Vladimir Putin's nuclear threat

Ricardo Israel

By: Ricardo Israel - 24/03/2024

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It is not surprising that the election lasted three days, since in Russia there are no less than 10 time zones. As expected, Putin won, and at the end of this term in 2030, he will have completed 30 continuous years in power, including the positions of president and prime minister. Perhaps, if the election had been fair, he would have won anyway, just by far fewer votes than the reported 87%. Navalny's opposition was admirable, and the government's responsibility for his death is reminiscent of the dissidents of the Soviet Kremlin, and equally not massive.

The question is what he will do in the six years ahead and the answer is that his mind will be concentrated on the same objectives as in the previous 24, since since he came to power his purpose has been Great Russia, that is , to once again be the power that disappeared with what it describes as “the great geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, the end of the USSR, but since it is anti-communist it is not to recreate it, it is to reappear a project that comes from the tsars .

Except that its place in history will depend on what happens with Ukraine, where the alternatives remain the same as the day of the invasion, triumph or defeat on the battlefield, and as a result, a negotiation, whether a simple ceasefire or the acceptance of the only thing that perhaps could have prevented the invasion and that has been pending since Gorbachev (so he says in his memoirs) and the disappearance of the USSR, a negotiation of a new security scheme with Russia as successor, and sometimes I wonder if Trump plans to offer something similar to that negotiation, when he assures that he and only he will be able to stop the war as soon as he enters the White House, if he is elected in November.

In this regard, let us not forget that with the USSR what disappeared was nothing less than an empire, so the territorial consequences are still felt in the new countries, and already led to the wars in Georgia (2008) and the taking of Crimea ( 2014). Today they are, among others, the existence of Russian minorities in Transnistria for Moldova and Kaliningrad, between Poland and Lithuania. That is, a scenario similar to that left by the end of the Spanish empire in the 19th century and the wars between the national states that arose, or in the current Middle East, as a consequence of the disappearance of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.

In Putin's speeches, his vision of the future conflict becomes visible to everyone, when he says that he will use nuclear weapons if Russian sovereignty is in danger, and for him, that territory today includes the provinces of the Ukrainian Donbas and Crimea, incorporated into Russia. after plebiscites, unrecognized and illegal under international law.

For their part, the sanctions against Russia for the invasion of Ukraine have had a consequence that should deeply worry the West due to its implications, such as the fact that today there is for the first time a close alliance between Russia and China, where Moscow is the junior partner. , less in nuclear weapons, moreover, with the will to use them.

Therefore, what is happening now must be taken seriously. First of all, it is something that has been missing in these 24 years, that Putin must be believed, since he has been consistent in saying publicly what he wants to do: today he tells the world that he is willing to use tactical nuclear weapons . It is a threat, but it also reflects the fact that given the mediocre performance on the Ukrainian battlefield, this nuclear weapon is more than the main one, it is the only deterrent element that Moscow has, in a scheme where it says it and believes it, that the war is more than the invasion of a neighboring country, since it would be the first global war of the 21st century, whose true rival would be NATO as a whole.

In Putin's vision, the war is with the West in general, and against the United States in particular, who would have provoked it, and not the invasion, and that is what makes it have global consequences, above all, in the energy and food markets. In truth, not even the Gaza war has had similar consequences, since at least for now, it is contained in a geographical space limited to that part of the world.

You have to believe Putin. Tactical nuclear weapons were also present during the Cold War, but as something secondary, while today they are central to the military and foreign policy of Russia, which has also modernized this weaponry better than the West, since, above all, the United States .and NATO were rather asleep and lagging behind in relation to this challenge. And Putin knows this and uses it to his advantage.

Furthermore, this invasion probably would not have taken place in the same way if Ukraine had not handed over the atomic bombs that were left on its territory when the USSR disappeared. There was also a failure to comply with the promises made not only by Russia, but even more importantly for these purposes, by the United Kingdom and the United States itself, which undertook to guarantee the sovereignty of Kiev, something that Zelensky mentions when consulted. This memory is important, since there is increasingly open talk of a territorial loss for Ukraine in some future negotiation, not only by the Pope, but also by Western politicians.

Scenario that today takes center stage, supported by what happens on the battlefield, where today the initiative belongs to the Russians, whose armed forces seem to predominate after the failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive last year, and Kiev also has great problems recruiting more soldiers for the new stage that is coming.

And that possibility is also present in the changed public discourse of French President Macron, also supported by Germany and Poland, who affirm their commitment to do everything possible to avoid the Russian triumph, which is a novelty, especially because even the failed counteroffensive , the speech was rather successist about a Russian defeat.

That a French president does so is consistent with an entire history, since that was what led General De Gaulle to insist on the need for Europe to have its own independent military force, something he tried and failed, especially after joining the the European Union from that main US ally, the United Kingdom, but that policy left France, among other things, with a nuclear-based deterrent.

