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Ukraine, nuclear war, Russia

Is Russia Bluffing About Nuking Ukraine?

Moscow’s nuclear saber-rattling is troublesome for the West, but Ukrainians remain unfrazzled.

Words: Terrell Jermaine Starr
Pictures: Yurii Khomitskyi

Will Russia use nuclear weapons against Ukraine?

It’s a question that’s often come up since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 — the second time in eight years. After it was clear that Russia’s conventional forces would not capture Kyiv, fears of nuclear use soon followed.

Dmytri Medvedev, deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council and former president of Russia, warned that Russia would attack Ukraine with nukes if it tried to recapture Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed back in 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin issued his infamous “this is not a bluff” comments back in September 2022, after successful counter-offensives liberated parts of the Kharkiv oblast. Russian state television, which is the only type of media that is allowed to work in Russia, has aired outrageous segments on nuclear war between the West and Russia, including a simulation showing Ireland and the United Kingdom blown off the map by a nuke. Most recently, Putin has said that nuclear weapons will be deployed to Belarus and that he would no longer participate in the New START treaty.

Who Is Putin Talking To?

When I asked some of my colleagues in Ukraine for possible answers, they told me that all of this essentially boils down to political blackmail that is targeting the West, not Ukraine.

“He’s not talking about using tactical nukes. He’s just talking about deployment of them in Belarus, which is different from using them,” Polina Sinovets, head of the Odesa Center for Non-Proliferation, told me recently. “This is not the threat of using weapons. It’s just the step for increasing the coercive power of Russian worth because nobody really pays attention to Russia’s nuclear hints. That is why they decided to do something practical… that they’re not only speaking.”

You’d think that with all of the media attention the subject generates on network television in the West, local Ukrainian language media would be covering the subject with equal intensity. Yet, it hardly registers.

Sinovets has a point. Putin has not said that he would use nuclear weapons outright. He has simply suggested that he would. This was pointed out by Reuters in a brief fact-check of Putin’s speeches, which found his remarks pretty ambiguous.

You’d think that with all of the media attention the subject generates on network television in the West, local Ukrainian language media would be covering the subject with equal intensity. Yet, it hardly registers, Nika Melkozerova, a reporter with POLITICO who covers Ukraine, told me. It is true, she said, that people were rattled at first and began buying iodine pills and made sure they knew where the nearest bunker was, but nothing beyond that.

“I think that this was the top topic in the fall,” she said. “That’s when there was serious concern about it. But the media is covering it as more threats and provocation for the West to stop aiding Ukraine. Because nobody actually believes now that the Kremlin is going to use nukes. I think it’s more like a scary story for the West.”

Well, if Putin’s words were supposed to influence Western public opinion, it hasn’t worked. A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released in October 2022 found that nearly three-quarters of Americans believe Washington should continue its military aid to Kyiv despite Moscow’s nuclear bluster. And 74% of Europeans support Brussel’s economic and military backing of Ukraine, according to a December 2022 poll. Keep in mind that Finland and Sweden have both applied for NATO membership, with Helsinki joining the alliance this month.

But Putin is a stubborn old Soviet fossil who refuses to understand that abusing your neighbors to submission isn’t a good way to win them over. And clearly, bombing Ukraine has had the opposite effect. Not only is Ukraine resisting, but Ukrainian forces have managed to liberate occupied territories as well.

Putin’s failure to defeat Ukraine outright via conventional means has caused a number of domestic and international issues for Putin. For one, he has been bombing Ukraine from afar, but his ground forces aren’t faring well at all. His recent summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping did not leave him with the support he had hoped for. Then you have Russia’s ethnic minorities — who have disproportionately suffered the brunt of Russian conscription — protesting in the streets. Hundreds of thousands of Russian men eligible to fight in Ukraine have hightailed it to the very nations Moscow colonized during its imperial and Soviet eras.

So Putin did the best thing a KGB dinosaur knows how to do: deploy tactical nukes to Belarus.

Nuclear Blackmailing?

Sinovets told me that Russia doesn’t need to make such a move to hit Ukraine. For one, the missiles that Russia has shot at Ukraine since the start of the war are dual-capable, meaning they can carry nuclear warheads. Given that these types of missiles have been fired into every part of Ukraine from Russian territory, the Kremlin’s recent deployment to Belarus doesn’t make sense for Ukraine.

“But it probably makes sense mostly for the West because it’s closer to Estonia, Latvia, and the Baltic states,” Sinovets said. “It shows that the main target audience is NATO and Europe to show, ‘Look what at we’re doing. You should think about supplying (essential military aid) to Ukraine because we can be really frightful for you.’”

This may explain Washington’s hesitation to send Ukraine F-16s and Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), platforms that would definitely make a difference in the war. Some have suggested the White House fears providing the ATACMS because it may escalate tensions and have nuclear consequences.

