Why Putin Is Threatening A Nuclear War

Rediff News  interview of Sept 24, 2022 on the Ukraine crisis reproduced below, and at


‘When the war against Ukraine that Putin started is not going the way he was expecting it to and his military options are getting onerous, a bit of nuclear sabre rattling is what he hopes will turn things around for him and Russia.’

IMAGE: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during an event marking the 1160th anniversary of Russian statehood in the city of Veliky Novgorod, Russia, September 21, 2022. Photograph: Sputnik/Ilya Pitalev/Pool via Reuters

Is President Putin’s frequent sabre rattling on the use of nuclear weapons a sombre warning to Western countries? A genuine threat? Or is he simply bluffing.

Dr Bharat Karnad, emeritus professor in national security studies at the Centre for Policy Research, the Delhi think-tank, and a national security expert explains the chain of developments taking place following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“No one in Moscow expected Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people to react the way they did nor anticipated that the US/NATO would set up an arms supply line enabling Ukrainian forces,” Dr Karnad tells Rediff.com Senior Contributor Rashme Sehgal.

Why is President Putin resorting to frequent nuclear sabre rattling? Are these threats creating the desired fear in the West as Putin would like to believe?

When the war against Ukraine that Putin started is not going the way he was expecting it to and his military options are getting onerous, a bit of nuclear sabre rattling is what he hopes will turn things around for him and Russia.

But it is not having the effect he expected in the main because a 75-year-old nuclear use taboo is hard to overcome, particularly because conventional military setbacks in Ukraine and that too of Russia’s making, don’t seem serious enough provocation.

IMAGE: A view of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant outside the Russian-controlled city of Enerhodar in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region. Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

How is Nato indulging in ‘nuclear blackmail’ of Russia? Is the territorial integrity of Russia being threatened as Putin claims?

Well, the context is this. The informal understanding of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that promised joint US-Russian-UK security guarantees for Ukraine in return for Kyiv giving up its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal, was that Ukraine would remain outside NATO. Moscow believes this was violated by the moves underway to fast-track Ukraine’s membership in NATO.

And that once inside the NATO fold, Ukraine could invoke nuclear protection clauses of the alliance — which Moscow interprets as ‘nuclear blackmail’, to prevent Russia from achieving its objective of annexing the Donbas-Crimean flank to the Black Sea.

Crimea was forcibly absorbed by Russia in 2014.

According to Putin, this flank, with an ethnic Russian majority, that connects Crimea and Donbas to Russia, but outside Moscow’s control would imperil its access to, and render it vulnerable from, the sea and therefore constitutes a security threat.

Are these warnings being issued by President Putin so that Western countries stop their escalation of weapon supply to Ukraine?

Certainly, the US/NATO supply of armaments, especially precision-guided munitions (PGMs), to Ukrainian forces have frustrated Russian plans for rapid armoured thrusts to take the Donbas region.

Whether threats of use ‘of all available means’ will prompt the US to terminate the military supply pipeline is doubtful — the strategic gains from keeping Russia thus militarily engaged in Ukraine and progressively weakening are too substantial to forego.

IMAGE: Ukrainian soldiers repair a Russian tank captured during a counteroffensive operation near the Russian border in the Kharkiv region. Photograph: Sofiia Gatilova/Reuters

During the recent Modi-Putin interaction in Samarkand, President Putin told Prime Minister Modi that while Russia was keen to end the fighting, the Ukrainian leadership did not want to negotiate a peace settlement. How far is that perception correct?

Hard to know what the truth is when faced with conflicting Russian and Ukrainian accounts.

The facts are these: Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 without much Ukrainian resistance.

Moscow believed that for the same reasons Kyiv would not hugely oppose the Russian takeover of the Donbas.

Except, Ukrainian President Vlodoymyr Zelenskyy was unwilling to cede this territory as well to Russia with or without a fight. So both in a sense are right!

With the kind of reverses the Russian army has faced recently in Kharkiv and with there being no cessation of weapon supplies to Ukraine so far, do you see Russian reverses on the battlefield on the rise and if that is indeed the case, will there be a likelihood of Putin resorting to the use of nuclear tactical weapons in the future?

The use of tacnukes is not likely for reasons of the nuclear taboo already mentioned. But Putin is, perhaps, using such threat of use by way of a Russian doctrinal innovation, namely, the principle of ‘escalate to de-escalate’.

