Vladimir Putin on Wednesday threatened to use nuclear weapons in a brazen escalation of his war in Ukraine.
But the Russian president's audacious warning is less a show of legitimate strength, and more a sign that Russia's military is faltering, according to experts.
On Wednesday, more than seven months into the war, Putin announced a partial military mobilization in an effort to address Russia's manpower problem amid a spate of recent Ukrainian victories. During his televised speech, the president also baselessly accused the West of threatening to use nuclear weapons and responded with an acknowledgment of Russia's own nuclear arsenal.
"To those who allow themselves to make such statements about Russia, I would like to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction, and for some components more modern than those of the NATO countries," he said.
"And if the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff."
Putin's nuclear threats are a scare tactic aimed at Ukraine's allies.
Amid mounting military losses, deteriorating troop morale, and shifting public sentiment, it makes sense why Putin would turn to his warheads, said Simon Miles, an assistant professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy and a historian of the Soviet Union and US-Soviet relations.
"The poor performance of Russia's military on the battlefield in Ukraine has been an important reminder that any claim to great power status Russia may have is predicated almost entirely on its arsenal of nuclear weapons," Miles said.
Putin's message, Miles posited, is also directed at Ukraine's global supporters.
"Putin has tried and failed many a time to break the resolve of Ukraine's supporters, and his latest threats are no different," Miles said. "It is clear that he is growing more and more aware of how limited his actual military options are in this war."
Ukraine earlier this month amassed one of its biggest victories yet, launching two concurrent offensives in the northeast and south in an effective effort to reclaim occupied territory. Reports from the front lines indicated that Russian troops fled as the country's military buckled under Ukraine's powerful performance.
"The Russians are dispirited, disorganized, and unmotivated, just trying to stay alive," Robert English, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies Russia, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe, told Insider. "The Ukrainian fighting spirit and the American arms industry have teamed up to thwart [Putin's] plans in a big way."
Russian prospects remain grim, especially given the West's ongoing military support to Ukraine. The country's most recent offensive, while executed by Ukrainian forces, was made possible thanks to US and UK intelligence, strategy, and weapons.
"As long as the west is supplying more and better weapons — and we are supplying more and better weapons — the pressure on Russian forces is only going to grow," English said.
Experts think it unlikely that Putin will act on his threat.
Putin's threat of "civilization-extinguishing capabilities," as Miles put it, doesn't mean the US or any other Ukrainian ally should turn and run.
"It is one thing to make threats — it is another to actually put these weapons to use in a way which serves the Kremlin's goal," Miles said.
A Russian demonstration of a nuclear weapon would be unlikely to break the West's will, he said, and could even bolster it further. Meanwhile, using a weapon in Ukraine itself would have devastating consequences for Ukrainian troops — but Russian soldiers fighting in the country would pay the price as well.
Multiple experts previously told Insider that Russia was unlikely to use nuclear weapons, even if it made the threat. Miles added that the logistics alone make the prospect low-risk.
"Russian nuclear weapons are staged in hardened shelters across the country, including in the far west near Ukraine," he said. "The process of transitioning to readiness, mating warheads to delivery platforms, would generate a great deal of observable phenomena for U.S. intelligence and an opportunity for Washington to make it explicit to the Kremlin just how bad an idea that would be."
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