Russia's Comments about a "Dirty Bomb" Betray the State's Weakness
Russia's current nuclear blackmail of the world is not an isolated incident but a deliberate policy, and probably its last real point of leverage on the world agenda. After the de facto defeat of the Russian professional army in Ukraine earlier this year, which forced the Kremlin to launch a mass mobilization, Russia has no other means left to make itself be reckoned with. The threat should be taken seriously.
Divided Opinion in Russia Does Not Mean the West Should Let Down Its Guard
In the past few weeks, the issue of nuclear threat has been brought up again by Moscow. According to the Kremlin, Ukrainian authorities were preparing to use a “dirty bomb.” Predictably, Kyiv's Western partners did not believe these accusations—but the West should not underestimate the Russian regime's ability to commit false flag acts.
For months now, various “experts” on Russian federal TV channels have been preparing Russian audiences for the harshest measures to be taken against unruly Ukraine. The “dirty bomb” accusations are an important part of the propaganda. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who is not only a leader of Chechnya but also a recently appointed colonel general of the Rosgvardia, openly declared the use of "low-yield" nuclear weapons against Ukraine to be legitimate.
So far this idea seems to be unpopular even among the most hard-line Russian nationalists. In nationalist circles, Ukraine is viewed as an integral part of the Russian people that has lost its way, so using nuclear weaponry on Ukrainian territory means using it against their own country.
The Kremlin has a different view. In his recent speech, Russian president Vladimir Putin said that the United States had set a precedent for the use of nuclear weapons, and it seems that his administration is seeking to use them against Ukraine. However, the contradiction remains, since Putin also believes that Ukrainians are Russian and believes that Ukrainian territories should be restored to Russia.
The Kremlin has accepted the policy based on the self-arrogated right to use force in the former Soviet republics. This policy is connected with the ideas expressed in the Valdai Club's December 2021 programmatic report, Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours. Its authors openly questioned the existence of Ukraine within its current borders, and sought to justify the use of military force in Ukraine and other former Soviet Union territories. “Russia has been and remains the dominant power in the so-called post-Soviet space, because it has the largest population, one of the world's best armies, and a large arsenal of nuclear weapons that is commensurate only to the US stockpile,” the report says.
It is noteworthy that the report appeared just after Russia delivered its ultimatum to NATO. Thus the report can be considered as referring to the possibility of an open invasion of Ukraine.
Dissolution of the Post-Soviet Space: Russia Stands Alone
A year after the release of the Valdai Club’s December 2021 report, it is possible to state that the position of Russia as the dominant force in the post-Soviet space has been shaken and it is about to succumb. Even more, the “post-Soviet space” has seemingly ceased to exist. Russia has had to confront its weakness. Hence its dreams (nightmares?) of deploying a nuclear tool.
This weakness of Russia is especially noticeable in the Southern Caucasus, where Turkey’s role has grown. Azerbaijan is under the ever greater influence of Turkey. Once loyal Armenia has become disillusioned with Moscow's ability and willingness to ensure its security. The Central Asian countries are more and more oriented toward China, while some are trying to build relations with the United States and NATO on their own.
Tajikistan’s president Emomali Rakhmon recently appealed to Vladimir Putin at the summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Astana with the demand to change Russia’s views on its neighboring states. President Rakhmon called on Moscow to respect his country, and while his statement was made in relation to the lack of cooperation between the two countries, it is hard to imagine such a démarche occurring even a couple of years ago, especially given the postcolonial nature of the relationship and the Kremlin's traditional view of Central Asian leaders as its vassals.
One can plausibly state that the Russian-led post-Soviet space no longer exists. As in the early 1990s, it is time for Moscow once more to care about the territorial integrity of its own state. In this context, the nuclear button, or any nuclear threat in general, remains the last real card in Putin's deck. That is what makes the situation so dangerous.
Russia’s Threats to Play the Nuclear Card Must Be Taken Seriously
In some ways the tense situation resembles the situation in Ukrainian politics in 2021, when the coming Russian attack was almost palpable. That year President Volodymyr Zelensky's office began to cleanse the political space of pro-Russia political forces. For the first time since 2014, when the conflict with Russia started, pro-Russia political groups felt a real threat and restrictions on their activities. A number of media resources financed by these groups were also closed down.
At the same time, it became clear that Kyiv would not comply with the Kremlin’s interpretations of the Minsk Agreements, which would have allowed it to introduce pro-Russia forces into the political system of Ukraine through proxy structures created in the Donbas. This is when the Kremlin understood that it had only one way to force Ukraine into submission—by using military force.
Despite the obvious fact that the number of professional Russian army units was insufficient to defeat the Ukrainian army and effect regime change quickly, Putin decided to take this risk. Now he has met a series of humiliating defeats in Ukraine and in many other, once Soviet, regions. He is forced to reckon with his regime’s future in a way that involves wide strata of the Russian population and risks plunging the entire economy into a long, devastating war. It is unclear whether Vladimir Putin has drawn any lessons from his Ukrainian adventure or whether he is prepared to raise the stakes in his confrontation with the West.
The new dictionary that the Kremlin started using recently, which includes the Iranian theocracy’s term “the West’s Satanism” and Patriarch Kirill’s concept of “globalism the Antichrist,” shows that any threat that Putin makes, even a fantastic one, should be taken seriously and responded to as wisely and as preemptively as possible.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
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The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and 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 Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more