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Putin’s Nuclear Threats Become Background Theme of Ukraine War

WorldEuropePutin’s Nuclear Threats Become Background Theme of Ukraine War

President Vladimir V. Putin has threatened to reach into Russia’s arsenal of nuclear weapons at three points in time in the past two years: once at the outset of the war against Ukraine two years ago, once when he was losing ground and again on Thursday, as he senses that he is grinding down Ukrainian defenses and American resolve.

In each instance, the saber rattling has served the same basic purpose. Mr. Putin knows that his opponents — led by President Biden — fear escalation of the conflict most of all. Even bluster about going nuclear serves as a reminder to Mr. Putin’s many adversaries of the risks of pushing him too far.

But Mr. Putin’s equivalent of a State of the Union speech on Thursday also contained some distinct new elements. He not only signaled that he was doubling down on his “special military operation” in Ukraine. He also made clear that he had no intention of renegotiating the last major arms-control treaty in force with the United States — one that runs out in less than two years — unless the new deal decides Ukraine’s fate, presumably with much of it in Russia’s hands.

Some would call it nuclear chess, others nuclear blackmail. Implicit in Mr. Putin’s insistence that nuclear controls and the continued existence of the Ukrainian state must be decided together is the threat that the Russian leader would be happy to see all the current limits on deployed strategic weapons expire. That would free him to deploy as many nuclear weapons as he wants.

And while Mr. Putin said he had no interest in pursuing another arms race, which helped bankrupt the Soviet Union, the implication was that the United States and Russia, already in a constant state of confrontation, would return to the worst competition of the Cold War.

“We are dealing with a state,” he said, referring to the United States, “whose ruling circles are taking openly hostile actions against us. So what?”

“Are they seriously going to discuss issues of strategic stability with us,” he added, using the term for agreements on nuclear controls, “while at the same time trying to inflict, as they themselves say, a ‘strategic defeat’ on Russia on the battlefield?”

With those comments, Mr. Putin underscored one of the distinctive and most unsettling aspects of the war in Ukraine. Time and again, his senior military officials and strategists have discussed the employment of nuclear weapons as the logical next step if their conventional forces prove insufficient on the battlefield, or if they need to scare off a Western intervention.

That strategy is consistent with Russian military doctrine. And in the early days of the war in Ukraine, it clearly spooked the Biden administration and NATO allies in Europe, who hesitated to provide long-range missiles, tanks and fighter jets to Ukraine for fear that it would provoke a nuclear response or lead Russia to strike beyond Ukraine’s borders into NATO territory.

A second scare about Russia’s possible use of nuclear weapons, in October 2022, arose not only from Mr. Putin’s statements, but from American intelligence reports suggesting that battlefield nuclear weapons might be used against Ukrainian military bases. After a tense few weeks, that crisis abated.

In the year and a half since, Mr. Biden and his allies have gradually grown more confident that for all of Mr. Putin’s bluster, he did not want to take on NATO and its forces. But whenever the Russian leader invokes his nuclear powers, it always touches off a wave of fear that, if pushed too far, he might actually seek to demonstrate his willingness to set off a weapon, perhaps in a remote location, to get his adversaries to back off.

“In this environment, Putin might engage again in nuclear saber rattling, and it would be foolish to dismiss escalatory risks entirely,” William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director and a former U.S. ambassador to Russia when Mr. Putin first took office, wrote recently in Foreign Affairs. “But it would be equally foolish to be unnecessarily intimidated by them.”

In his speech, Mr. Putin portrayed Russia as the aggrieved state rather than the aggressor. “They themselves choose targets for striking our territory,” he said. “They started talking about the possibility of sending NATO military contingents to Ukraine.”

That possibility was raised by France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, this week. While most of the NATO allies talk about helping Ukraine defend itself, he said, “the defeat of Russia is indispensable to the security and stability of Europe.” But the possibility of sending troops to Ukraine was immediately dismissed by the United States, Germany and other nations. (Mr. Macron played right into Mr. Putin’s hands, some analysts say, by exposing divisions among the allies.)

Mr. Putin may have sensed, however, that this was a particularly ripe time to test the depth of the West’s anxieties. Former President Donald J. Trump’s recent declaration that Russia could do “whatever the hell they want” to a NATO nation that didn’t sufficiently contribute to the alliance’s collective defense, and that he would not respond, resonated deeply across Europe. So has Congress’s refusal, so far, to provide more arms to Ukraine.

The Russian leader may have also been responding to speculation that the United States, concerned that Ukraine is on a path toward losing, may provide longer-range missiles to Kyiv or seize the long-frozen $300 billion in Russian assets now sitting in Western banks and hand it over to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to purchase more weapons.

Whatever triggered him, Mr. Putin’s message was clear: He regards victory in Ukraine as an existential struggle, central to his grander plan to restore the glory of the days when Peter the Great ruled at the height of the Russian Empire. And once a fight is seen as a war of survival rather than a war of choice, the leap to discussing the use of nuclear weapons is a small one.

His bet is that the United States is heading in the other direction, becoming more isolationist, more unwilling to stand up to Russia’s threats and certainly not interested in facing down Russian nuclear threats the way Presidents John F. Kennedy Jr. did in 1962 or Ronald Reagan did in the dying days of the Soviet Union.

The fact that the current Republican leadership, which had enthusiastically supplied weapons to Ukraine during the first year and a half of the war, has now heeded Mr. Trump’s calls to cut off that flow may be the best news Mr. Putin has gotten in two years.

“Whenever the Russians revert to nuclear saber rattling, that is a sign of their recognition that they still do not have the conventional military capability that they thought they had,” Ernest J. Moniz, the former energy secretary in the Obama administration and now the chief executive of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which works on reducing nuclear and biological threats, said in an interview on Thursday.

“But that means their nuclear posture is something they are relying on more and more heavily,” he said. And “that amplifies the risk.”

#Putins #Nuclear #Threats #Background #Theme #Ukraine #War

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