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Facing Stalemate, Putin Talks Up Nuclear Weapons Use and Supporting Foes of the West

Maxim Trudolyubov

Last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared that he would consider sending long-range weapons to unspecified countries that target Western interests and staged an unsettling public debate about a potential Russian preemptive nuclear strike on the West. 

In a carefully scripted public conversation on the main stage of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Putin rejected the need for nuclear weapons use at this stage of the war. However, his interlocutor, Russia’s chief proponent of nuclear strikes, Sergei Karaganov, was given a unique platform to outline his doctrine to a large international audience.

Nuclear Talk as a Sign of Weakness

Putin’s remarks throughout last week’s forum were intended to articulate Russia’s response to the United States and several other Western nations allowing strikes with Western munitions within Russian territory. Indirectly, Putin has also been responding to the Russian army’s lack of major success on the battlefields of Ukraine. After months of fighting and heavy casualties, Russian forces captured the eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka in February, but no breakthrough has been achieved since then. With fresh arms from the United States and Europe now arriving in Ukraine, Russia’s military advantage is beginning to wane.

Putin’s response to the stalemate on the ground appears to be twofold. First, in practical terms, the Kremlin makes relatively restrained escalatory moves, such as conducting drills to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in May or sending Russian warships for a port call in Cuba in June to remind the United States of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. 

Second, as is his habit in uncertain battleground situations, Putin continues to use exaggerated rhetoric to keep Russia’s nuclear option ambiguously open. Additionally, he suggested last week that he would consider supplying long-range strike capabilities to adversaries of the West. 

“If they supply to the war zone and call for the use of these weapons on our territory, then why do we not have the right to do the same, to respond in a mirror-like manner?” Putin asked while addressing the forum on Friday, reiterating his earlier statement. The United States and Germany recently permitted Ukraine to use US and German munitions to hit targets on Russian soil within a limited range solely to defend Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Last week reporters confirmed that Ukraine had already used Western-supplied weapons under this new guidance.

Conversation with a Nuclear Hawk

Putin discussed the possible use of nuclear weapons at least twice during the forum. The second instance was a colorful twenty-minute debate hosted by Karaganov, a political scientist and commentator with longstanding ties to Russia’s international relations community. Advocating for a preemptive nuclear strike against Western targets has been his project for the past year. In June 2023, when Karaganov started his campaign, the Kremlin was reeling from continuous infighting within the Russian army and nervously anticipating a Ukrainian counteroffensive. During that same month Moscow made a major escalatory move by staging tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. In September 2022, also at a moment of weakness following a major Ukrainian success in Kharkiv region, Putin issued a nuclear threat and declared a partial mobilization. 

“There used to be a nuclear safety mechanism that is now seriously weakened. This safety lock was the fear of nuclear weapons,” Karaganov said, addressing Putin. Karaganov elaborated that to win this war, Russia, he thought, must climb the “ladder of nuclear escalation” and be ready to use nuclear weapons. 

“I am a hunter, I know how animals behave. If you are attacked by a pack of wild dogs or hyenas and you have a stick, you can beat them, and there is a chance that you will drive them away. But most likely they will rip your pants, your legs, and if you get tired, they will gnaw you. But if you have a chance to kill a couple, the rest will scatter, guaranteed.”

“You’re turning up the heat. They’re already scared,” Putin responded. “If, God forbid, it comes to strikes, everyone should realize that Russia has an early warning system for missile attacks. The US has it. Europe does not. They are more or less defenseless in this sense.” Putin then went on to reiterate that Russia’s tactical weapons are several times more powerful than the bombs used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and also several times more plentiful. “If those with whom we exchange such strikes [cease to] exist, whether the Americans will get involved in this exchange at the level of strategic weapons I doubt very much. The Europeans should think about it. But I assume that it will never come to that. We don’t have that need. Our armed forces so vastly outnumber them in conventional weapons that there is no need. I would ask you not to mention such things in vain.”

Normalizing Blackmail

However, two days before this exchange Putin had said the West was wrong to dismiss Moscow’s threats to use nuclear weapons. “For some reason, the West believes that Russia will never use it,” Putin said when asked by Reuters about the risk of nuclear escalation. He then referred to Russia’s nuclear doctrine, which allows the country’s leaders to use all means at their disposal in case Russia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are threatened. This meeting marked the first time in the two years of war that representatives from countries the Kremlin calls “unfriendly,” including Thomson Reuters’s Samia Nakhoul and the Associated Press’s James Jordan, were present at a meeting with foreign news agencies.

The significance of the St. Petersburg debate lies in the fact that the Kremlin has given Russia’s chief proponent of preemptive strikes a platform shared with Putin himself. The Kremlin’s media team is extremely picky about choosing people who appear alongside Putin in any public setting. The point of inviting Karaganov was to legitimize his calls for nuclear weapons use as something the Kremlin is listening to and keeps on the table. 

As most game theorists would tell you, however, a player who reaches for an ultimate scare tactic too often loses credibility. Rose Gottemoeller, former NATO deputy secretary-general, noted that Moscow’s repeated invocation of nuclear threats is atypical behavior for a nuclear power. Since the Cuban missile crisis, major nuclear powers have avoided such blackmail. The danger is that Moscow may be normalizing nuclear blackmail as a policy tool. Despite the Kremlin resorting to threats when it feels weak, Russia’s nuclear arsenal is real and has been undergoing modernization. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more