Russian roulette: Is Putin serious about nuclear conflict, or bluffing?

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Putin is seen looking to the side.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a summit of the Commonwealth of the Independent States (CIS) Summit, on October 14, 2022.

On Oct. 26, President Vladimir Putin appeared on Russian state tv overseeing a follow run of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrence forces. 

The grom, or thunder nuclear train, concerned nuclear submarines, strategic bombers and ballistic missiles. As Putin seemed on through video hyperlink from a management room, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu defined that the train simulated “a massive nuclear strike” in retaliation towards a possible nuclear assault on Russia. 

The drills have been held within the Barents Sea within the Arctic, off the northern coasts of Norway and Russia, and the Kamchatka peninsula within the Far East, which is far nearer to Alaska than to Moscow. 

On Sept 21, Putin warned he would use “all available means to protect Russia and our people.” The televised grom added to Europe’s mounting fear that the conflict in Ukraine has put the possability of a nuclear assault on the desk. 

Later that day, Putin repeated the Kremlin’s widely-discredited claims that it is Ukraine that is making ready a provocation towards Russia utilizing a “dirty bomb” — a standard munition laced with radioactive materials.  

“The desire to get nuclear weapons has been stated publicly by the authorities in Kyiv,” Putin instructed a gathering with the heads of particular providers of the Council of Independent States, a bunch of ex-Soviet and neighboring nations. “It is also known about the plans to use the so-called ‘dirty bomb’ as a provocation.”

Ukraine and its Western allies have dismissed the declare.

Ukraine has charged that Russian forces are engaged on a dirty bomb at Ukraine’s captured Zaporizhzhia nuclear energy plant, and that dropping such a weapon on Ukrainian lands would create a pretext to retaliate towards Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. 

That evening, over on Russian state TV, propagandist Vladimir Solovyov — who was banned from YouTube in March for advocating violence, together with hitting civilian targets in Kyiv — puzzled aloud whether or not Russia nonetheless has a nuclear functionality. 

“At least, we are holding exercises with our strategic nuclear weapons,” mentioned Solovyov, the host of Rossiya-1 TV. “But I hope we actually have them, and I hope we’re still capable of using them.”

Two men sit across from one another at a long table.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on October 28, 2022.

Whether Putin is sincerely contemplating a nuclear or different catastrophic assault in Ukraine, or merely taking part in out an elaborate bluff to achieve leverage, remains to be anybody’s guess. 

Russia’s nuclear doctrine says nuclear weapons must be utilized in self-defense. However, some Russian officers have asserted that Moscow reserves the precise to make use of nuclear strikes if there may be an existential menace to the nation or if there may be an assault towards Russia, even when the assault makes use of standard weapons alone.

The battle has revived Cold War-era fears of nuclear conflict throughout the area. Earlier this month, Ukraine’s neighbor to the west, Poland, ordered an inventory and inspection of its 62,000 bomb shelters. 

Mounting losses and restricted provides 

In Russia and overseas, there’s concern that Putin is rising more and more determined for a speedy victory — or at the very least to crush Ukraine to the satisfaction of his allies and supporters.

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In the greater than eight months since attacking Ukraine on Feb. 24, Russia has absorbed 4 areas in japanese and southern Ukraine through annexations of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, and created a land bridge to Crimea. But Ukraine has As the battle drags on, Russia has resorted to mobilizing 300,000 reservists and buying weapons and drones from Iran and North Korea.

An estimated 90,000 Russian troopers have died, in accordance with unbiased Russian media outlet iStories. In August, a Ukrainian official mentioned that 9,000 Ukrainian military personnel had been killed, although one other supply mentioned the quantity might be far greater. The U.N. studies that almost 8 million Ukrainian refugees have fled the nation since February, and a number of war crimes investigations associated are underway.

Meanwhile, Russia seems to be working out of weaponry, together with every part from missiles to helmets and boots.

