On Russian Nuclear Threat, Putin Lets Others Rattle the Saber

Russia’s hard-liners are rattling the nuclear saber vigorously these days, on television and in academic journals, arguing that an atomic blast — in Ukraine, in Europe, or maybe in a test over Siberia — is the only way to restore the West’s fear of Russian might.

But so far President Vladimir V. Putin is not joining the chorus.

He’s not exactly shedding his bellicose approach to the West, but these days, when it comes to nuclear weapons, he seems to relish the role of the coolheaded decider, even as he keeps the threat of a nuclear strike alive.

Discerning Mr. Putin’s motives is always a perilous undertaking, but American and European officials say there are several possible explanations for Mr. Putin’s more nuanced approach to nuclear weapons.

He may have been chastened by the backlash a year ago, when American officials were deeply worried about a potential nuclear detonation, and China and India, among others, warned that there was no justification for using nuclear weapons.

He is also feeling more confident on the battlefield in Ukraine,regularly bragging about Ukraine’s stalled counteroffensive, lessening the need to rely on nuclear threats. Polls show that despite support for the war in Ukraine, Russians broadly disapprove of the possible use of nuclear weapons.

And he may be holding off, some intelligence officials say, so that if he decides to issue new threats in the future, he is taken seriously.

Whatever the reasons, Mr. Putin refused to take the bait on Thursday when a prominent Russian political scientist rose from the front row of a conference in Sochi and lamented to Mr. Putin that “deterrence isn’t working anymore.”

The United States and its allies were no longer sufficiently afraid of Russia’s nuclear might, said Sergei A. Karaganov, whose commentary is often influential in the Kremlin. Isn’t it time, he asked the Russian leader, “to lower the threshold and go firmly but quickly up the escalation ladder to deter and sober up our partners?”

Mr. Putin, who a year ago was issuing nuclear threats of his own, said he was familiar with Mr. Karaganov’s proposals, which include hitting “a bunch of targets,” with nuclear strikes, but the Russian leader said he saw no need to alter the country’s current nuclear doctrine.

At the same time, Mr. Putin casually mentioned that Moscow had successfully tested a menacing new nuclear-powered cruise missile with a global range, one that Russia has advertised as part of a newly invigorated arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons. “No one in their sound mind will use a nuclear weapon against Russia,” Mr. Putin said.

An image from a video released by a state-owned Russian television channel purporting to show the launch of a nuclear-powered intercontinental cruise missile in 2018.Credit…RU-RTR Russian Television, via Associated Press

The exchange was typical of an emerging dynamic in Moscow, in which Russian hard-liners voice provocative proposals about using or testing nuclear weapons, only for Mr. Putin to present himself as a moderating force holding back the more extreme dogs of nuclear war — while never really taking the threat off the table.

“I don’t think we should be lulled into any kind of false complacency,’’ said Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the former top Russia official at the National Security Council during the Trump administration. “I don’t rule out that he would decide to use a nuclear weapon.”

Ms. Hill, in an interview, said that because Mr. Putin is cautious about crossing China’s leader, Xi Jinping, “he has to be extraordinarily careful about the circumstances.” Still, even if he never uses the weapons, said Ms. Hill, who wrote a biography of Mr. Putin, “he wants the psychological impact” of their potential use to affect every decision about the Ukraine war.

Mr. Karaganov’s provocation followed other incendiary comments by prominent Russians in the last two weeks that drew new attention to the nuclear threat: One of Mr. Putin’s top propagandists, for instance, proposed exploding a nuclear weapon “somewhere over Siberia,” and one of his friends called for Russia to resume nuclear testing in the Arctic to reset the geopolitical order.

The hardliners argue that increased fear of Russia’s nuclear arsenal will lead the West to back down in its support of Ukraine.

The clamor among aggressive war hawks has grown this year as Washington’s fears about the Kremlin turning to nuclear weapons have waned. At the opening of the Ukraine war, President Biden hesitated to send powerful missiles, tanks, air-defense systems and F-16 fighter jets to arm Kyiv, largely for fear of nuclear escalation by Moscow.

But gradually over the past year, Mr. Biden and the NATO allies have concluded that Mr. Putin’s “red lines” were not as bright as they initially feared. Western nations have sent tanks and ever more powerful missiles, and they are training Ukrainian pilots to fly the F-16. The result has been an on-again, off-again debate in Moscow about what Russia can do to restore a sense of terror in the West, and convince Washington that Mr. Putin is willing to use his nuclear arsenal.

