Vladimir Putin Would Like You to Know He Has Matches

Putin plays the nuclear card. Again.

By Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics at The Fletcher School at Tufts University

The Russo-Ukrainian War has seen an awful lot of Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling. He was chatty about it back in the spring of 2022 when the United States and NATO allies began shipping weapons to help Ukraine defend itself. He was chatty about it yet again in the fall of 2022, when Russia was reeling from Ukraine’s counteroffensive. 

The effect of this nuclear cheap talk has been uneven. Some hawks are convinced that Russia’s nuclear threats deterred NATO from responding more vigorously to Russia’s February 2022 invasion. Others note that Putin’s nuclear rhetoric is nothing new: time and again, he has bellowed about Russia’s nuclear weapons anytime he feels the rest of the world doubting Russia’s great power status. In recent years, while the Russo-Ukraine War has been in full bloom, it’s been striking to see the Kremlin walk back a lot of Putin’s rhetoric by saying that Russia’s nuclear doctrine has remain essentially unchanged. 

This background is important when reading the New York Times’ Anton Troianovskiabout Russia’s latest nuclear feint: 

Russia said on Monday that it would hold military exercises with troops based near Ukraine to practice for the possible use of battlefield nuclear weapons, a provocative warning aimed at discouraging the West from deepening its support for Ukraine.

These weapons, often referred to as “tactical,” are designed for battlefield use and have smaller warheads than the “strategic” nuclear weapons meant to target cities. Russia’s Defense Ministry said that President Vladimir V. Putin had ordered an exercise for missile, aviation and naval personnel to “increase the readiness of nonstrategic nuclear forces to carry out combat missions.”

The announcement of the exercise was Russia’s most explicit warning in its more than two-year invasion of Ukraine that it could use tactical nuclear weapons there. The Kremlin said it came in response to comments by two European leaders that raised the prospect of more direct Western intervention in the war.

The exercise, the Defense Ministry said, would involve forces of the Southern Military District, an area that covers Russian-occupied Ukraine and part of Russia’s border region with Ukraine. It said the exercise would take place “in the near future.”

Okay, first off, what does “in the near future” mean, exactly? Is this Putin’s equivalent of Trump’s constant refrain during his first term that something would happen in “two weeks” that then… never happened? 

I’m asking because Putin’s previous nuclear rhetoric has also lacked follow-through. Soon after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine Putin declared that he had put Russian strategic nuclear forces on “high alert” — and according to Western national security sources, nothing happened. This, by the way, is also what they are saying now — although that does not mean nothing will happen in the near future. And hey, at least Belarus is conducting exercises

So, what prompted the latest from Putin? Let’s go back to the Times story:

On Monday… Russian officials claimed that warnings about the possibility of more direct Western involvement in the war had changed the situation. The Defense Ministry said the exercise would be held “to unconditionally ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian state in response to provocative statements and threats of individual Western officials against the Russian Federation.”

Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said the Western “threats” in question included a recent interview with President Emmanuel Macron of France published by The Economist, in which the French leader repeated his refusal to rule out sending ground troops to Ukraine.

Mr. Peskov also alluded to a comment made last week by David Cameron, Britain’s top diplomat, in which he said that Ukraine was free to use British weapons to strike inside Russia — a departure from Western governments’ typical policy of discouraging such strikes in order to avoid being drawn deeper into the war.

“This is a completely new round of escalation of tensions — it is unprecedented,” Mr. Peskov told reporters on Monday. “And, of course, it requires special attention and special measures.”

Newsweek’s Brendan Cole adds that Russia’s foreign ministry also identified recent U.S. shipments of longer-range missiles to Ukraine as an additional provocation. 

So is any of this concerning? Obviously, it’s not great. All else equal, the hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World would prefer Russia not make provocative statements about its nuclear stockpile. 

The thing is, when someone constantly brandishes a threat and then never acts on it, the threat starts to lose its potency. Putin and Russia have been warning about dire consequences from arming Ukraine for two-plus years now, and those consequences have yet to appear. Even the threats are starting to lose their effect, causing smaller media ripples each time Russia trots them out. Indeed, the common denominator in all the stories about Russia’s latest gambit, from Newsweek to the Times, is that any expert who is quoted downplays the significance of Putin’s nuclear gambits. 

From February 2022 onward, pundits have fretted that the war in Ukraine would spill over into a great power war involving nuclear weapons. As crazy as it sounds, however, everyone’s behavior over the past two years has made it clear that this will not happen. Russia has no wish to fight NATO, and NATO does not want to engage in a direct war with Russia. Any time anything even remotely drifts in that direction, cooler heads have prevailed. 

The rules of engagement have been pretty clear for a while now. NATO can send whatever weapons it likes to Ukraine, and Russia will do little but noisily object. Russia can prosecute the war in Ukraine however it sees fit, so long as it does not spill over into NATO countries. Putin will up the nuclear rhetoric in response to strategic reversals or threats of escalation. Short of NATO sending actual troops into Ukraine, the ladder of escalation seems to have a very identifiable ceiling. Which means that Putin’s latest nuclear posturing does not amount to much. 

(This post is republished from Drezner’s World.)

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