It is in this scheme that it is not surprising that it receives support from Germany, since the Franco-German alliance was the basis of Western Europe that emerged from the ashes of the Second World War. The question is whether Europe has any chance of being credible when it announces, in Macron's words, a military presence in Ukraine, although he immediately sows doubts when he adds that he is not going to do anything that implies an escalation, and there is no doubt that it would be. and very big for Putin.

The question is whether Europe is in a position to stop being rather irrelevant. The truth is that Europe today does not seem to have the economic resources nor the will to move together towards a scenario of greater conflict with Russia, since within the European members of NATO there are many differences around that point, especially , when so many countries do not even comply with the obligation to contribute 2% of their Product to NATO, others do not seem to have the same will to fight, as well as the results of some elections have brought with them coalitions and leaders who feel close to Moscow.

On the other hand, it is also true that a rather warmongering discourse, anti-Putin rather than anti-Russian, has developed in progressive and green sectors, rather pacifist, which is new.

In the battle itself, the current reality contains direct military presence in the form of British advisors (including sabotage actions in Russian territory) or Americans in the form of "contractors", and, of course, the contribution of weapons, intelligence and budget, without which Ukraine could not have resisted the invasion. However, France itself makes itself doubtful, when it did not even comply with the threat of acting militarily in Africa, after a coup d'état that deprived it last year of much-needed uranium, since its electrical energy is based in nuclear power plants. The truth is that nothing happened, at least that is known, and the French threat simply did not materialize.

For its part, the US deterrence was not able to prevent the Russian invasion, despite having made warnings about it. Today, already in the third year of the invasion, the United States is divided, without state policy in this regard, and with the warning of a probable winner like Trump, who is going to put an end to the type of total assistance that is delivering today Biden.

This internal division is very serious for a great power. It is also a reality where its nuclear weapons are today older than the Russian ones that were modernized, and apparently, even more serious is that there is no clarity if this weapons would be used in circumstances such as those in Ukraine.

Perhaps, as a result of this division, the United States today does not have an updated white paper on the conditions under which it would intervene with soldiers on the ground, nor are they known what the red lines would be, the violation of which would be grounds for war for Washington. Therefore, since there is no clarity on the previous point, there is also no clarity regarding when and how nuclear weapons would be used in tactical conditions.

The truth is that after the end of the Cold War, the United States became complacent and today does not produce ammunition in sufficient quantities to alone sustain a conflict that continues to drag on like the Ukrainian one. It also happened to NATO as a whole as a military alliance.

Furthermore, in parallel to the war in Ukraine, there are other conflicts where Washington's deterrence has not operated, such as the Middle East with Iran, where due to lack of decision the power fails to subdue the Houthis in Yemen, and Taiwan with China, to which are added two that did not end well, such as Iraq, where Tehran remained the dominant power, and a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which reduced its credibility with both allies and enemies, a consequence of situations where the United States. He obtained easy initial military triumphs, only for everything to become complicated later, including the failure to impose democracy where it is largely rejected.

Due to Russia's cancellation policy, they have been left without direct dialogue with Moscow, which never happened in the Cold War, and is not good for a superpower. Even if Putin is only seeking to scare with the nuclear threat, there needs to be some response. Not only because of its track record, but also as a deterrent, because even a minimal military presence of soldiers in uniform instead of “advisors” can easily escalate, and unlike the Cold War, a conventional war is not seen on the horizon. that acts as a brake.

Indeed, in the Cold War there was a massive concentration of troops, tanks and planes on both sides whose conventional confrontation gave enough time to avoid what no one wanted, which was the use of atomic bombs, which, when seen as destruction mutually assured insurance (MAD in English) were the last resort, in generations still sensitized by Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Tactical nuclear weapons are to be used on the battlefield, and, therefore, a scenario of limited destruction is considered, which is mentally different from what was known in Japan. Furthermore, it is likely that we will not soon have another war similar to Ukraine, since contrary to what is said, Russian resources are fully employed there, so they are not in economic and military conditions for a similar invasion, although they would be. to stir up hornets' nests like Transnistria and similar throughout the former USSR, seeking to bog down NATO there. In other words, the West should be concerned that Russia could use such a scenario to its advantage, instead of preparing another high-cost invasion with an uncertain outcome.

As time progresses and the war stagnates, there is a situation that NATO has not been able to fully resolve, which is the issue of military supplies to Ukraine, since difficulties have been created by the prolongation of this conventional war. , where as an example, it has been difficult to comply in a timely manner with the delivery of ammunition to Ukraine, nor has it been able to comply with some public offers for planes and tanks, and those delivered have rather been from the arsenals of the donor countries and in smaller number, which is summarized in the fact that Ukraine still does not have an air force or a navy equivalent to that of Russia, nor any real defense against missiles that fall in urban areas every day.