Meaning, make the threat of tacnuke use real and imminent enough to raise fears in Washington about the situation spiraling into a strategic exchange, and thus compel it to pressure Kyiv into halting hostilities and into some kind of accommodation with Moscow.

IMAGE: Destroyed Russian tanks in Ukraine. Photograph: Irina Rybakova/Press service of the Ukrainian Ground Forces/Handout via Reuters

The world is also interested in getting a clearer picture of what is happening at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, with its six reactors, making it the largest nuclear power station in Europe which is being operated with the help of Ukrainian workers.
Each of Zaporizhzhia’s reactors would cost $7 billion to replace, and with fighting going on around the plant experts do not to rule out a Chernobyl-like disaster.

Zaporizhzhia could be another Chernobyl. Then again not.

Putin, perhaps, has in mind to use the threat to strike this massive nuclear power station as a hostage to ‘good’ behaviour by Washington and Kyiv. But such tactics are risky because any radioactivity leakage as a consequence of a hit on it could affect the Russian hinterland too because radioactive clouds could easily float across and drop down as rain and infect the Russian countryside or urban areas.

But the reported missile attack on a hydroelectric plant just 300 metres from the nuclear reactors at another Ukrainian nuclear power station in Yuznoukrainsk in southern Ukraine could be a signal to the US and NATO that Moscow’s nuclear use threat is ‘not a bluff’.

IMAGE: Russian grenade launchers captured by the Ukrainian armed forces during a counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region. Photograph: Press service of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine/Handout/Reuters

The holding of a referendum set to take place in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia over the weekend provides an interesting subtext to the ongoing developments. Why is this referendum being held in the first place?

The referendum ordered by Putin in these areas is retroactively to endow the Russian actions to annex the Donbas region of Ukraine with a veneer of legitimacy and as a means of showing popular support for the Russian campaign of ‘reunification’. And also, just may be, as a means of blunting Western calls for Russian reparations for the destruction visited upon Ukraine by the war.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Samarkand, September 16, 2022. Photograph: Kind courtesy @narendramodi/Twitter

Has the Ukrainian invasion proved to be a major miscalculation on the part of Russia?

Yes, because no one in Moscow expected Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people to react the way they did, nor anticipated that US/NATO would set up an arms supply line enabling Ukrainian forces to fight without worrying over much about whether their stocks of guns, ammo, artillery and PGMs to sustain such a fight, would last and for how long.

Moscow also miscalculated about just how much of a public relations disaster this war has been.

While Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people are seen as heroic in resisting aggression, Russia and its military are seen as bumblers, with much of the world perceiving the conflict as an avoidable misadventure.

It is bad news when even friendly states, such as India and China that Moscow had hoped would sit on the fence, think it best to distance themselves from Russia.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in arms exports, China, Europe, Geopolitics, geopolitics/geostrategy, Great Power imperatives, Military Acquisitions, nuclear industry, nuclear power, Nuclear Weapons, Relations with Russia, Russia, russian military, United States, US., war & technology, Weapons, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Why Putin Is Threatening A Nuclear War

  1. Vivek says:

    Well we all know ukraine just puppet in whole power game. What is your view of US pressuring india to stay away from buying russian stuff and buy costly weapons/oil from US, do they already manage to pressure modi govt?

  2. Sankar says:

    It is a unique coincidence that another political interview of this war has appeared simultaneously in the link:
    Readers would do well to go through it to form their own views of what is at stake since the link given demolishes this presentation in toto. I may highlight one or two points in the context here from quoting from that interview by the Serbian political analyst.

    “The media campaign being waged against Russia today is identical to the one we went through. Many journalists who described the events of the war did not witness those events but took the information from other sources.”
    “The double standards applied by the West are visible here. The parallels are that the West was a critical actor in the Yugoslav conflict and the Ukrainian conflict, where it directly participated in the battle with the help of a hybrid way of warfare.”
    “In July, several missile attacks … in the Donetsk region were carried out on the civilian population and infrastructure by the Ukrainian army in Elenovka and Aleksandrovka. The colony where prisoners of war from the Azov Battalion were housed was also attacked. … the Ukrainian army targeted the center of the densely populated city of Donetsk. On that occasion, the military used NATO-produced Uragan missiles equipped with cluster munitions. Each rocket contained a large quantity of banned PMF-1 Lepestok anti-personnel mines. It completely paralyzed the city and the residents’ supply of food and water for several days.”
    “.. the West is accusing Russia of aggressive behavior, but it is hard to blame the side that voluntarily retreated 2,000 kilometers to the east without firing a shot. …
    Russia has made enormous diplomatic efforts to cooperate with the West in recent decades. But it did not [see] any results because the West did not want to talk but ignored Russia and belittled the right of that country to have its own interests. That’s how we got to today’s situation.”

