On September 21, Vladimir Putin reiterated a threat that he had already expressed at the end of February, at the very beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, when he had put the units of the Russian armed forces in charge of nuclear weapons on alert: if the territorial integrity of Russia is threatened, did he assured, he does not rule out the use of nuclear weapons.
At the very moment when, in New York, the heads of state of the whole world follow one another on the rostrum of the 77ᵉ United Nations General Assembly, calling for a cessation of hostilities, he himself chose to resume the offensive by taking a new step in the highly coded rhetoric of nuclear weapons.
Is Western skepticism justified?
Faced with what they consider to be a relapse or a relapse, Westerners are once again torn between horrified disbelief and worried skepticism. The seriousness of the statements of the Russian president is, as in February, in doubt. "Bluff", "slippage", "exaggeration", "exaggeration", etc. : interpretations aimed at minimizing the nuclear risk are going well.
Skeptics are right to point out that even limited use of nuclear weapons would have devastating consequences for Vladimir Putin: he would be immediately deprived of his already reluctant supporters in China and India; he would expose himself to very broad internal reprobation, at a time when opposition to the war is manifesting itself in the streets (some 1 people were arrested on the evening of September 300); and, above all, he would risk a direct retaliation from the nuclear powers that support Ukraine: the United States, the United Kingdom and France.
Should we dismiss as unreal the specter of a Russian nuclear attack? Or would it be wiser to consider what makes the prospect of the use of nuclear weapons less taboo today than before the start of the war in Ukraine?
Three elements combine today to lower the nuclear threshold in the eyes of the Kremlin: first, this threat takes shape in a context where Russia is largely failing in its “special military operation”; secondly, Moscow has for years, and even more so since last February, broken with conventional methods of warfare; finally, on a personal level, Vladimir Putin shows himself, by brandishing the nuclear threat, faithful to the image he has been trying to impose for years – that of a man who, in the name of his vision of the world and of the that his country must, according to him, occupy there, is ready for absolutely anything.
Respond to a crisis context
Considered from the Kremlin, the military situation directs the Russian power towards means of extreme urgency. Indeed, Russia has shown itself incapable, in several months, of achieving its strategic objectives by means of a conventional military campaign.
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Despite the modernization of its armed forces for a decade, despite the seasoning of its officers in the Syrian theatre, despite the combination of cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns in addition to conventional military operations, Russia has neither taken kyiv, nor broken Ukrainian national resistance, nor even retained its territorial gains in the face of the counter-offensives launched a month ago.
The temptation to resort to unconventional means increases when conventional military victory slips away and the specter of defeat looms. In fact, the Ukrainian operations carried out in the areas of Kharkiv (in the northeast) and Kherson (in the south) are explicitly aimed at achieve the "victory" against Russia.
For the Ukrainians, "victory" means a complete reconquest of the national territory resulting from independence in 1991, including the Crimea annexed by Russia in 2014 and the regions of Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporozhye which could very soon be annexed in turn, “referendums of attachment to the Russian Federation” having been announced there for the end of September, even though Moscow does not control all of their respective territories (Is it OK ?).
But for some supporters of kyiv – above all in Poland, the Baltic States and the United States – the notion of “victory” implies a Russian military rout, followed by political upheaval and a lasting strategic weakening of that country. What the Kremlin fears now is to return to the state of international abasement that he experienced in the 1990s.
In sum, Putin's Russia considers that it has now explicitly moved from a war of invasion against Ukraine to a war of defense against NATO. Since the threat level is therefore drastically higher, it could be justified, from the Kremlin's point of view, to resort to a qualitatively different type of weapon. With regard to nuclear weapons, the there are many steps to overcome and there are far from the first announcements to the actual use. However, as the military crisis becomes clearer for Russia and as the risk of defeat materializes, the temptation to implement an extreme military means increases.
Pursue disruptive strategies
Today more than ever, the foundations of russian nuclear doctrine must be reminded. They are in complete rupture with the French doctrine, for example: the Russian vision is not based on the principle of “second nuclear strike”, which consists in using nuclear weapons only once the national territory has itself been subjected to a nuclear attack.
A "first" use, in a "tactical" context and to achieve military goals, is on the contrary regularly envisaged by the various Russian strategic documents.
In this case, an attack on Crimea (or any other territory considered by the Kremlin to be "Russian") by Ukrainian troops, particularly with NATO weapons, could justify, in the eyes of the Russian power, the launching of missiles operating nuclear strikes either on the battlefield to break an advance, or against critical infrastructures for the organization of the Ukrainian armed forces.
This was already mentioned by the Russian President, from more indirect way, in February 2022. This is repeated today. This is neither a military posturing nor a political nudge. It is a strict reminder of a doctrine that has been known and disseminated for a long time.
Recently, this nuclear doctrine was influenced by numerous breaks with conventional methods of warfare: suspected of being involved in the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons in Syria, cooperating with mercenary auxiliaries like the Wagner group or “ethnic” like the Chechen President Kadyrov's militias, occasionally leading to clandestine military operations, for at least a decade now, the Russian army has not contented itself with conventional means to achieve its objectives.
Putin's Russia has crossed many Rubicons in the wars it has waged, whether within the Federation (in Chechnya), on its borders (in Georgia) or in its zones of influence (Middle East, Central Africa). The invasion of Ukraine constitutes in itself a profound break with the principle of intangibility of the borders resulting from the dissolution of the USSR. As military and strategic taboos are broken, one after another, the possibility of breaking the last of them, the use of nuclear weapons, becomes less phantasmagorical.
Maintain a political posture
The use of nuclear weapons would also correspond to the political position that the Russian president has chosen by launching the invasion of Ukraine.
Indeed, the choice of the invasion, in February 2022, responds to two main explicit political lines at Vladimir Putin. The first, well identified and long been analyzed, corresponds to its desire to cancel, in part at least, the reduction in the international weight of Moscow following the disintegration of the USSR. The second responds to the conception of political power that he imposed internally and externally: he wishes to pose as someone who dares what no one else dares. The extreme use of force and the use of extreme force are the hallmark of this hyperbolic conception of power. To dare to cross the nuclear threshold would be, in short, in line with this unapologetic relationship to force.
Finally, Russia's political posture for 2022 is now becoming clearer, with the other measures announced on September 21. On the one hand, a mobilization of reservists has been decreed: this underlines that Russia, sanctioned from all sides, is rapidly transforming itself, at home, into a besieged citadel and a generalized barracks. On the other hand, as we have mentioned, referendums will be organized in several regions of Ukraine to enlarge the territory of the Russian Federation and thus consecrate a new mutilation of the Ukrainian territory.
Thus, Russia is preparing for a long war of attrition to retain what it now considers its defensive glacis against NATO, namely Crimea and part of southern and eastern Ukraine. Brandishing a credible nuclear threat aims to further reinforce this idea that Russia, under siege, will never allow itself to be defeated.
When he repeated his nuclear threats on September 21, Vladimir Putin certainly had in mind the terrible repercussions to which he would expose Russia if it strikes first. No one should doubt it. But no one should neglect the factors that are gradually eroding the impossibility of using these weapons.