May 13, 2024



In early May, French President Emmanuel Macron said he would send French troops to Ukraine if Kyiv requested their help. Shortly after, Britain gave Ukraine permission to use British weapons to strike targets on Russian soil. Putin counterpunched immediately with his “nuclear blackmail” gambit. On May 6, he ordered Russian troops to prepare to use tactical nuclear weapons — so-called “small” nukes that are as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 which killed 180,000. Putin is the first leader in history to play a nuclear escalation game in response to major threats, after battlefield setbacks, or simply to frighten allies. In 2022, he placed his nuclear forces on “high alert” to scare off NATO help, but Ukrainians mostly ignored it and urged allies to do the same. “I don’t think he’s bluffing. He wants to scare the whole world. These are the first steps of his nuclear blackmail,” said President Volodymyr Zelensky in 2022, who added “we need to keep putting pressure on him and not allow him to continue.”

Putin’s chess strategy is a combination of nuclear blackmail, moving pieces around, and the sacrifice of thousands of “pawns” on battlefields. But now Europe mobilizes and its two nuclear powers, France and Britain, call his nuclear bluff by escalating their rhetoric and postures. Last week, Putin raised the stakes in another way by threatening to bomb British weapons and installations if Ukraine uses British armaments to bomb Russia itself. His warning, if executed, would invoke NATO’s Article 51 and bring NATO’s 30 members into the conflagration. Putin then upped the ante further by stating that he regards the impending delivery of dozens of F-16s to Ukraine as a nuclear threat. “No matter what modification of the aircraft will be supplied, we will treat them as nuclear-capable and we will consider this step of the United States and NATO as a purposeful provocation,” the Russian foreign ministry said.

Putin’s trustworthy and unhinged sidekick, Dmitry Medvedev, also added fuel to the fire by unleashing his usual torrent of frightening and crude warnings. He said NATO troops on the ground in Ukraine would trigger Russian nuclear attacks on Western capital cities. On May 7, he wrote “the choir of irresponsible bastards from among Western elites calling for sending their troops to the nonexistent country [Ukraine] is expanding”. Russia will respond “not within Ukraine’s borders. None of them will be able to hide either on Capitol Hill, or in the Elysee Palace, or in Downing Street. It will be a global catastrophe.”

Such saber-rattling is unsettling which is why Putin does it. After the February 2022 invasion, Russia’s nuclear forces were put on “high alert” but that didn’t stop NATO aid to Kyiv. Then, in the summer of 2022 as Russian forces were collapsing, the Kremlin played its “nuke card” again, but became conciliatory two months later after China and India publicly spoke out against any talk or use of nuclear weapons.

The lesson to be drawn is that the West can ignore and mute Armageddon-baiting. In February, an interesting report by the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in

Washington explored the question of whether Putin would ever use a nuke and also provided strategies to halt his nuclear escalation game in its tracks. CSIS recommended that Ukraine and its allies stay firm and united in the face of any nuclear threat and warn that nuclear use would be met with severe consequences, without delineating specific targets.

It also suggested that NATO allies enlist the help of India and China. “It is unclear exactly what impact NATO, Indian, and Chinese messaging [in 2022] had on Putin’s thinking about nuclear use,” it commented. But the West must aggressively “coordinate with India and China to maximize international pressure against nuclear use. U.S. leaders should continue to make clear [to India and China] that nuclear use would be met with severe consequences for Moscow.”

By forming a global nuclear-deterrence alliance with India and China, the West can undermine Putin’s “game”. He listens to them because they are Russia’s biggest customers and its most important diplomatic allies. They remain neutral, and haven’t condemned the invasion of Ukraine, but simply in order to get access to cheap oil from Russia. However, their condemnations of nuclear deployment were bold and immediately successful. Their involvement once again could put an end to Putin’s continuing and reckless nuclear escalation gambit.

The failure to deal with nuclear intimidation, as a united front, has hobbled some members of the Western alliance from fully backing Ukraine. It was also unhelpful when U.S. President Joe Biden remarked awhile ago that the world was facing a possible nuclear “Armageddon”. That caused fear and resulted in Biden’s decision to hold back various weapons Ukraine needed such as longer-range missiles. Germany has been so spooked by the threat of nuclear war that it has failed to help Ukraine sufficiently all along. (It’s instructive to note, however, that Ukraine ignored Moscow and has been viciously, and effectively, attacking Russia itself, from Crimea to oil refineries in the Urals with drones and long-range missiles. Now allies are providing these armaments.)

Going forward, it’s important that the West remains “cool”. Boris Bondarev, a former Russian diplomat who resigned after the 2022 invasion, dismissed Putin’s nuclear threats. There was “nothing new” in Putin’s latest menacing diatribe. They were his “usual scares and a projection of his own unrealized desires on to the West.”

Calling Putin’s bluff is the answer, but the question is whether or not the Kremlin King would push the proverbial button if facing defeat? No one knows, and he sends mixed messages. He has stated several times that he will only use such weapons if there is a threat to the “existence of the Russian state”, and he’s also equivocated. In March, he said Moscow was prepared for nuclear war, but it was not his intention to “damage our [Russia’s] sovereignty and independence”. Cutting through the word salad, it appears that his official bottom line is that a nuclear attack would only be used to deter an “existential threat” to the Russian state itself.

So what constitutes an “existential threat” and what is the “Russian state” in his mind? Does Putin, psychologically, consider himself to be the Russian state? As CSIS posits: “It is possible that he believes that defeat [in Ukraine] would pose a threat to the ‘very existence’ of his rule”. If so, that may mean that an “existential” threat to his power would represent an existential threat to the state itself. It’s irrational but possible in the mind of a dictator. Besides that, lest we forget,

just before killing himself Adolf Hitler ordered the destruction of all of Germany. But his henchmen disobeyed him.

Whatever the prognosis, the U.S. and Europe must stay calm and continue to play a good-cop-bad-cop game. Europe’s nuclear powers, France and Britain, continue to escalate their rhetoric despite nuclear nonsense out of Moscow. At the same time, it’s also helpful that NATO’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg lowered the temperature recently by simply stating that there are no plans to deploy troops in Ukraine and that Kyiv has not asked for soldiers. “What they asked for is more support,” he said.

But the Putin chess game will continue. He will shovel more “pawns” into his infantry to die. He will move pieces around the chess board, such as battalions and tactical nuclear weapons, to try and put Ukraine’s or NATO’s “kings” in check. And the West will respond accordingly, positioning soldiers and weaponry to be able to counteract or neutralize Russian positions. So far, nuclear moves are merely tit-for-tat: Putin put tactical nukes in Belarus and now Britain plans to put nukes in Poland.

Unfortunately, a chess game ends when there is checkmate or when a “king” is incapable of “winning”. Right now, the King in the Kremlin has momentum because of delays in military aid, but this is being corrected. He is being surrounded and will be outgunned by an invigorated NATO. Hopefully, this will motivate internal Russian players to remove him from the chessboard. That would be the best outcome, but is far from guaranteed.