That the United States should be forced to warn Russia publicly, and in more strident terms privately, not to use nuclear weapons is a mark of how dangerous the battle for Ukraine has become — and how much more risky it might get.
The war is in a critical new phase. Kyiv’s forces have won victories in the east using billions of dollars in Western-provided arms and Russian President Vladimir Putin has responded by pouring thousands more men onto the frontlines.
Facing increasing political pressure at home, isolation abroad and battlefield humiliations, the Russian leader ratcheted up his nuclear brinkmanship last week in warning that he could use all weapons systems available to him if he considered Russia’s territorial integrity under threat.
Putin’s rhetoric was a reminder that the better the war goes for Ukraine, the more the West will need to keep its nerve, especially if the Russian leader becomes more boxed in and tries to scare his foes with Russia’s best leverage — its nuclear arsenal.
Many Western observers believe Putin is bluffing and that there are strategic reasons for Moscow to stop short of this fateful step. There are no public reports that the Kremlin is readying its stock of battlefield nuclear weapons for use or that it has changed the posture of its international strategic missiles. And Putin has played the nuclear card before in the conflict in an apparent effort to frighten Western publics and to fracture support for Kyiv in the transatlantic alliance.
But at the same time, the Russian leader has gone all in on a war that he cannot afford to lose but that is going increasingly badly for Russia, as last week’s partial national mobilization showed. He is in a corner, a reality that may explain his return to nuclear scare tactics. And while Putin’s political position doesn’t seem immediately threatened, he’s facing increasing dissent at home and appears consumed by fury against the US and the West that is vehement even for him.
Putin is led by a sense of historic mission rooted in a desire to restore respect for Russia as a great civilization. He has already shown callous indifference to human and civilian life in Ukraine. Such conditions mean clear strategic thinking and rational decisions cannot be taken for granted, especially since the ruthless Russian leader’s sense of caution deserted him with his reckless leadership of the war in Ukraine.
You can read Collinson’s full analysis here.