Is he bluffing? Putin backs himself further into a corner on Ukraine

Is he bluffing? Putin backs himself further into a corner on Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin renewed his nuclear threats, warning that he was not "bluffing" about using Moscow's nuclear arsenal if Russia is attacked.


Is it all a bluff?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s renewed nuclear threats has raised fears that his plans for escalation in Ukraine may not be limited to mobilizing more troops.

While he has issued apocalyptic threats against the West before, Putin’s thinly veiled warnings in a rare national address on Wednesday signaled that he was willing to raise the risk of nuclear conflict to avoid an embarrassing military defeat.

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The Russian leader accused the United States and its allies of “nuclear blackmail” and said without elaborating that high-ranking officials from NATO states had made statements about the possibility of “using nuclear weapons of mass destruction against Russia.”

Then he delivered a notable reminder:

“If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people,” Putin said, an apparent reference to Moscow’s sizable nuclear arsenal.

“It’s not a bluff,” he added.

Whether Kyiv and its allies should now be more concerned about the threat was up for debate, analysts said.

“I think it signals that he wants people to think he would risk nuclear war,” Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “I don’t think it means he is any more likely to do it than he was yesterday.”

In his speech in February announcing the start of what the Kremlin calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine, Putin warned that anyone who dared to intervene would face the full force of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

This time, however, he faces a different reality: His army has experienced humiliating setbacks, his troops are demoralized and depleted, and he’s facing rare criticism at home.

Desperate for a victory, the Russian leader allied his nuclear threats and call-up of reservists to a plan to annex occupied territory in Ukraine’s east and south.

“He is doubling down politically because he is losing militarily,” said Michael Clarke, professor of war studies at King’s College London. “Creating more ‘Russian’ territory is an attempt to scare the West because Russian nuclear doctrine has always maintained that nuclear weapons would only be used in defense of Russia directly. He says, ‘This is not a bluff,’ which shows that it is.”

While the country’s military doctrine limits the use of nuclear weapons to direct threats to the existence of the Russian state, observers noted that in his address, Putin used the ill-defined term “territorial integrity” when talking about what conditions would merit a nuclear response.