Andrei Gurulyov, a Duma deputy and a retired common, estimated on Rossiya-1 two weeks in the past that greater than half of Russia’s arsenal is gone, together with greater than 80% of the highly effective Iskander programs. He has known as on the Kremlin not “to waste missiles.” 

Western officers declare the Kremlin’s reserve of cruise missiles is working low, and that it is needed to depend on Iranian Shahed ‘kamikaze’ drones. Speaking through video hyperlink on the G7 summit on October 10, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky mentioned Russia had used the Iranian drones to assault dozens of civilian targets throughout Ukraine. 

A rallying cry from the hawks

Back when Putin got here to energy in 2000 — changing into simply the second Russian president following the demise of the Soviet Union — his most important promoting level was the promise of relative stability as Russia sought to regain its place on the world stage. 

Now, there may be actual concern that Putin has turn out to be hostage to ultra-nationalists and hardliners. These figures, who’re given much more freedom to talk their minds than almost anybody else in Russia, cheered the conflict, and have since pushed the Kremlin to be extra decisive and brutal in Ukraine.

Evidence that the stress marketing campaign was having an impact appeared to return earlier this month, when Putin ordered the bombing of 12 Ukrainian cities on October 10 with 500kg cruise missiles in revenge for the assault on the Kerch bridge in Crimea two days earlier. 

The response from the hawkish mixture of generals, pro-Kremlin TV personalities, and ultra-nationalists was largely, if cautiously, optimistic.

Aleksandr Kots, the pro-Kremlin conflict correspondent, questioned on his Telegram channel whether or not the bombings have been “a one-time action of retaliation” or signaled a shift within the conflict or a brand new system of warfare. Kots, who has 686,0000 followers on his Telegram channel, mentioned he favors the usage of cruise missiles till “the Ukrainian state loses its ability to function.” 

On October 13, Russian navy professional Alexander Sharkovsky appeared on a NTV panel urging Putin to make use of nuclear “carpet bombings from the air” to obliterate swaths of Ukraine and regain the entrance foot within the invasion. 

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He echoed the priority of different hawkish commentators that Democratic Party leaders within the U.S. is perhaps pushing for a serious strategic victory in Ukraine, as a present of energy forward of midterm elections on Nov. 8. The U.S. has   committed to sending almost $18 billion in weapons and different tools to Ukraine Feb. 24, in accordance with the Associated Press — together with one other $275 million announced on Oct. 28. 

Over on the Rossiya-1 channel, the Duma deputy Andrei Gurulyov has known as on the navy to construct on current strikes that focused Ukraine’s energy stations and the distribution grid — and destroy Ukraine’s electrical energy grid altogether. 

“We will turn off all the electricity in Ukraine and everything will come to a standstill, including railways and transportation,” he mentioned. “Those crowds of refugees that will start flowing can clog up the highways. 

“It may get very fascinating if their sewers are blocked for per week as epidemics will begin,” he said. “Dysentery and different nasty stuff will crop up.” 

(President Zelensky previously estimated that 30% of Ukraine’s power stations have been damaged or destroyed, although the figure is now likely to be greater.)

One figure who has gone quiet in recent days is Igor Girkin, a leading ultra-nationalist who led the pro-Russian separatists in 2014 trying to wrest the Donbass region from Kyiv’s control, and now boasts 750,000 followers on Telegram. According to a statement his wife made on Instagram, Girkin has gone to the frontlines. 

A person in navy gown walks ahead as two males stand close by.
Igor Girkin is seen in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine on July 11, 2014.

Ukraine has responded by putting a $100,000 bounty on Girkin’s head. 

The Kremlin, too, seems to be losing patience with Girkin and other popular, ultra-nationalist bloggers. In mid-October, several Russian media outlets reported that law enforcement agencies were checking Telegram for posts discrediting the army and other “pretend information.”

