Putin’s elevated nuclear risk over Ukraine sparks worry

·4 min read

Russia’s new call to put the West on nuclear notice and double down on its war in Ukraine has upped U.S. fears of a potential nuclear conflict.

In a rare national address, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered the mobilization of roughly 300,000 additional troops for the nearly seven-month conflict, making explicit threats about deploying Moscow’s nuclear stockpile in the process.

The warnings, which come as Moscow appears to be struggling in its military campaign against Kyiv, signals that the Putin feels his vulnerability and has no option but to intensify his threats, experts say.

“Putin is a master of deceptive tactics and deception, and to some extent we ignore it at our peril, the threats he makes, particularly in the nuclear area,” said career ambassador Thomas Pickering, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.) as well as Russia.

“Even though large numbers of Americans want to discount them or believe they are so far-fetched or irrational that they will not in one way or another come to pass … his warnings need to be taken very seriously,” Pickering told The Hill.

Putin has repeatedly made veiled nuclear threats toward the West since his invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, though U.S. officials have generally played down fears that the Russian leader might follow through on such saber rattling.

But his Wednesday warnings — which accused the U.S. and its allies of “nuclear blackmail” and moving to “destroy” his country — had a more menacing tone.

“I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction, and some components are more modern than those of the NATO countries,” Putin bragged in the prerecorded and nationally televised address.

“When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we, of course, will use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. It’s not a bluff,” he added.

The Biden administration is taking Putin’s latest address quite seriously this time around, according to officials.

“It’s irresponsible rhetoric for a nuclear power to talk that way, but it’s not atypical for how he’s been talking the last seven months, and we take it seriously,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told ABC’s “Good Morning America. “We are monitoring as best we can their strategic posture so that, if we have to, we can alter ours.”

And President Biden, in his speech to world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly later on Wednesday, called Putin’s most recent nuclear threats a “reckless disregard for the responsibilities of the nonproliferation regime.”

National security analysts believe the step up in Putin’s rhetoric is a telling sign of his fears over losing the war and his hold on power in Russia.

The Kremlin has been dealt a series of embarrassing blows since the start of the month when Ukraine, aided with Western support and weapons, launched a counteroffensive and took back large swaths of its territory.

Reports emerged of Russian troops fleeing their positions, in some cases back over the Russian border, and leaving behind valuable weapons and equipment.

The losses prompted rare and intense criticism of Putin from his own politicians and leaders, some of whom called for him to resign. Others demanded an end to the conflict or a change in tactics.

“The speech of President Putin demonstrates that the war is not going according to President Putin’s plans. He has made a big miscalculation,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told Reuters.

Pickering, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia in the mid-1990s, believes Putin is feeling the pressure the war’s failures have brought him and now has his eye on remaining in power through any means.

“He’s in the kind of box now where these two threats that he’s put forward are … designed in one way or another to assure that he both stays in power and dominates the leadership scene in Russia,” Pickering said.

He warned that Putin may further exploit his nuclear arsenal, particularly as his own situation gets more perilous, and that the West would do well to avoid trading threats with him.

“I think that he knows very well that if he starts something leading to a nuclear exchange, it could very quickly get so far out of hand and no one would know how to stop it. And I’ve been afraid of that for years,” Pickering said.

“I think that at the moment, as I watch this, I’m deeply concerned,” he added.

But others, including Caitlin Talmadge, a nuclear policy expert at Georgetown University, view Putin’s recent attempt to mobilize further forces as an indication he’s not yet ready to resort to nuclear means in the war.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Talmadge said in a statement to The Hill. “Despite Putin’s nuclear rhetoric, this effort to resuscitate his conventional forces through a partial mobilization indicates he is not eager to turn to nuclear weapons. He is trying to find more non-nuclear rungs on the escalation ladder.”

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