“I would say that the coverage in the West on this nuclear threat is something serious,” Melkozerova told me. “It was harmful for Ukraine because it means that your governments will not be sending weapons to Ukraine as fast as needed because they don’t want to provoke retaliation from Russia. Each day that we’re not getting good weapons, long-range missiles, tanks means more Ukrainian men are dying on the war front. So far, this strategy of scaring the West with nuclear weapons works pretty well and I think that the Kremlin doesn’t even need to use them.”

Attempts To Control “Little Brother”

The Kremlin’s renewed desire to use nuclear blackmail doesn’t come by accident.

Russia’s ground forces have been exposed as incompetent and unable to sustain the type of occupation it is attempting in Ukraine. Soon after Russia called for sham referendums on occupied territories in September 2022, Putin made implicit threats to defend the territories. Wording such as “all available means” and referencing that the United States is the only nation to have used nuclear weapons are among his go-to references, according to the Institute for the Study of War.

Indeed, Putin is stress testing how far Western governments will go in defending Ukraine against his colonial conquest, and threatening nuclear use is one of his instruments for doing so.

But implicit is not the same as explicit, and that is what we need to really pay attention to here. If Putin can shift the Western publics’ support for their government’s supply of weapons to Ukraine by threatening nuclear attack, it would make his implicit threats worth it. Keep in mind that, unlike in Western nations, Putin doesn’t need to govern by consensus or respect the will of the voting population. He’s an autocrat. He can simply falsify votes and kill and jail opposition leaders to maintain power.

But, as the polls I cited earlier reveal, his messaging isn’t discouraging public support for Ukraine in the West. Ukrainian scholars Mariia Zolkina and Petro Burkovskyi, however, wrote in The Kyiv Independent that nuclear blackmail is influencing decision-making at the government level.

Indeed, Putin is stress testing how far Western governments will go in defending Ukraine against his colonial conquest, and threatening nuclear use is one of his instruments for doing so. Ukraine, at least emotionally and strategically, means much more to him than it does to the West — especially Crimea. Putin and Russian leaders before him have long seen Ukraine as an oblast of Russia and that these wily Ukrainians are a bunch of breakaway rebels who threaten not only Russian identity but Russian sovereignty. Ukraine was never an independent nation in the Kremlin’s eyes, always seen dismissively as “little brother.”

The Russian colonization of the region dates back hundreds of years, especially during the reign of Catherine the Great. Much of the Russian migration to the eastern steppe in Donbas began under her reign to exploit the vast mineral resources and rich agricultural fields of the region. Then you have the annexation of Crimea in 1783 after the Russian imperial army defeated the Crimean Khanate and offenses from the Ottoman Empire. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred the administrative jurisdiction of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. By this time, much of the Indigenous Crimean population was banished from the peninsula and continues to be prosecuted under Russian occupation to this day.

If Ukrainian forces were to make a successful push for Crimea, some believe Putin would order the use of a tactical nuke on the battlefield. Though, Olexander Scherba, an Ambassador-at-Large for Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says it would not stop Ukraine’s push for Crimea.

“It’s a possibility that he would be insane enough to do this irrational step,” Scherba told me. “Like this whole war is an extremely irrational step. We are absolutely aware of this possibility. Yet, nobody in Ukraine is even remotely considering stopping the fight or somehow ceding land or people. First of all, when we speak about ceding land, we speak about ceding people and sacrificing people, feeding people to this crocodile. And it’s not something that we are considering at this point.”

Making Sense Of The Crazy

From the start of the war in 2022, Putin has repeatedly threatened Ukrainian statehood and national identity. He has often said that Ukraine does not exist and refers to leadership in Kyiv as Nazis — a curious claim given that the president of Ukraine is Jewish. As I understand my Ukrainian friends and colleagues who actively pay attention to Russian nuclear threats out of Moscow, if Russia wins this war, it is the end of their existence as a people anyway. It doesn’t matter if Putin nukes them or not. Russia calling the shots in Kyiv is akin to wiping Ukrainian identity off the planet. To a Western mind that doesn’t understand Russian history or a Moscow-centric scholar who doesn’t get Ukrainian culture, the comparison may sound ridiculous.

But to Ukrainians, it is pretty accurate. So no matter how much you hear the media and experts in the West talk about the very real use of nuclear weapons, just know people in Ukraine aren’t as bothered about it as we are. Or, as Scherna explained to me, this round of nuclear saber-rattling is just another type of crazy they have grown used to and won’t lose sleep over.

“If you grow up with someone from your childhood and this someone becomes grossly insane in his later years and tries to kill you in his later years, you’re still more familiar with this someone than people in the West who just didn’t know Russia very closely,” he said. “You have less fear because you know the soft spots of this someone. You know this someone is very loud and tries to scare everybody around him. But when it comes to doing things, he talks the talk, but he doesn’t walk the walk in most of the cases. You know this country from inside because we come from the same melting pot of the Soviet Union. That’s maybe also one of the reasons why we are less scared of Putin doing even crazier things than he has been doing so far.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr

Terrell Jermaine Starr is the host and founder of Black Diplomats, a podcast that discusses foreign policy from a social justice perspective. He is also a resident of Inkstick’s and Bombshelltoe’s Creative Capsule Residency.

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