Meanwhile, domestic opposition to the war appears to be building. Since the mobilisation was announced, an estimated 700,000 Russian men have fled the country. In Moscow, where young men were being rounded up on the metro, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced suddenly on Oct. 17th that conscription was over. Other regions, with less influence, may have to make up the shortfall.

In the Republic of Bashkortostan — an oil-rich, predominantly Muslim region of central Russia — activists say the plan to seek independence rather than fight and die for “a Russian world.” According to news reports, they are organising an armed resistance. 

Kadyrov and Prigozhin

While Putin has publicly declined to acknowledge any criticism of the war, the Washington Post reported that he was confronted about his military’s failings by Evgeny Prigozhin, the billionaire founder of the Wagner mercenary group who is known as “Putin’s Chef.”

Prigozhin, who has personally toured Russian prisons to recruit 1,000 convicts, reportedly told Putin that his Defense Ministry was leaning too heavily on Wagner while giving them insufficient support. 

In addition to Prigozhin, another big gun with some immunity to criticise Russia’s war effort is Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. On the day of Putin’s Valdai address, Kadyrov wrote in a Telegram post that Prigozhin was a “born warrior” who should be listened to carefully. 

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“As Yevgeny Prigozhin accurately famous, tactical and personnel adjustments are wanted,” Kadyrov’s post said. “Now, not tomorrow.” 

In the same post, he was also sharply criticized General Alexander Lapin, the commander of the Central Military District. According to Kadyrov, Lapin had been incommunicado for the “previous few days” after Ukrainian forces had broken through and seized the town of Terny, Torskoye and Yamplovka in the Donetsk region.

“If I had my method, I’d demote Lapin to a personal, deprive him of his awards and, with a machine gun in his palms, ship him to the entrance strains to scrub away the disgrace with blood,” wrote Kadyrov, who claims his three underage sons are now fighting on the frontlines. 

Kadyrov and Prigozhin have in recent months been engaged in a very public bromance designed to undermine Shoigu’s position and create a power structure to rival Russia’s Armed Forces. 

Conflicts between different power centres is a familiar pattern for Kremlinologists. Putin frequently employs an old KGB tactic of encouraging competing factions of power and permitting feuds between different camps. The logic would suggest it is better that the clans fight one another than try to oust him.

But it’s one thing for such machinations to happen during peacetime. The stakes are far higher in times of war.  

A rush to heaven?

On Oct. 27 — the day after supervising the military exercises — Putin insisted the “particular navy operation” in Ukraine was “nonetheless going in accordance with plan.” 

Appearing at the annual conference at Valdai, a Kremlin-backed think tank, the Russian president downplayed talk of a nuclear escalation in Ukraine, insisting that Russia’s military doctrine was defensive and that he had no desire to be in the place of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader whose brinkmanship with US President John F. Kennedy brought the world to the precipice of a nuclear war in 1962. 

“We see no want for that,” Putin told the delegates. “There isn’t any level in that, neither political nor navy.”

Fyodor Lukyanov, Valdai’s analysis director and the session’s moderator, reminded Putin of his comments on the identical discussion board in 2018. 

Back then, Lukyanov had requested Putin about his assertion, “Why do we’d like a world if Russia is not in it.” In a wide-ranging answer, Putin had offered, almost as an aside, that Russian victims of nuclear war “will go to heaven as martyrs” while Western citizens would perish without having “time to repent.”

Raising those comments again, Lukyanov said: “Many folks grew to become barely nervous remembering what you mentioned on this very platform, at our occasion 4 years in the past, that we’d all go to heaven.”

“But we’re in no hurry, proper?” 

The assembled foreign policy experts in the hall laughed nervously.  Putin pursed his lips and fell silent for an almost interminable four or five seconds.

Lukyankov intervened; it was “considerably alarming” that Putin was so lost in his thoughts, he said. 

“I grew to become absorbed in thought for a objective, to disturb you all,” Putin eventually replied, to more nervous laughter. He then added quietly: “The aim has been achieved.” 

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