Sept. 29, 2022
There is no question that Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats must be taken seriously. But if the West gives in to his blackmail and allows him to claim Ukrainian lands and declare victory in the war, then the world order as we know it will collapse, and many other peoples will look to the future with dread.
ATLANTA – Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of Russia’s armed forces – supposedly a draft of 300,000 reservists, though there are reports that the draft will ensnare 1.2 million people. Upon hearing the news, I called a friend in St. Petersburg, who, through tears, explained to me that her 30-year-old son would rather go to jail than fight in Ukraine, the country where his Jewish-Ukrainian grandmother is buried. He now works remotely, for fear of being caught in the streets.
It was the second time I had ever heard my friend cry. The first time was on February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine.
My friend’s story is not unique. Across Russia, people who once viewed politics as distant and abstract are now acutely aware of – and often distraught by – political developments. But not all potential draftees are reacting to the mobilization – or “mogilization,” in current Russian parlance (mogila means “tomb”) – like my friend’s son. In fact, anyone hoping that popular resistance will thwart the mobilization is likely to be disappointed.
While many Russian men may not want to go die in a war – around 200,000 have already escaped abroad – they are, for the most part, not attempting to avoid the draft. This probably partly reflects their fear of facing criminal penalties – just strengthened by the Russian Duma – for evading conscription. But many also parrot Putin’s propaganda, saying that “Ukrainians are fascists, after all” and that the West and Ukraine “hate us anyway.”
Young people console themselves by imagining that they will not be drafted or, at least, that they would get “enough training” – perhaps lasting three or four months – before they are deployed. Yet, at the beginning of the war in February and March, young recruits were sent to the front, and there is no reason to think that will change now, not least because Russia lacks adequate military infrastructure and trainers.
So, most young Russians seem prepared to accept their destiny passively, even if that means being sent to die for a criminal regime’s criminal war. They will become cannon fodder not for some grand purpose, but because Putin is terrified of revolution, especially of the “Orange” type that Ukraine invented.
This fear became intolerable in 2019, when Ukrainians elected President Volodymyr Zelensky on a pro-democracy, anti-corruption platform. A prosperous, democratic, Western-oriented
Ukraine is anathema to Putin because it demonstrates that Russians need not live under kleptocratic authoritarianism. And Putin clearly felt threatened by the loss of political control over the opposition. The Kremlin did almost nothing to support people during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Russians’ mass refusal to get the Sputnik V vaccine demonstrated how critical the loss of trust in the regime was.
The February blitzkrieg, followed by a victory parade in Kyiv, was supposed to revive Putin’s declining popularity and thus preserve his regime. The Kremlin spared no effort in rallying Russians around the “special military operation,” especially by invoking the memory of the “Great Patriotic War” against Nazism. But Putin’s designs soon collided with the inspired Ukrainian resistance, and it became clear that Russia would not easily replicate its 2014 annexation of Crimea, which most Russians welcomed – and which the West did little to resist.
Now the West must also confront Putin’s new threats to deploy nuclear weapons. Such threats are not surprising: Putin resorts to doomsday rhetoric more often than all other European leaders combined. In 2000 – Putin’s first year as president – a new military doctrine containing implicit nuclear blackmail was laid out. In 2010, during the presidency of Putin’s puppet-placeholder Dmitry Medvedev – now Russia’s number-one war hawk – that blackmail became explicit, with the declaration that nuclear weapons could be used for “defense” in response to a “threat to the existence of the Russian state.”
Two assumptions underlie the Kremlin’s use of nuclear blackmail. First, the West will back down, because of its “responsible politics”: faced with the prospect of a nuclear war, frightened citizens will push their elected governments toward negotiation and appeasement. Second, Western political unity against Russia cannot withstand the threat of nuclear Armageddon; instead, each country will scramble to save itself by brokering its own deal with the Kremlin. The West’s decision to pull its punches after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine probably reinforced these assumptions.
Now, Putin is taking his nuclear blackmail a step further. With the sham referendums in the occupied parts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts in Ukraine, he seems to be preparing the ground to use nuclear weapons to “defend” Ukrainian territory usurped by Russia from liberation by the Ukrainian military.
To be sure, as observers have been quick to point out, there have already been attacks on Russian territory – in the Belgorod and Kursk regions – and no nuclear weapons have been deployed. Moreover, neither “the bunker dweller,” as some blogger-critics call Putin, nor the thieves from his inner circle appear ready to die for any cause. They might be less willing to start a nuclear war than they want the world to believe.
We know nothing about Russia’s chain of command for launching nuclear weapons, including whether everyone in that chain would obey a launch order. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Vasili Arkhipov, a Soviet submarine officer, refused to fire a nuclear missile. Moreover, Putin’s weapons simply fail at times.
Given that the only thing Putin’s cronies truly value is their lives and their wealth, they are probably already looking for the right candidate to succeed him. If his war in Ukraine cannot safeguard their mafia regime, perhaps a successor with whom the West is willing to negotiate can.
Observing Putin’s tactics, one cannot help but think of a mugger attempting to intimidate a victim with a knife. Whether or not that knife will be used depends on the victim’s response, the surrounding circumstances (such as if someone else intervenes), and luck. As Ukraine’s supposed champions, Western powers should take note.
The threat of nuclear war must be taken seriously. But if the West gives in to Putin’s blackmail and allows him to claim Ukrainian lands and declare victory in the war, then the world order as we know it will collapse, entombing hopes for security and respect for international law in the future.
Dina Khapaeva is Professor of Russian at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The second edition of Crimes sans châtiment (Crimes without Punishment, Éditions de l’Aube, 2012) is forthcoming in January 2023.