“This is not a bluff”: What Putin says about nuclear weapons


Since the Caribbean Crisis of 1962, humanity has not been so close to a nuclear war as it is now. As Putin was announcing “partial mobilization” on September 21, he was pretty direct:

 In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.

The citizens of Russia can rest assured that the territorial integrity of our Motherland, our independence and freedom will be defended – I repeat – by all the systems available to us. Those who are using nuclear blackmail against us should know that the wind rose can turn around.

V. Putin, 21.09.2022. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/69390

In his speech during the annexation of the four Ukrainian regions on September 30, Putin spoke about the “unipolar” world. This is not new (see, for example, this post). Notably, he also said that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the USA was a “precedent”:

The United States is the only country in the world that has used nuclear weapons twice, destroying the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. And they created a precedent.

V. Putin, 30.09.2022. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/69465

A precedent is an example or guide for future decisions. Putin says indirectly that he is ready to follow the example of the USA and use nuclear weapons to break Ukraine’s resistance. This is worrying.

But is Putin preparing to go nuclear? We cannot look into his head. The chances are, he does not know himself what he will do next. But perhaps we can infer something from how he speaks about nuclear weapons. I’ve looked for the words “nuclear” and “atomic” in his speeches from 2012-2022. In most cases, these words refer to nuclear energy. Putin praises Russia’s nuclear technologies and uses them as an instrument of influence in different countries. There are also many instances related to the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. Putin likes to present himself as a protector of smaller countries from the American dominance. Not out of love for fairness, of course.

Nuclear weapons were not mentioned very often before 2022. When Putin talked about them, he did so to demonstrate Russia’s power and boast about the new technologically advanced weapons, as in this example:

Thus, this year we will supply more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles to our nuclear force. They will be capable of overcoming any most technically advanced anti-missile defence systems.

V. Putin, 16.06.2015. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/49712

As a worthy heir, Putin also praised the Soviet nuclear shield. He was proud that Russia was still a nuclear superpower, equal to the USA.

In the end of 2021, however, the situation changed dramatically. Putin suddenly talked about nuclear threats from NATO and Ukraine, as a justification for the invasion, which he was planning. In particular, three days before the invasion he claimed that Ukraine was planning to create nuclear weapons, and that it was able to do so:

As we know, it has already been stated today that Ukraine intends to create its own nuclear weapons, and this is not just bragging. Ukraine has the nuclear technologies created back in the Soviet times and delivery vehicles for such weapons, including aircraft, as well as the Soviet-designed Tochka-U precision tactical missiles with a range of over 100 kilometres. But they can do more; it is only a matter of time. They have had the groundwork for this since the Soviet era.

In other words, acquiring tactical nuclear weapons will be much easier for Ukraine than for some other states I am not going to mention here, which are conducting such research, especially if Kiev receives foreign technological support. We cannot rule this out either.

V. Putin, 21.02.2022. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/67828

After the invasion began, he also spoke about Ukraine’s threat to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (“Zaporozhye” in Russian) and the direct nuclear threat from the NATO countries:

Washington, London and Brussels are openly encouraging Kiev to move the hostilities to our territory. (…) They have even resorted to the nuclear blackmail. I am referring not only to the Western-encouraged shelling of the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant, which poses a threat of a nuclear disaster, but also to the statements made by some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO countries on the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction – nuclear weapons – against Russia.

V. Putin, 21.09.2022. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/69390

So, the nuclear threat to Russia from NATO and Ukraine seems to be a recent invention in Putin’s propaganda. It emerged as a justification of Russia’s “special military operation”. Putin hoped to take Kyiv in three days. He miscalculated, but the genie was already out of the bottle. Now the threats of a nuclear strike are a way to bully the West and Ukraine into negotiating with Russia and to keep the annexed territories. Despite all his terrible crimes and lies, Putin seems to be acting rationally. He does not sound like someone who wants to burn together with the rest of the world. And this is good news.

Another thing that gives me a glimpse of hope is that Putin’s red line is blurry. He has not been specific about what he would see as a threat to Russia’s territorial integrity. We saw that the Ukrainian army took a small town Lyman one day after the Donbass was annexed, and nothing happened. Now, what will happen if Ukraine liberates Kherson? Or takes back the Donbass? Or even the Crimea? Putin’s response to the explosion on the Crimea bridge was extremely brutal, but not nuclear. He chose to bomb civil infrastructure, playgrounds and pedestrian bridges. It seems that he has found a way of making his Rascist crowd happy without using the nukes.

Putin told a story about himself. When he was a boy, he chased a rat. The animal had nowhere to go and jumped out at him. He said that he learned a lesson then: never put someone’s back against the wall. But will Putin press the “red button” if he feels cornered? Or is this a way of telling your opponents, don’t mess with me, I can jump at you and bite you? One thing I know for sure: everything he says is part of a special informational operation.

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