Vladimir Putin’s nuclear brinkmanship has pushed the Russo-Ukraine conflict to a new level of tension, bringing with it a litany of questions about whether the Kremlin’s rhetoric is a bluff or a credible threat to unleash a new level of destruction in an already rapidly escalating war.
Ukrainian advances in the nation’s Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Kherson Oblasts were widely publicized. Beginning in early September, Ukrainian troops routed the Russian Army from key cities including Izyum and Lyman, as well as spurring a complete Russian frontline collapse in Kharkiv Oblast. These accomplishments are in many ways the culmination of continued erosion of Russian capabilities on the battlefield, first reflected in early Russian failures to rapidly blitz the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in Feburary and March earlier this year. Even now, Ukrainian forces have continued to press their advance towards both Kremmina in the Donbas and Kherson in the south.
While in the short-term these developments are nothing short of spectacular for both Ukraine and its allies in the West, they have also brought with them a litany of reactions from Russia that have sparked questions on how far Russa is willing to push the envelope on Ukraine. Russia, or often Putin himself, has threatened the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine if the situation continues at its current pace. This is not to mention increasing Russian claims of a false-flag Ukrainian dirty bomb operation in the past several weeks, which has further brought the spectre of nuclear conflict to the world’s attention. While many have called this behavior on the part of Moscow mere bluster, it still has ratcheted up tensions over nuclear war to a point the world has not seen since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Whether or not Vladimir Putin is truly bluffing on an issue that puts human civilization itself at risk is something that needs to be seriously addressed.
Russia has already taken a series of drastic actions so far in their invasion of Ukraine. More often than not, this has been in response to a deteriorating ability to sustain military operations against Ukrainian forces. Following the Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kharkiv Oblast, Putin called up a partial mobilization order, something that before last month was considered far too politically costly for the Kremlin. This was coupled with Russian annexations of Russian-occupied Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk Oblasts, an action similarly derided as incredibly escalatory in nature.
This is of course not to forget the initial step of invading Ukraine proper on February 24th in the first place, which many had lauded beforehand as politically impractical. This is all to say that, up to this point, the Kremlin has often acted out of step with what would be considered rational or politically expedient by many observers and analysts, and that cannot be ignored going forward. While relying on historical analogies so strongly is a dangerous game to play, and can often lead to warped worldviews, Russian actions still present a startling trend of willing escalation that can’t be overlooked.
Beyond merely recognizing this dangerous trend of Russian behavior in regards to Ukraine, it is also important to understand where, or perhaps who, it comes from. In this case, the rationale and rhetoric of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is central to this Russian behavior. Putin has consistently framed this war as one of total necessity and survival. Looking back at his speech on the eve of Russian invasion on February 24th, he framed the conflict as one for the survival of Russia against Western encroachment, and that Russia’s actions in Ukraine were necessary to preserve the fate of Russia as a whole.
While this rhetoric may have provided a strong casus belli for war to the Russian people, it has established Russian willingness to continually escalate the conflict no matter the cost. It should be very clear by now that, to Putin, this war cannot be lost by Russia. He has continuously shown a willingness to escalate rather than cut his losses in the conflict. In the last month alone, he has pivoted cause for war from a pre-emptive strike to banish the West from the Russian world to a defensive conflict aimed at “protecting” rightful Russian clay. This behavior is no accident and should tell us something very grave about Russia in this war: so long as Putin helms the ship, Moscow is an actor fully willing to cross lines and shatter international norms once thought unspeakable.
Putin has thrown too many cards in, placed too many bets, and quite frankly tied this conflict too closely to both himself and Russia as a whole for the Kremlin to be expected to backtrack now. There has been talk of giving Putin an “off-ramp” for the sake of allowing him to save face, but even in a reality where the West concedes on some level to Russia, under current leadership, nothing short of total victory will be acceptable. By framing the war initially as one necessary to the survival and security of Russia, Putin has put himself in a position where he cannot conclude this conflict without finishing what he embarked to do initially: subjugate and conquer Ukraine completely. He has mobilized far too much political capital to turn back now, has sent far too many Russians to die in Ukrainian fields and cities, and spoken far too much of the severity of this war for Russia to simply concede now with a half-victory or outright defeat. He has attached his own fate to this war, and based on recent actions, he is keenly aware of that fact. Putin’s willingness to mobilize his population entirely supports this fact, and the annexation of Ukrainian territory all but confirms that, for Putin, this is a war of totality where Russia must win, no matter the cost.
When one applies this mindsight to the question of nuclear weapon usage on the part of Russia in Ukraine, it is easy to see why this problem can easily spiral out of control. Putin has continuously escalated rhetoric on nuclear weapons usage, going from allusions of force if the West “intervenes” at the start of the war, to now all but laying justification for future actions. He has gone so far as arguing Russia reserves the right to using nuclear weapons because of US precedent against Japan in WWII, and the annexation of Ukrainian regions into Russia directly is an obvious signal that Russia may use nuclear weapons to defend those regions, in lieu with its nuclear doctrine reserving the right to force if Russian territory is threatened. This is not to mention the growing claims made by Russia that Ukraine is preparing a dirty bomb, going so far as to raise these accusations directly at the United Nations. These are serious actions levied by Russia, and even if they are still bluffing about the nuclear threat, the extent to which they are willing to push this issue regardless reflects a dangerous commitment to escalation that we rarely see.
Moving forward, Ukraine, the US, and NATO as a whole must seriously consider that there is a very real possibility Vladimir Putin is truly not bluffing on nuclear weapons in Ukraine. This is not to say the West ought to cave or cede to Russia over Ukraine, as that would only likely very further embolden Russia and signal that nuclear brinkmanship is a viable strategy for strongmen across the world to achieve their aims. It also means both the US and Ukraine must seriously consider what are the long-term goals for concluding this conflict. If the goal is total preservation of Ukrainian sovereignty and democracy, as has been signaled by Washington policy-makers, then dealing with the nuclear threat must be at the forefront of the problems that need to be resolved for this war to end. Diplomatic channels need to be maintained, and dialogue, even if solely for the purpose of warning Russia of the consequences of nuclear force in Ukraine, must be upheld. An erosion of these channels, which have as of late been hinted at as breaking down, would be nothing short of disastrous for all parties involved. Nuclear weapons are no game, and the parties playing need to be transparent if we are to stave off further escalation.
There is also the problem of Putin himself, as there is a serious question as to whether or not Russian nuclear rhetoric is a reflection of the man or the state. If it is indeed Putin rather than the Kremlin as a whole that cannot be negotiated with, then at what point ought we consider Putin no longer a rational actor geopolitically, but one that may perhaps be irrational in his calculus and mindframe? This naturally brings to mind regime change or a possible palace-coup from within the Kremlin, but relying on government change in a state that Putin has controlled rather securely for decades now is probably not a viable option to bank on. We can wish for him to lose power, but relying on it to conclude the war is another matter entirely that is both unreliable and dangerous. No, the US and the West as a whole going forward must treat the conflict as the unpredictable beast war always is, and with that be prepared for a variety of outcomes and actions Russia may take. Ukrainian victory in this conflict must always take priority, but equally as important is preventing breakdowns or miscommunications. Nuclear armageddon is a Sword of Damocles always ripe for enactment upon humanity and simply cannot be ignored no matter how terrifying the prospect truly looms.
Kyle Johnson is a second-year International Studies major in the School of International Service. He is a Staff Writer for the Agora.