Why Putin may not be bluffing about using nuclear weapons

On September 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that he could use “every available means of destruction” in his war against Ukraine, demonstratively adding, “This is not a bluff.” Days later he accused the United States of to have set a “precedent” for nuclear warfare, referring to the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 to end World War II.

On Monday, NATO warned that Russia may have deployed the Belgorod nuclear submarine in the Kara Sea to test the onboard Poseidon “doomsday” weapon, which can trigger a “radioactive tsunami.”

In the past seven months since Putin invaded Ukraine, Russian forces have lost approximately 80,000 soldiers and killed 9,000 Ukrainians. Thousands are wounded and maimed on both sides. Several cities lie in ruins.

And as Ukraine continues to retaliate and Russia looks increasingly weak, here are eight reasons Putin is unlikely to be bluffing, as he says, about using nuclear weapons.

The possible use of the Belgorod submarine by Russia could be an ominous sign.
The possible use of the Belgorod submarine by Russia could be an ominous sign.
Social Media/East2West News

1. Putin is psychologically capable of crossing the nuclear threshold, especially when he feels cornered. According to declassified debriefings of Soviet General Staff officers, Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev “trembled” when asked during a 1972 command post exercise to push a button in a hypothetical war against the US. Brezhnev kept asking Soviet Defense Minister Grechko: Was this “definitely an exercise”? Putin likely kept his fingers steady and practiced the routine many times. Several of his life experiences, including being attacked by a rat while cornering it as a youth, have taught him to push through rather than give up. “I just understood that if you want to win you have to fight to the end,” he is quoted as saying in one of his biographies, “Vladimir Putin. Biography.”

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Russia's continued losses in Ukraine may convince Putin that using a small nuclear bomb is the most efficient way to end the war.
Russia’s continued losses in Ukraine may convince Putin that using a small nuclear bomb is the most efficient way to end the war.
AFP via Getty Images

2. Putin probably thinks this is his “last and decisive fight”. Hearing calls from Western officials to try him as a war criminal in an international court, he fears he could end up like Iraqi Saddam Hussein, who was captured by US soldiers in 2003 and convicted by Iraq’s Special Court of crimes against humanity and is put to death by hanging. He also fears the fate of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who was shot in the head by his own people in 2011. Both events left a deep psychological mark on Putin and convinced him of America’s bad intentions.

The scariest reason to think Putin might consider “going nuclear” is that he is committed to fighting to the end.
The scariest reason to think Putin might consider “going nuclear” is that he is committed to fighting to the end. “If you want to win, you have to fight to the end,” he said.
AP

3. Russia’s post-Cold War doctrine includes a nuclear fallback option designed precisely for the type of situation Moscow is now facing. In the 1990s, under Putin’s orders, the General Staff developed a limited nuclear war doctrine called “escalate to de-escalate.” The doctrine states that a low-yield nuclear bomb can be detonated to shock an opposing force, halting combat and ending a war. Russia’s nuclear stockpile is inherently flexible, with yields ranging from under 1 to 1,000 kilotons, allowing Putin, for example, to launch a “demonstration strike” in the Black Sea or wreak serious havoc in Ukraine.

Putin fears ending up like Iraqi Saddam Hussein, who was captured by US soldiers in 2003.
Putin fears ending up like Iraqi Saddam Hussein, who was captured by US soldiers in 2003.
Getty Images

4. Putin likely believes he will use nuclear weapons for the same reason the US acted in Japan during World War II – to end the conflict. In August 1945, the US detonated two atomic bombs, “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 149,000 to 225,000 people. The rationale was to hasten victory while minimizing U.S. and Japanese casualties. Neither Japanese city became uninhabitable, and both returned to working order about a year after the bombs were dropped. Many of the Russian warheads are sub-kiloton and have much lower yields than the 15-kiloton bombs used in Japan, and Putin probably suspects that these weapons can be used on a battlefield.

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The fate of Muammar Gaddafi, who was shot in the head by his own people in 2011, left a deep psychological impression on Putin and convinced him of America's ill intentions.
The fate of Muammar Gaddafi, who was shot in the head by his own people in 2011, left a deep psychological impression on Putin and convinced him of America’s ill intentions.
Getty Images

5. The outcome in Ukraine is an existential question for both Russia and Putin. Although not accepted by the West, Russia regards former Soviet states like Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence and as a strategic security perimeter. With the admission of the Baltic States to NATO, the distance between NATO forces and Russian territory has shrunk from 1,000 to 100 miles. Russia sees the proximity of this opposing military alliance as a “red line,” and while Washington supplies Ukraine with more powerful weapons, the nervous Putin likely figures he needs to keep his strategic buffer.

Putin believes that the US will not respond to a nuclear strike with a nuclear counterstrike.
Putin believes that the US will not respond to a nuclear strike with a nuclear counterstrike.
AP

6. Putin orchestrated the annexation of Ukraine’s four conquered regions following bogus referendums precisely to take advantage of the nuclear option. By formally declaring these areas to be Russia, he has clarified the requirement of Russian military doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons. Officially, the unclassified doctrine allows the Supreme Commander of Russia to use these last-choice weapons only in a defensive scenario to protect Russian territory. But the doctrine also allows for the “first use” of nuclear weapons even in an existential struggle like that in Ukraine, to avert defeat and end a conflict.

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Putin likely feels that a display of nuclear might could embolden him in the eyes of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Putin likely feels that a display of nuclear might could embolden him in the eyes of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
AP

7. Putin is concerned about projecting weakness onto China. Despite Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping forging a strategic partnership against the US, Russia views China — and the two countries’ shared, unsustainable 2,600-mile border — as a long-term security threat. Putin could count on launching a nuclear strike in Ukraine to demonstrate Russia’s strength and determination towards Xi.

Russia views its conflict with Ukraine as thoroughly existential - another reason why Putin might see nuclear weapons as a morally acceptable option.
Russia views its conflict with Ukraine as thoroughly existential – another reason why Putin might see nuclear weapons as a morally acceptable option.
AFP via Getty Images

8. Putin probably estimates that launching a low-yield nuclear strike in Ukraine will not provoke a US response, and certainly not with nuclear weapons. Russian planners believe Americans have a low tolerance for casualties of war, particularly nuclear risks. President Obama’s “Global Zero” initiative to eliminate the US nuclear arsenal over time reinforced this belief, along with President Biden’s announcement that US forces would not intervene shortly after the Russian attack on Ukraine. While Russia currently has a 10-1 advantage over the US in tactical nuclear weapons, Biden has canceled a program to develop a new low-yield, nuclear-tipped sea-launched cruise missile specifically sanctioned by former President Trump to “de-escalate” Russia’s escalation -Strategy.

Putin relies on the prevailing Western sentiment that nuclear war is “unthinkable.” The Russian strongman can very well miscalculate. But cornered and desperate, he has less to lose than ever. As he believes that he and Russia face an existential threat, he may be perfectly sincere when he says, “This is not a bluff.”

Rebekah Koffler is the President of Doctrine & Strategy Consulting, a former DIA intelligence officer, and the author of Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America.

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