Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, has warned that Russian officials have begun to “prepare their society” for the possible use of nuclear weapons.
“That’s very dangerous,” he said. He is right, and he is also right to add that “they are not ready to do it” yet.
So far, as Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, has said, Vladimir Putin’s hints about the use of nuclear weapons have always been attached to warnings to the West not to interfere.
Although the Russian president’s mystical ramblings are sometimes unclear, or seem irrational, his talk last month about using “all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people” is consistent with longstanding Russian deterrence theory. It is more about deterring Nato countries from attacking Russia than it is about the use of battlefield nuclear weapons in an attempt to turn the tide of the “special operation” to defend what Mr Putin claims is Russian territory.
Although the idea has also been floated by Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Russia’s Chechnya region, suggestions that Mr Putin might use such tactical weapons tend to come from Western
commentators fearful of the consequences of a humiliated Russian leader driven to desperation. Those fears were stoked by Joe Biden on Thursday, when the United States president referred to the risk of nuclear “armageddon”. The echo of the Cuban missile crisis, 60 years ago this month, was unmistakeable.
But the White House tried to pull back from the comment on Friday, when Karine Jean-Pierre, the president’s press secretary, said that the US had no reason to believe that Mr Putin had changed his policy:
“We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture, nor do we have indications that Russia is preparing to imminently use nuclear weapons,” she said.
The world should be reassured that US intelligence concerning Mr Putin’s intentions has been accurate throughout the war in Ukraine.
It should also know that the prospect of a tactical nuclear strike is an unpopular one with the Russian people.
Hence the significance of Mr Zelensky’s warning that the Putin government is preparing Russian opinion for such an option; but we have not yet seen much evidence that an official propaganda effort of that kind is under way.
It is hard to see how Mr Putin could benefit from the use of such weapons. If he were to use them on the battlefield, he would be doing so on what he now claims is Russian territory. He is also increasingly isolated in the world.
The leaderships of China, India, and many central Asian republics are keeping their distance from his war, and crossing the nuclear threshold would drive them further away.
Of course, if Mr Putin were influenced by such considerations, he would not have invaded Ukraine in the first place, and doing so has proved to be a terrible mistake; but it is just about possible to make out a rationale for annexing more of the country and installing a puppet regime in Kyiv, which Russian military leaders assumed was possible.
There is no such rationale for the use of battlefield nuclear weapons.
We must hope that such calculations continue to hold in Moscow. There is always a risk that Mr Putin may miscalculate again, or that he may be replaced by an even less rational actor. But the West’s policy cannot be determined by second-guessing the Kremlin.
The right policy is to support the Ukrainian people in repelling the Russian invaders and to avoid escalating the conflict beyond that simple aim. As Sanna Marin, the Finnish prime minister, said on Friday: “The way out of the conflict is for Russia to leave Ukraine.”
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