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Leader: Vladimir Putin’s game of nuclear blackmail

By threatening a nuclear strike Russia hopes to bully the West into reducing support for Kyiv. This is a perilous moment.

By New Statesman

On 30 September Vladimir Putin presided over a grand ceremony inside St George’s Hall in the Kremlin to announce the illegal annexation of as much as 15 per cent of Ukraine. The Russian president declared that four Ukrainian regions – Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson – now belonged to Russia “forever”. He vowed to “defend our land with all the forces and resources we have”, implicitly threatening the use of nuclear weapons. Then he warned that the United States had “created a precedent” through its nuclear strikes on the Japanese cities of ­Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Putin’s claims have no basis in international law, or indeed reality. His forces do not fully control any of the four regions he purports to have annexed, and they are losing ground. In the 48 hours after his Kremlin speech, the Ukrainian military reclaimed the strategic logistics hub of Lyman in Donetsk and recaptured territory in the southern region of Kherson, where they are advancing towards the regional capital. Ukraine will not stop fighting because of Putin’s threats.

In fact, all that changed in Ukraine after Putin’s declaration was the end of any prospect of negotiations. As long as Putin is in power, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said on 30 September, there can be no peace talks. He understands that any cessation of hostilities would merely give Russia the chance to rearm and replenish the depleted ranks of its military before the next attack. Immediately after the Russian president had finished speaking in Moscow, Zelensky held his own signing ceremony in the street outside the government headquarters, where he approved Ukraine’s application for fast-track accession to Nato.

[See also: The unravelling of Vladimir Putin]

Yet, Putin’s strategy is clear. By rattling his nuclear sabre and invoking the American attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Russian president hopes to frighten the West into reducing its support for Ukraine and pressuring Kyiv to freeze the conflict along its current lines. This would secure Russia’s control of Crimea and the surrounding territory (which includes vital power and water supplies to the peninsula), as well as a large swath of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, which would amount to a victory for Putin.

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The sabotage of the Nord Stream I and II pipelines beneath the Baltic Sea on 26 September, while not conclusively traced to Russia, fits the same rationale. By threatening Europe’s energy infrastructure, Moscow seeks to undermine Western backing for Ukraine by making clear that the suffering from this war will not be confined to Ukraine. “People cannot be fed with printed dollars and euros,” Putin warned in his 30 September speech, “pieces of paper… will not heat their homes.”

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The self-inflicted economic turmoil in the UK will only strengthen Putin’s confidence in his strategy. The incompetent response from the Conservative government only reinforces the narrative in the Kremlin (shared by the Chinese leadership in Beijing) that the decadent West is in disarray and terminal decline.

The prospect of nuclear war is terrifying. It is intended to be. This is how nuclear blackmail works. And it has worked for Putin thus far. His order to place Russia’s nuclear forces on a special alert status at the start of the war (which had no practical effect) helped to ensure that Ukraine’s repeated requests for Nato to enforce a no-fly zone were refused, and he has succeeded in dissuading Western countries from becoming more directly involved. But giving in to blackmail only leads to more blackmail.

The surest way to prevent Putin from contemplating a nuclear strike in Ukraine is for Western leaders to make clear to him – and more importantly those around him who may be beginning to fear for their own futures – that this would only hasten his regime’s demise, and Russia’s defeat. The consequences, which would likely include the destruction of the entirety of Russia’s forces in Ukraine and its prized Black Sea Fleet, must be communicated unambiguously to Moscow. This is a perilous moment. We are witnessing the most dangerous nuclear brinkmanship since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Confronted with Putin’s nuclear threats, the response across political parties, indeed across political systems, must be unity and resolve.

[See also: How should the US respond to a Russian nuclear attack?]

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!