Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Why is Putin again threatening a nuclear war?

And just as importantly, is the West willing to call his bluff?

This threatening posture is a declaration of Russia’s unwavering commitment to the conflict (Getty Images)
This threatening posture is a declaration of Russia’s unwavering commitment to the conflict (Getty Images)

In his state of the nation speech last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Western support for Ukraine risks triggering a global war. Echoing his rhetoric from the start of the conflict, Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons should there be any escalation in Western support for Ukraine, including the deployment of Western troops as suggested earlier in the week by French President Emmanuel Macron. Although Macron’s statement was rebuffed by NATO allies, the prospect of Russian soldiers engaging directly with NATO troops seems to have unsettled the Kremlin.

Yet the situation on the battlefield in Ukraine has changed significantly from nearly a year ago when Russia announced its intention to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus and threatened to resume nuclear testing. Last month, Russia secured full control of the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka. This marked Russia’s most significant advance since capturing Bakhmut in May 2023.

Concurrently, Ukraine is grappling with personnel shortages and a lack of firearms and artillery, impairing its ability to effectively counter Russian offensives. Compounding Ukraine’s challenges, Western support appears to be waning. In the United States, congressional delays are resulting in a critical shortage of supplies needed on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Europe is struggling to meet its targets for increased arms production.

Russia seems to have the upper hand in the war.

As a result, the possibility that Russia is not only gaining ground but could potentially secure an outright victory is becoming increasingly real. The exact nature of such a victory remains uncertain, but it could result in Ukraine’s inability to reclaim any territories captured by Russia thus far. Additionally, there is a growing likelihood that Russia might fully seize control of the four oblasts it annexed in September 2022 – Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia.

Ultimately, Russia seems to have the upper hand in the war. Additionally, Russia’s war economy is showing resilience. According to estimates by the Russian government’s statistics agency, the country’s GDP grew by 3.6 per cent in 2023, following a moderate contraction in 2022. In his state of the nation address, Putin claimed that Russia has become the largest economy in Europe, though his assertion is based on Purchasing Power Parity rather than nominal GDP.

Given this seemingly advantageous position, it raises the question: why would Putin escalate the rhetoric by threatening the use of nuclear weapons again?

There are likely several underlying motivations behind this strategy.

The first and perhaps most immediate reason is Putin’s desire to deter any potential involvement of NATO troops in Ukraine. By brandishing the nuclear option, Putin draws a red line for Western nations, signalling the extreme lengths to which he is prepared to go. This tactic serves as a warning that any escalation in Western military support for Ukraine could lead to catastrophic consequences.

Furthermore, this threatening posture is a declaration of Russia’s unwavering commitment to the conflict. It communicates to the West that Russia is all-in on this confrontation. For Putin’s regime, the war in Ukraine is existential, and the rhetoric of nuclear engagement underscores that Russia will not back down, regardless of the cost. This stance aims to deflate Western resolve and to cast doubt on the effectiveness of continued support for Ukraine, suggesting that such support might ultimately be futile in the face of Russia’s readiness to escalate to extremes.

However, there is also a strategic dimension to Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling, which goes beyond mere intimidation. It could be a calculated move to bring Western nations to the negotiating table. Despite Russia’s current position in the conflict, a prolonged war poses risks, including dwindling morale among Russian soldiers and increasing discontent within the Russian public. The Russian populace, like any, yearns for normalcy and stability, which are severely compromised in a protracted conflict.

Putin, while determined to secure a victory for Russia, is likely aware of the costs and risks associated with a drawn-out war. The nuclear threat can therefore be seen as a high-stakes gambit to expedite a diplomatic resolution. By raising the stakes, Putin is aiming to pressure Western leaders into negotiations, preferring a quicker, more decisive end to the conflict rather than a long, attritional struggle. This approach could be seen as a means to an end – achieving Russian objectives while avoiding the long-term quagmire of a protracted war.

Regardless of the exact reason behind Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling, the ultimate goal is clear: to steer the conflict towards a resolution favourable to Russia. This tactic hinges on the assumption that the West will be sufficiently intimidated by the prospect of nuclear escalation to either reduce their support for Ukraine or to come to the negotiating table on terms more agreeable to Moscow. However, this strategy is also a major gamble on Putin’s part. If Western nations perceive his nuclear threats as a bluff and decide to increase their military support for Ukraine, it could escalate the conflict further and undermine the Kremlin’s objectives.

The success of Putin’s strategy, therefore, rests on the West’s interpretation of his intentions. The key question is whether the West will call Putin’s bluff or yield to his high-stakes nuclear posturing, a decision that will shape the outcome of the conflict.

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