Putin’s nuclear warning is direct and explicit

Putin has put the ball firmly in the Western court to decide whether the NATO will risk a nuclear confrontation, which of course is not Russia’s choice. 

5 mins read
Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the Federal Assembly, Moscow, February 29, 2024

The spectre of Armageddon has been raised often enough during the 2-year old war in Ukraine that the reference to it in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state of the union address on Thursday had a familiar ring about it. Therein lies the risk of misjudgement on the part of the western audience that Putin was only “crying wolf”.  

Three things must be noted at the outset. First, Putin has been explicit and direct. He is giving advance notice that he is obliged to respond with nuclear capability if the Russian statehood is threatened. Eschewing innuendos or dark hints, Putin actually made a sombre declaration of epochal significance. 

Second, Putin was addressing the Federal Assembly in front of the crème de la crème of the Russian elite and took the entire nation into confidence that the country may be pushed into a nuclear war for its self-preservation. 

Third, a specific context is sailing into view precipitated by foolhardy, impetuous western statesmen who are desperate to stave off an impending defeat in the war, which they began in the first instance, with the stated intention to destroy Russia’s economy, create social and political instability that would lead to a regime change in the Kremlin. 

In reality, the US Secretary Lloyd Austin’s prognosis on Thursday at a Congressional hearing in Washington that “NATO will be in a fight with Russia” if Ukraine was defeated is the manifestation of a predicament that the Biden Administration faces after having led Europe to the brink of an abysmal defeat in Ukraine engendering grave uncertainties regarding its economic recovery and de-industrialisation due to the blowback of sanctions against Russia. 

Plainly put, what Austin meant was that if Ukraine loses, NATO will have to go against Russia, as otherwise the future credibility of the western alliance system will be in jeopardy. It’s a call to Europe to rally for a continental war. 

What French President Emmanuel Macron stated earlier last week on Monday was also an articulation of that same mindset, when he caused a storm by hinting that sending ground troops to help Kyiv was a possibility. 

To quote Macron, “There is no consensus today to send ground troops officially but … nothing is ruled out. We will do whatever it takes to ensure that Russia cannot win this war. The defeat of Russia is indispensable to the security and stability of Europe.” 

Macron was speaking after a summit of 20 European countries in Paris where a “restricted document” under discussion had implied “that a number of NATO and EU member states were considering sending troops to Ukraine on a bilateral basis,” according to Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico. 

Fico said the document “sends shivers down your spine,” as it implied that “a number of NATO and EU member states are considering sending troops to Ukraine on a bilateral basis.” 

Fico’s disclosure would not have come as surprise for Moscow, which has now put on the public domain the transcript of a confidential conversation between two German generals back on February 19 discussing the scenario of a potential attack on the Crimean Bridge with Taurus missiles and possible combat deployment by Berlin in Ukraine belying all public denials by Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Aptly enough, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the transcript “a screaming revelation.’‘ Interestingly, the transcript reveals that American and British servicemen are already deployed in Ukraine — something Moscow has been alleging for months — and such other details too.  

This is a moment of truth for Russia. After learning to live with the steady upgrade of western weaponry supplied to Ukraine, which now includes Patriot missiles and F-16 fighter jets, after having signalled vainly that any attack on Crimea or any attack on Russian territory would be regarded as a red line; after gingerly sidestepping the US-UK participation in operations to bring the war home to Russian territory — Macron’s belligerent statement last week has been the proverbial last straw for the Kremlin. It envisages western combat deployment to fight and kill Russian soldiers and conquer territories on behalf of Kiev. 

At the speech on Thursday, which was almost entirely devoted to a hugely ambitious and forward-looking road map to address social and economic issues under the new normalcy Russia has achieved even under conditions of western sanctions, Putin held out a warning to the entire West by placing nuclear weapons on the table. 

Putin underscored that any (further) crossing of the unwritten ground rules will be unacceptable — that while the US and its NATO allies provide military assistance to Ukraine but do not attack Russia’s soil and do not directly engage in combat, Russia would confine itself to using conventional weapons. 

Quintessentially, the thrust of Putin’s remarks lies in his refusal to accept a fate for Russia in existential terms arranged by the West. The thinking behind it is not hard to comprehend. Simply put, Russia will not allow any attempt by the US and its allies to reshape the ground situation by impacting the front lines with NATO military personnel backed by advanced weaponry and satellite capabilities. 

Putin has put the ball firmly in the Western court to decide whether the NATO will risk a nuclear confrontation, which of course is not Russia’s choice. 

The context in which all this is unfolding has been pithily framed by the leader of a NATO country, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, while addressing a forum of top diplomats in Antalya in the Turkish Riviera in the weekend when he stressed that “Europeans, along with the Ukrainians are losing the war and have no idea of how to find a way out of this situation.” 

Orban said, “We, Europeans, are now in a difficult position,” adding that European countries took the conflict in Ukraine “as their own war” and realise belatedly that time is not on Ukraine’s side. “Time is on Russia’s side. That is why it is necessary to stop hostilities immediately.” 

As he put it, “If you think that this is your war, but the enemy is stronger than you and has advantages on the battlefield, in this case, you are in the losers’ camp and it will not be an easy task to find a way out of this situation. Now, we Europeans, along with the Ukrainians,  are losing the war and have no idea of how to find a way out of this situation, a way out of this conflict. This is a very serious problem.” 

This is the crux of the matter. In the circumstances, the bottom line is that it will be catastrophic speciousness on the part of the western leadership and public opinion not to grasp the full import of Putin’s stark warning that Moscow means what it has been saying, namely, that it will regard any western combat deployment in Ukraine by NATO countries as an act of war. 

To be sure, if Russia faces the risk of military defeat in Ukraine at the hands of NATO forces on combat deployment and Donbass and Novorossiya regions are at risk of being subjugated once again, that would threaten the stability and integrity of Russian statehood — and challenge the legitimacy of the Kremlin leadership itself — wherein the question of using nuclear weapons may become more open. 

To drive home the point, Putin glanced through the Russian inventory that buttresses its nuclear superiority today, which the US cannot possibly match. And he further de-classified some top-secret information: “Efforts to develop several other new weapons systems continue, and we are expecting to hear even more about the achievements of our researchers and weapons manufacturers.” 

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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