Even as he presents himself as a purported voice of reason, Mr. Putin has been turning up the temperature in his own way. On Thursday, in addition to saying Russia had successfully tested the nuclear-powered cruise missile, Mr. Putin dangled the prospect that Russia may revoke its ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and noted that he had not yet decided whether Russia should test or not. (The United States has never ratified the decades-old treaty, but has observed its provisions.)

From the start, the dark clouds of nuclear escalation have hung over the war in Ukraine, clearing at times, and then sweeping back, often to service Mr. Putin’s agenda of the moment.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, in black T-shirt, at the Eindhoven Air Base in the Netherlands, in August.Credit…Rob Engelaar/EPA, via Shutterstock

In his speech announcing his invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, Mr. Putin warned countries not to interfere, threatening consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history,” immediately putting the threat of nuclear weapons use on the table. It was the kind of oblique threat about nuclear weapons that Mr. Putin has favored throughout the war.

The apex of Washington’s anxiety came exactly a year ago, when Russia was reeling on the battlefield in Ukraine. Out of desperation, it announced a haphazard mobilization and “annexation” of four eastern Ukrainian regions.

President Biden worried aloud that the world faced the “prospect of Armageddon” with Russia, telling surprised supporters in New York one night that he thought the world was at a moment of nuclear peril unlike any since the Cuban Missile Crisis, six decades ago.

Pentagon and White House officials made a flurry of calls to their Russian counterparts, warning of unspecified but major consequences if a nuclear weapon was detonated.

Though U.S. officials still believe Mr. Putin could turn to nuclear weapons in Ukraine under certain circumstances, especially if territory in Crimea were to be retaken, those worries are no longer front of mind.

A memorial to Russian service members killed during in its war with Ukraine, in Yevpatoriya, Crimea, on Wednesday.Credit…Alexey Pavlishak/Reuters

That has produced the current round of saber rattling inside Russia, with Mr. Putin content to let others do the rattling.

Dmitri A. Medvedev, the former president and now deputy chairman of the Russian security council, regularly threatens nuclear annihilation if NATO continues to arm and train the Ukrainian military. So do a range of pundits who fill the airwaves every night on state television.

Dmitri Trenin, the former longtime head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, whose affiliation with the American-funded institute ended in 2022 amid his support for the war, gave an interview more than a year ago, republished in the journal Russia in Global Affairs, with the title “Bring Back the Fear!”

Mr. Karaganov was among the first to offer up a proposal for pre-emptive nuclear use in a June 13 article originally published in the Russian magazine Profile. He suggested Moscow might eventually need to strike “a bunch of targets in a number of countries in order to bring those who have lost their mind to reason.”

Sergei A. Karaganov in 2018.Credit…Arif Hudaverdi Yaman/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images

The proposal led to a torrent of pushback among experts in Russia and elsewhere, who noted that the sort of nuclear strikes he was proposing would fail to have the desired effect.

Still, the idea that Moscow can hasten its victory in Ukraine by cowing the West with its nuclear might has continued to have traction in some circles in the Russian establishment. The most recent such suggestion came from Margarita Simonyan, the head of the Russian state news network, RT.

in comments posted to social media on Monday, Ms. Simonyan proposed exploding a thermonuclear weapon in the air hundreds of kilometers “somewhere over Siberia” to scare the West, claiming a military expert told her there would be no impact on the ground.

“I don’t see any other outcome, other than something like this, whether I like it or not,” Ms. Simonyan said. She drew fire for proposing the explosion of a nuclear weapon over Russian territory.

Days earlier, a friend of Mr. Putin, Mikhail Kovalchuk, the head of a top Russian nuclear energy research center, said the West’s confrontational position toward Russia required the resumption of nuclear testing, so foreign nations could see Moscow’s determination to defend its security.

“Everything would fall into place” after just one test, he said. (The only nation that has conducted full nuclear tests in recent years is North Korea.)

In Ukraine, top officials have come to express skepticism that Russia will turn to nuclear weapons.

In a June interview with The Economist, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, predicted Russia would steer clear of carrying out a nuclear strike.

“As the head of intelligence, I’m telling you straight out, it’s not going to happen,” Mr. Budanov said. “For all my dislike of the Russian Federation, there are not many idiots running the country.”

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