In a new escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War, Moscow undertook three steps with the aim of strengthening its position facing the counterattack by Ukrainian forces, through which Ukraine regained most of the territory that Russian forces had seized at the beginning of the war in Kharkiv Province in the North as well as some territory in Kherson Province in the South.
The first of these steps, adhering to the principle of defending the rights of Russians and Russian-speakers, was the Russian president’s announcement of the annexation of four Ukrainian regions currently controlled by Russia to the Russian Federation, namely: Donetsk, Lugansk (Luhansk), Zaporizhia and Kherson, representing 15% of Ukraine’s territory. This move followed a referendum among inhabitants of these areas, similar to what took place in Crimea Peninsula in 2014.
The second step or action was to announce the recall of 300,000 of the 2 million reserves. Social media has been filled with images of queues at the borders with Georgia, Finland and Kazakhstan, where more than 200,000 Russian citizens have crossed their country’s borders for fear of being recruited by local authorities. Meanwhile, some Russian cities saw demonstrations against this recruitment campaign most violently in Dagestan, besides several shooting incidents in some recruitment centers. Western media have also circulated reports claiming the arrest of more than 1300 opponents to this move.
Nevertheless, the third step was what worried the West most. In his speech on 21 September, President Putin announced the annexation of these four aforementioned provinces, and added: “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff”. This was interpreted as a veiled threat to the use of nuclear weapons in defending the territory of these four provinces, as well as the territory of the Russian Federation.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who is currently the Vice President of Russia’s Security Council, emphasized the same message when stating that Moscow has the right to defend itself using nuclear weapons if its borders were exceeded. This is consistent with the Russian nuclear doctrine, which uses nuclear weapons in the case of an attack on the Russian Federation using conventional weapons, given that the existence of the State is in danger.
The statement of the Moscow-ally Chechen leader (whose forces are also fighting in Ukraine) Ramadan Kadyrov demanding the use of tactical nuclear weapons, increased the fear that Moscow would actually embark on using such weapons. The successive advance of Ukrainian forces and the withdrawal of Russian forces, the latest of which was from the city of Lyman in the Lugansk province of Donbass, also contributed to this feeling and perhaps prompted Kadyrov to make such statement.
Russia is known to have the largest nuclear arsenal in the world with 5977 nuclear warheads, compared to 5428 in the United States. On average, the destructive power per head is about 1,000 kilotons, whereas the nuclear bomb that hit the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan at the end of World War II was only about 15 kilotons. Putin has pointed out that Washington’s use of these bombs was a precedent, in another sign that he is entitled to use such nuclear weapons if deemed necessary.
Besides these strategic weapons, there are so-called tactical weapons or bombs, which are smaller in size and have a destructive power from one kiloton for the smallest to about 100 kilotons for the largest, of which Russia has about 2,000 bombs. Despite their limited destructive power compared to other strategic weapons, they are ultimately nuclear not conventional weapons. Their use shall be a significant escalation.
The Western reaction was quick and decisive. In a clear defiance of the Russian threats and on the day following Putin’s speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed the application document requesting his country’s swift accession to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Alliance. Jake Sullivan, the United States National Security Advisor, warned against undertaking such a step and announced that messages would be delivered to Russia on disastrous consequences that Russia would be exposed to in the event of using these weapons. US President John Biden later stated that his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin was “not joking” when he voiced those threats. “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis […] For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat to the use of nuclear weapons, if in fact things continue down the path they’d been going”, he said.
However, observers currently dismiss Putin’s use of tactical nuclear weapons before he first exhausts a number of other options such as calling in more reserve forces in a second, third, and fourth wave of partial mobilization, and possibly all the way to full general mobilization, which means formally moving from the current “special military operation” phase to declaring a state of war. This assessment is supported by Putin’s speech describing the current conflict in Ukraine as no longer a Russian conflict with a Neo-Nazi regime in Kiev, but an existential conflict between Russia and the entire Western countries, a West that wants to destroy and divide Russia. The proponents of this assessment believe that in this case it is not farfetched that Russia will extend its strike outside Ukraine to one of the NATO countries, especially Poland. Meanwhile, President Biden has clearly stated that the United States will defend every inch of NATO countries. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has also asserted the same meaning of the alliance countering any possible Russian military action against one of the alliance’s countries.
Therefore, some Western circles take these Russian threats seriously this time compared to previous times, in light of Putin’s deteriorating situation in Ukraine. These circles point out that the partial mobilization announced by Putin will not bring Moscow the results it hopes before several months, a period additional forces need to prepare and train before they are sent to the combat field. However, given the current low performance of Russian military commands in Ukraine, the expected result of these additional forces will not differ from their predecessors. Hence, even if Putin does not use his tactical nuclear weapons right now, anticipating for the outcome of the arrival of the new Russian forces in Ukraine, he at least aims to intimidate the West at this point to slow down the pace of its military support for Ukraine, in an aim to give him a chance to catch his breath after the defeat in Kharkiv and achieve some sort of tactical victory. However, ultimately, he will find himself in a situation where he is increasingly convinced that he has no choice but to carry out his nuclear threats.
This Russian threat did not achieve its goal at least in the short term, as the initial reactions came contrary to what Putin had intended. Washington announced the introduction of 18 new Hemars missile launchers, added to the 16 that have been presented so far, to which they credit the recent Ukrainian victories. This is in line with Washington’s delivery of Nasamaz air defense system to the Ukrainian army, an advanced medium-range air defense system developed between the United States and Norway.
Germany, in turn, announced that it would send its first batch of ERST air defense systems to Ukraine in the coming days to help it repel drone attacks, in a direct message to Moscow not to count on the termination of Russian gas supplies to it as a means to alter its position in support of Ukraine, which was also confirmed by the German defense minister who visited Kiev to show the Germans solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Meanwhile, EU countries have enhanced their support for Ukraine and imposed more economic sanctions on Russia. There have also been rising calls for the confiscation of frozen Russian assets, especially from central bank deposits, estimated at about 300 billion USD.
In conclusion, this Russian nuclear threat has not brought about the results Putin had envisaged, especially with some Western media outlets circulating estimates by some retired US military personnel such as David Petraeus, the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, that if Putin uses nuclear weapon even only inside Ukraine, the reaction would be a NATO decisive military intervention to destroy all Russian forces on Ukrainian soil and the Russian fleet in the Black Sea. If true, this would mean that the United States- and hence all NATO countries- would officially be at war against Russia. These are the same countries that were opposed to supplying Ukraine with some types of advanced offensive weapons for fear of Russian reaction and unwillingness to engage in direct confrontation with it. It also means that the odds of this war spiraling out of control are greater than the odds of controlling it with a limited nuclear war as the West or Moscow aspires.