Furthermore, despite the rhetoric, Ukraine has not received weapons capable of attacking the heart of Russia, and what is being done are actions by commandos and special forces that serve for newspaper headlines and social networks, but that do not change anything. The reality of the battlefield is substantial, where we are waiting for the sea of ​​mud that appears in April, and the initiative for the subsequent stage is in the hands of the Russians, who will probably wait a while, in order to have the greatest impact on the final stretch of the US presidential election

All of the above only rescues the defensive character of NATO, despite the words of Macron, who, not being able to run for re-election, thinks rather about his place in history as well as his near future, being still a young man. The reality is that Putin sees himself fighting with the West on behalf of all Russians, wherever they are, so for him the NATO countries would be co-belligerents, despite the fact that the red lines of the cold war have been respected, which which has reaffirmed in Putin the idea that, as in previous confrontations, NATO will send advisors, but not soldiers.

By the way, there may be a calculation error, but that would be an error, understood as such. For now, the war, no matter how stagnant it may be, continues its course, due to something that Sun Tzu (544 BC- 486 BC) indicated more than two and a half millennia ago, and since it is in force I quote it every time I can, in the sense that wars only end when the will to fight of the contenders ends, and both Russia and Ukraine continue to have it, and without weaknesses, despite much of the Russian error of a quick conquest of Kiev in the first days, and the Western one of to think that Putin could fall due to economic sanctions, withdrawal of Western companies like McDonald or due to the challenge of Yevgeny Prigozhin's mercenaries.

For now, what is seen in the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the maintenance of a protracted war scenario, a scenario not anticipated by the planners, and which has an impact on the insufficient industrial production of ammunition, until now making Ukraine more complicated than to Russia.

It is also a scenario where sanctions have not stopped the aggression nor has Russia's cancellation, and even the Russian economy has performed better than expected, which allows them to continue with the fiction that there is no war but a “special military operation”, and where supply and consumption have been normal. On the other hand, Russia's military performance has been mediocre enough that it is evident to Washington that its only real rival is China, and given that economic power, the failure of sanctions is doubly dangerous, since, in a future confrontation, China is going to be a much more difficult rival. Equally serious is the lack of self-criticism in this regard in Western governments.

The truth is that Putin's authoritarian and Caesarist power remains firm, without meeting democratic standards, but apparently, better in tune with the wishes of the Russian majority than the liberals, discredited by the chaos of the reforms after the collapse of the USSR, and without which, neither the appearance of Putin nor his duration in power can be understood.

There is no doubt and it should not be forgotten that it was Russia that invaded Ukraine, but there is also no doubt that this conflict is not between democracy versus dictatorship, since in international surveys Ukraine and Russia had very similar locations at the beginning of the war, both in indicators of corruption (oligarchs in both) as in the many democratic insufficiencies of both. For the rest, everything indicates that there will not be elections in Ukraine this year, despite the fact that according to the constitution they should be held on March 31, both due to the war and the weakening of Zelensky, nationally and internationally.

Also influencing is the way in which the West wanted to take advantage of Russian weakness for a profound change in both countries, which became visible before this war in the 2014 conflict in the streets of Kiev, the color revolutions of diplomat Victoria Nuland, and the eastern expansion of NATO promoted by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright under Clinton, which was criticized by Kissinger at the time. Even earlier, in the impact that NATO's bombing of Serbia had on Russia in the Yugoslav civil war, exemplified in the permanent reference made in Moscow to the so-called "Primakov turn" or the Chinese to the bombing of their embassy in Belgrade , even if it was by mistake.

Probably, even if the verbal offers that according to Gorbachev (and Putin) were made to incorporate Russia into both Europe and NATO had materialized, the scenario of confrontation would hardly have changed, and probably only some offer to negotiate an agreement would have materialized. with Russia to replace the detente that occurred with the former USSR, would have altered the will to invade Ukraine. In any case, I think it would have only delayed it, but not ruled it out.

In conclusion, when the invasion enters its third year and Russia seems to have the initiative and Ukraine is on the defensive, I think Putin thinks something like he doesn't need to be the strongest, since it would be enough for him to take advantage of the weakness of the others . For its part, the big problem in the United States today is its internal division, so deep that it is difficult to see how it can be fixed in the middle of the electoral campaign.

Personally, I just reiterate how much the superpower needs the disappearance of something that was an example for the world, an independent and quality press that guided those who made decisions, nothing to do with the biased activism of today , unable to distinguish anything that is not Biden or Trump.

I hope it reappears, it is necessary so that there is a better analysis for the benefit of all.


PhD in Political Science (Essex), Law Degree (Barcelona), Lawyer (U de Chile)

«The opinions published herein are the sole responsibility of its author».