RS-24 Yars ballistic missiles roll into Red Square during the Victory Day parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat in Moscow, Russia on June 24, 2020. Months into the Ukraine war, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made more explicit threats than usual about nuclear weapons. Photo: AP
Gwynne Dyer
Gwynne Dyer

What if Putin isn’t bluffing about a nuclear strike on Ukraine?

  • Using ‘referendums’ to turn conquered regions into ‘Russian territory’, Putin can say any Ukrainian attempt to recapture them is an attack on Russia
  • Perhaps the Russian president could even persuade his generals to deploy one nuke, but the war is still unlikely to end well for him
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desperation was plain in the emergency measures he declared last week: an immediate mobilisation of at least 300,000 more troops, the sudden decision to use fake referendums to turn all the occupied parts of Ukraine into Russian territory, and more explicit threats than usual about nuclear weapons. “This is not a bluff,” Putin warned.

It probably isn’t. The Russian president’s normal pattern, when he runs into a major setback, has been to escalate, so he is not acting out of character. However, he is clearly misinformed by his own generals, or just not listening to them.

The notion that 300,000 reservists (who received limited military training years ago) and technical specialists of various sorts (who may have no military experience whatsoever) can be turned into a useful fighting force in a couple of weeks, or even a couple of months, is bizarre. It shows just how ignorant Putin is about military affairs.

The Russian army does not have the equipment to arm all these people, or even enough trainers not already on the front to turn them into real soldiers. When these mostly unwilling conscripts are fed piecemeal into an already demoralised army, they will make the chaos even worse.
Then there are the “referendums”. Having postponed plans to stage referendums on joining Russia in the four provinces it partly controls, Putin suddenly put them back on the schedule after the big Ukrainian advance in mid-September. Voting began in Russian-occupied parts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces on Friday.

Armed Russian soldiers went door-to-door with ballot boxes, asking if people want to join Russia. The soldiers wrote the answers down (one for the entire family), and then put them in the box.

Russian conscripts arrive at a recruiting office in Bataysk, Rostov province, Russia, on September 26 during the partial mobilisation announced to bolster Russian forces in Ukraine. Photo: EPA-EFE

The fix was already in; the question is why they bothered with this charade at all. Obviously Putin needed to distract Russians from the recent military disaster, but he may also have had another reason to hurry up the vote and annex all the land his troops now hold.

If the conquered regions became “Russian territory”, then he could claim that any further attempt by Ukraine to recapture them is an attack on Russia itself. Ukrainians would obviously ignore this legal flimflam – but it would allow him (under Russian rules) to initiate the use of nuclear weapons.

Putin knows that the West knows how the Russian rules on nuclear weapons work, so he may hope that this will make his threats about nuclear war more plausible. It probably won’t, but what do you get when you call the bluff of a man who doesn’t bluff?

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Maybe he’s just trading on that reputation now, and he really is bluffing this time, but there’s no point in following him down that rabbit hole. Let’s consider what we know for certain.

Russia is currently losing the war in Ukraine, albeit slowly, and there’s little chance that its army can turn that around: 300,000 more ill-trained, resentful conscripts won’t make much difference when the vessel they must be poured into, the Russian army, is already broken.

Putin’s position and perhaps his life is at risk if there is another big Ukrainian victory. He may not realise this yet, but he will eventually understand that his survival depends on a negotiated peace that does not utterly humiliate him and Russia – for example, a ceasefire that returns both sides to the pre-2014 ceasefire lines.


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'I don’t want to die for Putin': Russia arrests nearly 1,400 protesters opposed to mobilisation
His problem will be that the Ukrainians are full of confidence at the moment, and not inclined to give him that. They want all their stolen territory back, and the only lever that might change their minds (and those of their Western supporters) is a nuclear strike on Ukraine.

Just one very small (sub-kiloton-range) “tactical” nuclear weapon, mind, delivered on sparsely populated land or off the Ukrainian coast. It couldn’t be more than that, because generals in the Russian chain of command would not accept orders for a bigger strike that might start a full nuclear war. They may be corrupt, but most of them love their families.

They might go for just one nuke, though, especially if Putin could persuade them that it was a reasonably safe diplomatic ploy aimed at forcing the Ukrainians or even Nato to the negotiating table. So what should the latter parties do if this happens?

The key fact to keep in mind is that the same Russian generals would probably not escalate further if the transatlantic security alliance made no nuclear response to that single Russian nuke. They’d just wait for the terror and revulsion sweeping through Russia and every other country to take Putin down.

Can I guarantee that would happen? Of course not, but it probably would play out like that. And what would be lost by waiting to see if it does happen?

Gwynne Dyer is a historian and independent journalist who has published several books. His latest is “The Shortest History of War”