The short answer is “no.” In today’s speech, according to reports Vladimir Putin did two things. The first is that he extended the mobilisation and conscription of people into the Russian armed forces. Secondly, he is reported to have said:
“Those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction.”https://edition.cnn.com/2022/09/21/europe/ukraine-russian-referendums-intl-hnk/index.html
This does mean, given that he has also said that Russia can use any weapons at her disposal that he has reminded NATO and Ukraine that he has nuclear weapons at his disposal and indicated a willingness to use them.
There is a form of nuclear blackmail in there, which I’ll come to shortly but it is important to be clear that he hasn’t made an out and out threat to use the weapons. That’s partly good news but it comes with its own dangers and to understand why, it’s helpful to think about the messages he is sending out.
There are, I think, three main audiences. The first audience is in fact his domestic audience at home. He needs to be able to justify the suffering inflicted on Russia, the huge loss of life as the body bags mount up and mothers lose their sons, wives are widows and children are left orphans. Then there’s the affects of economic and cultural isolation. He needs to explain why the country is suffering this. Then there are those who are about to be conscripted. He needs to justify this and motivate the new recruits. So, in order to do this, he needs to build up the siege mentality and convince Russia that she is under existential threat.
Secondly, there are the NATO allies. Putin wants to keep them guessing and uncertain. Are they dealing with an unpredictable loose cannon, a madman. There’s a message here. “If you believe that your nuclear deterrent gives you the cover you need to interfere (per his narrative) even by supplying weapons, then think again. We will find ways to respond.”
Thirdly, by threatening the West, he is hoping to discourage Ukrainian resistance. If Ukraine believes that the West will back away from supporting them, then he hopes to demoralise them. And his hope is that we will interpret his rhetoric as putting a line in the sand, that Ukraine will be discouraged from advancing on those parts of the country that have declared themselves to be part of Russia through rigged referenda.
This does bring risks. In fact, I think this is in one sense riskier than if he’d simply issued a threat to hit London or Paris with nuclear warheads as some hawks on state media have been doing. It would actually have been easier to shrug that off as over the top rhetoric. Here, rather, he has set trip wires in place which the West could set off causing further escalation.
First of all, it draws us into a war of words where rhetoric increases and that suits Vladimir. If President Biden responds in kind by warning Putin of unspecified consequences, then that will play in the Russian media in a similar way to how Putin’s rhetoric has played here. “Look,” his allies will say, “here is further evidence of nuclear blackmail from our enemy.” And here is the problem. Whilst we consider it entirely credible that Putin could use his nuclear weapons, I don’t think that his regime for one moment thinks that the West have it in us to use ours. So, he is able to manipulate the situation without being worried.
Secondly, it increases the risk of false flag type operations or the misinterpretation of Western engagement with the Ukraine crisis to justify further escalation. For, what it’s worth, I don’t think that Putin would go straight for strategic nuclear weapons. He’s more likely to ramp things up further through increased missile strikes on civilian targets, the use of FOAB weapons, deployment of chemical weapons etc are likely to come first. If things go nuclear then it is more likely to be through the use of tactical nuclear weapons initially or targeting one of Ukraine’s nuclear power stations.
So how should we respond? Well, the dominant theme is “carefully.” I think one thing we need to do is be careful about our own rhetoric. In fact, we may want to consider methods we can use to show that we are serious without doing anything that triggers a Russian response. Rather than threatening responses, we should show rather than tell. That probably includes little things like making sure our aircraft carriers are operational!
In terms of rhetoric, the emphasis should be less on “these are the consequences we would bring to bear” and “this is the damage you would do to yourself.” The aim is to demonstrate to the Russian people the sheer reckless stupidity of Putin’s agenda. I’d happily employ ridicule here. What kind of idiot makes a mess of the garden boundary polluting their garden and their neighbours. That’s what Putin is doing. Indeed, if he thinks that Ukraine is part of Russia he is in effect chopping off his own hand in order to demonstrate he is a hard man. We need to make it clear that the only person who is threatening Russia’s wellbeing is Putin himself.
Finally, I’d appeal over the heads of the Kremlin to the Russian people. I’d find ways to show them that we are on their side against their tyrannical leader, not against them. They need a carrot more than a stick. They need to see the benefits of not being isolated from the West. They need to see that getting rid of the tyrant will bring greater freedom and prosperity to them. That is why I’ve long argued that it was a mistake for Western companies like MacDonalds to leave Russia. They should have stayed and kept selling burgers. They should have found ways to represent western democracy well. They should have waited for Putin to kick them out.
So, I think that the challenge remains great and we are continuing to live in dangerous times. However, as I will argue later in the week, this should not be cause for Christians to fear. We know who holds the future.