seen Shifting to ‘Plan B,’” Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/russia-failing-to-achieve-early-victory-in-ukraine-is-seen-shifting-to-plan-b-11647824374; Richard Kemp, “The Russian army has run out of time,” Telegraph, March 22, 2022, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/2022/03/22/russian-army-has-run-time/; Dan Lamothe, Alex Horton, and Karoun Demirjian, “Ukraine’s military adapts tactics after enduring Russia’s initial invasion,” Washington Post, March 5, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/03/05/ukraine-military-strategy/; Eric Levitz, “Putin’s War Looks Increasingly Insane,” New York, March 4, 2022, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2022/03/putins-war-looks-increasingly-insane.html; Matthew Luxmoore, “Russia Refocuses on Ukraine’s East After Month of Heavy Losses,” Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/russia-refocuses-on-ukraines-east-after-month-of-heavy-losses-11648243627; James Mackenzie, Natalia Zinets, and Oleksandr Kozhukhar, “Russia getting bogged down in Ukraine, Western nations say,” Reuters, March 17, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/shells-hit-theatre-sheltering-ukraine-civilians-biden-calls-putin-war-criminal-2022-03-17/; Justin McCurry, Samantha Lock, and Luke Harding, “Russia targeting cities as strength of Ukraine’s resistance ‘continues to surprise’, UK says,” Guardian, March 6, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/06/biden-and-zelenskiy-discuss-more-aid-for-ukraine-as-russian-attacks-intensify; Ashley Parker et al., “‘No off-ramps’: U.S. and European officials don’t see a clear endgame in Ukraine,” Washington Post, March 11, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/03/10/ukraine-end-game/; David Remnick, “The Weakness of the Despot,” New Yorker, March 11, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/stephen-kotkin-putin-russia-ukraine-stalin; Dan Sabbagh, “Is an outright Russian military victory in Ukraine possible?” Guardian, March 17, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/17/is-an-outright-russian-military-victory-in-ukraine-possible; Liz Sly and Dan Lamothe, “Russia’s war for Ukraine could be headed toward stalemate,” Washington Post, March 20, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/20/russia-ukraine-military-offensive/
  8. [8]Robin Wright, “What Does Putin’s Nuclear Sabre Rattling Mean?” New Yorker, March 1, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/what-does-putins-nuclear-sabre-rattling-mean
  9. [9]Daniel Boffey, “Russia reasserts right to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” Guardian, March 26, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/26/russia-reasserts-right-to-use-nuclear-weapons-in-ukraine-putin; Julia Ioffe, “Putin’s New Iron Curtain,” Puck News, February 24, 2022, https://puck.news/putins-new-iron-curtain/; Yuras Karmanau, “Putin puts nuclear forces on high alert, escalating tensions,” Associated Press, February 27, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-kyiv-business-europe-moscow-2e4e1cf784f22b6afbe5a2f936725550; Tom Nichols, “How Should the U.S. Respond to Putin’s Nuclear Provocation?” Atlantic, February 27, 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/02/how-the-west-should-respond-to-putins-nuclear-provocation/622943/; Jordan Michael Smith, “Would Putin Really Go Nuclear? Well …,” New Republic, March 7, 2022, https://newrepublic.com/article/165634/putin-nuclear-weapons-ukraine-us-response; Robin Wright, “What Does Putin’s Nuclear Sabre Rattling Mean?” New Yorker, March 1, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/what-does-putins-nuclear-sabre-rattling-mean
  10. [10]David Benfell, “Where does Vladimir Putin stop?” Not Housebroken, March 26, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/03/04/where-does-vladimir-putin-stop/

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