Russian president Vladimir Putin’s moves to significantly escalate the war in Ukraine with a thinly veiled reference to his willingness to use nuclear weapons came with a theatrical flourish.
“When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” he said. “It’s not a bluff.”
Yet that is exactly what western officials made of the bombast.
Putin’s announcements on Wednesday to threaten a nuclear strike, mobilise hundreds of thousands of reservists and rapidly annex parts of Ukraine were a desperate attempt to test the strength of western support for Kyiv, said officials and analysts.
But the nervousness of western capitals about the possible use of weapons of mass destruction by the world’s second-biggest nuclear power, as well as the threats of a drawn-out war and a prolonged period of higher energy and food prices, is outweighed by their resolve to call Putin’s bluff, they added.
“This is probably the most delicate phase of this decades-long game of chicken,” said a senior European diplomat. “He is actively trying to sow discord. His hope is to drag it out until winter and use the social discontent to actually widen the very real rifts — both intra-EU and transatlantic — that for now stay below the surface.
Western officials who questioned the seriousness of Putin’s nuclear warning referenced a similar threat he made in the opening days of the invasion if the west were to “hinder” Russia.
That order for missiles to be put on “special alert” resulted in no change to the readiness of the country’s nuclear forces, according to western intelligence officials, even as vast amounts of western weapons were shipped to Kyiv. US satellites monitor Russia’s nuclear forces for signs of activity.
Moscow is also well aware of the cataclysmic cost to Russia itself if it initiated a nuclear conflict. [Putin] knows very well that a nuclear war should never be fought and cannot be won, and it will have unprecedented consequences for Russia,” Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday.
Russia has 1,588 deployed nuclear missiles in silos, on submarines or at air bases, the world’s second-largest arsenal after the US, according to the US-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Its nuclear doctrine foresees the use of a nuclear strike in the event of a conventional attack that the Kremlin believes jeopardises the existence of the state.
Officials also pointed out that Putin’s threat of escalation if Ukraine were to attack Russian territory was likely just bluster given Kyiv’s forces have struck targets inside Russia for months, with no significant change in Moscow’s military response.
Support from the US, UK, EU and other allies in the Nato military alliance, in the form of tens of billions of dollars worth of finance and, most importantly, weapons, has been integral to Ukraine’s ability to repel Russian forces since Putin launched a full-scale invasion seven months ago.
But while the backing has increased the risk of a full-blown conflict between Russia and Nato, European leaders brushed off Putin’s cranked-up threats as the flailing of a man running out of ideas. Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte called it “a sign of panic”, while British defence secretary Ben Wallace said it was “an admission that his invasion is failing”.
“All of it screams: we’re losing . . . It’s desperate stuff,” said Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of War Studies at King’s College London and a nuclear weapons expert. “The west will not change its policy because of that speech.”
Putin had already tried and failed to sow division among allies by “weaponising” Russia’s hydrocarbon exports to drive up energy prices, Freedman said. “Mobilisation and nukes are really the only things he has left.”
By annexing vast swaths of Ukraine through referendums in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions this weekend, Putin could frame Ukrainian efforts to retake territory as a direct attack on sovereign Russian territory. This would allow him to legitimise a scaled-up military response against Kyiv — or potentially its Nato supporters — potentially using nuclear weapons.
Western officials said they would neither recognise the referendums nor shy away from continuing to arm Ukraine.
Putin’s threats “are supposed to signal that he will not accept defeat in Ukraine, and hence discourage [western] support”, said a senior European defence official. “Recently everybody started to agree that the only way to shorten the war is to step up the assistance, so he is attacking this notion.”
While describing Putin’s stance as a “very dangerous nuclear gamble”, European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano said on Wednesday that the EU was considering an increase in its spending on arms for Ukraine. Officials from the bloc’s 27 member states had already met to discuss how to respond to Moscow’s increased aggression, he added.
Officials from Nato countries privately admit to “Ukraine fatigue” among some members in recent months. But Kyiv’s recent successes in recapturing thousands of square kilometres in north-east Ukraine had provided fresh impetus to the support effort.
“It translates as nervousness in Moscow [because of] a lack of forces and setbacks on the front,” said a senior EU official. “We’ve known that at some point they will try to do [annexation and mobilisation]. It is something they are playing with to try to see what the successes could be.”
Multiple western diplomats pointed to French president Emmanuel Macron’s speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, given just hours before Putin’s announcement, as the best example of the hardened support for Ukraine.
“Those who are silent now on this new imperialism, or are secretly complicit with it, show a new cynicism that is tearing down the global order without which peace is not possible,” Macron said.
As the diplomat said of the Russian president’s risky strategy: “If Putin blinks he is gone and with him the dream of a resurgent imperial Russia.”