Putin won’t go nuclear, but wants the world to think he’ll

October 07, 2022 06:00
Russian President Vladimir Putin (Photo: Reuters)

Putin is running out of options.

More precisely, he is running out of moves he could turn to – short of mounting a full-blown war against Europe and the United States.

One that he won’t win. One that Russian ‘partners’ – or, rather, allies with many amongst them having raised elaborate objections or concerns with him in private – will not back in full, or lend any support beyond the cursory lip-service.

In his hubristic outrage, Putin – and the surveillance state apparatus he both symbolises and spearheads – has sent Russia into a war with little upside, and with substantial costs.

It is unlikely that Putin will turn to nuclear weapons. There are three reasons why this remains in the no-go zone, despite recent setbacks in Kharkiv. The first, is that despite the sizeable stockpile Russia still possesses in the aftermath of the Cold War – and the arsenal it has amassed over recent decades – it remains improbable, though not impossible, for the Kremlin to win a nuclear war against NATO. Both UK and France possess nuclear weapons; even independently of American input, NATO stands a pretty robust chance against Russian deployment of nukes, should that day come.

The second, is that there is no straightforward target that Russia could strike – and that would yield the vast benefits needed in order to justify the deployment of nukes. Russia could opt to strike a major Ukrainian city, yet in so doing, it would still fall vastly short of both decapitating the government (in a secure location) and taking down the Ukrainian army, which has been dispersed throughout the country. Additionally, a symbolic strike in the Black Sea may be rhetorically effective – yet the potential fallout, both in terms of chemical waste and actual repercussions, is far too pricey in exchange for what could likely come across as little more than the petulant protest of a wounded and threatened power.

The third, is that Putin knows fully well that nuclear weapons are a critical threshold for many countries, including those that have stayed neutral, or pseudo-pro-Russia (at least on paper), thus far. Russia is already at risk of losing Central Asian states’ support – with many amongst these states sensing that they could count on China and themselves for strategic cover. Should Moscow move into total war, it is likely that India, too, would turn unreservedly against them: that would deny them arguably the second most important strategic partner and asset that they have, in this ongoing international chess game.

Putin is thus unlikely to go nuclear. What he is more inclined to do, however, is to pursue a strategy of attrition – wear the West down through intermittently tampering with the supply of gas and oil; drag Europe through a winter of despair, then discontent, in order to sow divisions in the purported union straddling the Atlantic. Whether he succeeds, turns hugely on both the harshness of the upcoming winter, and his ability to prorogue the end to the conflict. A frozen war best serves Putin’s short- to medium-term interests, though eventually the casualties shall come knocking on his door; payback time eventually strikes.

Yet independently of nuclear weapons, there is much that Putin may resort to: biochemical weapons, targeting of civilians, campaigns of terror and horror, designed to amplify the Russian reputation as a rogue state – all psychological tactics deployed to pressure Ukraine to come to the negotiation table. Yet, with President Zelenskyy’s recent signing of the decree that no such negotiation shall come, it appears that Putin’s threats are very much not heeded.

Putin has every incentive to convince the world he will go nuclear. Morale is running low in Russia. Mobilisation efforts are more sluggish than he had expected them to be. His generals are – whilst compliant and docile – progressively frustrated at the dynamics on the battlefield. There remains the possibility that Russia can force a breakthrough from the South, exploiting its access to the Crimean peninsula as a means of seizing more territories along the coast. Yet this would render them no closer to their eventual prize – Kiev, where the seat of power rests. There is no easy way out or forward for Russia, short of some seismic surprise victories, or the influx of new blood and resources, to prop up its doomed military campaign. Such is the nature of life.

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Assistant Professor, HKU