    One wonders why Rediff framed questions for this interview without any substantiations!

  3. quickboy says:

    I dont think anything that is written above makes any sense.

    1. What Putin stated as the goals of his SMO as he calls it seems to be achieved, with surplus.
    Instead of Donbass and DPR/LPR regions, Russians are doing a referendum in two more oblasts( I think it is something like our states)

    2. Demilitarisation: Well Russians does not even have to go to Kiev to achieve that, What we are seeing is the wholesale de-militarisation of the entire West. The sad part is the west are getting Ukrainian neo-nazi regime to send the entire population of a country to face the artillery barrage. That is a crime on itself. But well Ukraine is being thouroughly de-militarised for all purposes and now using the Terror tactics, which itself shows that country is no more capable of direct military action.

    3. De-Nazification, They are also being reduced in huge numbers. Unless you think Nazis were the epitome of culture and are a superior race etc. you really wont support them in anyway

    And lastly we know Russians have a stated policy from the begining of this Military operation, not to use Nukes. Western puppets were shelling a nuclear power plant and the western puppies like IAEA et all, were actually conspiring to pull in UKrainian commandos to stage a fight and abduction and to occupy a nuclear power plant. Eben U.N cannot nowadays boast of any credibility, we saw the sec. general rushing to save AZOV fighters to Mariouple, Did we once see him rush to Donbass when UKrainian troops were killing and ethnically cleansing the Russian speakers ther?. So you can live with your pro-west slave mentality (or Anti China or Anti-whaterver you want. ) The Government of India in this case acted wisely. They do know their support for Iran sanctions has got our currency to paper. This time they are simply being cautious and listening to their brains. That is the only good thing for India in all this

  4. Ayush says:

    @Bharat and others
    If Putin is winning the war than why the crystal clear,overt nuclear threats in an impassioned tone?If he is winning then why the statement ,”we will use any weapons to safeguard our territorial integrity.”Just have one good look at the well connected Russian telegram channels.These people are literally “on the ground”.I myself believe these channels more than western media.Or even watch any official Russian state media.These people are actually speaking the proverbial truth,for at least now.Mobilization in the 21st century battlefield won’t change a thing.It will only pile up more corpses back in mother Russia.Ukraine’s successes are because of AGM-88 HARM and much improved air defense.Putin and his brain dead cohort are literally living in the “soviet times”.These people cannot comprehend what the basic problem is.It’s VKS failure to establish air superiority and suppress UKR Air defenses.Back in Op desert storm,saddam actually outnumbered the US.How he ended up is known to all.If I were Putin I would have the Air Force chief’s head on a platter.

    The end of Putin’s regime is not yet certain but it certainly is near.The genuine question arises for the Indian MEA:why on earth do we always back the wrong horse in foreign conflicts?The list is endless.

    • ss108 says:

      Who said Russia is winning ? They are getting crushed in defeat after defeat. This is why Putin is threatening to use nuclear weapons and calling up 300k at 1 mil fresh new meat for slaughter . Anyone who tells you Russia is winning is DELUDED. Russian arms are garbage for the most part with a few notable exceptions like S-300 & S-400.
      The sad thing is that Indian military equipment is infested with Russian

      Bharat, I tend to agree with much of what you write, however you are wrong to suggest that India should court Russia over USA. USA is the SOLE UNI-POWER at present , China is nowhere near the United States. The only thing coming out of China that is original is the Covid virus .
      India needs self sufficiency & the United States . But no F-21 please .
      Sadly , Modi is dumber than a brick…

  5. ss108 says:

    Bharat, what are the ramifications of the Ukraine war for India, in terms of military equipment purchasing ?
    It seems as if Russian military equipment is for lack of a better word, trash, as is Russian military doctrine . The Indian armed forces are built on Russian tech to a significant degree and it will takes decades for India to catch up to the West. I see this war as highly negative for India, Western military technology is vastly superior to Russian tech . Even S-400 depends on Western components .
    India cannot depend on Russia any more.

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