It has been called the nuclear blackmail card – both in Western diplomatic and defense circles and in Russia itself.
And it’s a reference to President Vladimir Putin’s deadpan threat on Wednesday to resort to weapons of mass destruction if NATO crossed the line or if Ukraine regained more of its own occupied territory.
Insisting that “this is not a bluff”, Putin warned that he had many such weapons at his disposal.
What may not be apparent from all the screaming headlines that followed — and Putin’s order to partially mobilize his country’s military — is that his bluff is already called in some ways. Ukraine thinks he’s playing with a hand that’s been getting weaker and weaker.
The thinking in the Kremlin, according to a number of pundits, is that Moscow’s call for four referendums in Ukrainian provinces that its troops currently occupy but do not fully control – Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson – would officially place them under the nuclear control of Mother Russia. security dome.
Russian military nuclear doctrine asserts that the Kremlin is justified in using all means at its disposal if the military faces conventional defeat on its own soil.
In the eyes of military experts who have followed the campaign, what is happening on Ukrainian soil in the east looks more like a rout than a defeat – Russian troops abandoning tanks and personnel carriers and hitchhiking to the border.
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Christian Leuprecht, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, said the Kremlin seems to fear that if it doesn’t “hold these wacky referenda in the next 10 days or so, there won’t be a referendum to hold.” “
The nuclear threat could be Putin’s way of pressuring the West to lean on the Ukrainians to open negotiations, he said. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week he believed the Russian leader wanted to end the war he had started in Ukraine “as soon as possible”.
“Why would the Ukrainians negotiate with the Russians at this point? asked Leuprecht.
Dominique Arel, chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa, said Putin had been wielding the nuclear blackmail card from the start and that hadn’t deterred NATO from arming Ukraine. Nor did it stop the Ukrainian counter-offensive, including attacks in Crimea, which was officially annexed by Russia.
“[Crimea has] has been occupied since 2014,” Arel said in a recent interview. “You might say, ‘Well, Crimea is actually Russia, [but] they did not respond with nukes.'”
Russian military installations in the occupied peninsula were attacked twice during the summer. Ukraine will neither confirm nor deny that it is behind the attacks.
“I don’t think this nuclear blackmail is a factor for the Ukrainians,” Arel said. “And my reading is that it does not affect the military calculation of the Western allies…
“It will have no impact on the determination of the Ukrainians to strike territories they believe to be theirs… Whether Russia claims that she is now Mother Russia, it makes no difference.”
A risky referendum plan
Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Eurasia Center of the Atlantic Council, wonders how Russia could organize referendums.
Indeed, the process is vague.
Denis Pushilin, the pro-Moscow leader of Donetsk, recently told Russian media that election officials would go door to door and people could also vote in designated “public spaces”. There are suggestions for online voting in other jurisdictions.
The reality, however, is that people would vote at gunpoint under the watchful eye of the Russian military.
“There are a lot of explosions in the places where Russia planned to organize them and honestly, I don’t think it makes sense from a strategic point of view, to organize referenda in a few small villages”, Haring said.
Arel agreed with his assessment and said the areas where Moscow wanted to hold the votes – areas that may have had some pro-Russian sentiment before the major fighting started – are now increasingly hostile towards Moscow. because of the war.
“The support is pretty much non-existent. I don’t know, 5%, maybe 10%, if you bribe people and people are scared and so on,” Arel said.
“The question now becomes, will they even have the capacity to conduct a referendum?”
Seven months of brutal warfare on the streets and on the ground in Ukraine has also raised questions about whether the Russian military has the capacity to absorb and effectively use the 300,000 reservists Putin has called up for service.
It’s a huge gamble, Leuprecht said. He asked “whether the Russian Armed Forces would even be able to mobilize, I mean, given that they can’t train the recruits they currently have and equip them.
“How are they actually going to handle the mass mobilization?”
The experiences of the past six months appear to have had “nearly no impact on the ability of Russian forces to perform on the battlefield”, he added.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, which has been following daily developments in Eastern Europe, said Wednesday that Putin appears to be quietly trying to put steel in the backbone of his military by introducing “new, tougher penalties in an effort to contain the risk of Russian military units fighting in Ukraine collapsing and dodging in Russia.”
A new law was introduced in the State Duma on Tuesday which, in the words of the institute, “codifies significantly increased penalties for desertion, refusal of conscription orders and insubordination”.
Significantly, it “also criminalizes voluntary surrender and makes surrender a crime punishable by ten years in prison”.
Putin, in other words, is telling Russian soldiers to fight to the death – or else.