Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s truculent speech on Wednesday was his latest gambit to change the course of a conflict that is trending inevitably toward his country’s defeat. He announced a limited military mobilization and the imminent annexation of four partially occupied Ukrainian provinces (Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, Luhansk) through sham referendums. To cap it all off, he issued veiled nuclear threats: “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff”.
This was a version of the address Putin was widely expected to deliver on May 9, the Russian holiday commemorating victory in World War II, minus a declaration of war or general mobilization. He held off, no doubt because he was afraid of the political risks of expanding the draft, and he was still convinced that his army could grind down the Ukrainians.
Then came the U.S. delivery of High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), which transformed the battlefield this summer. The weapons system allowed the Ukrainians to interrupt the rain of Russian artillery and bring the Russian offensive to a standstill. In recent weeks, the Ukrainians have gone on the attack, liberating at least 3,500 square miles of land, inflicting heavy losses on the Russian army, and threatening Russian supply lines in the east. Putin is more isolated than ever internationally, with would-be allies such as Turkey, India and China refusing to back his invasion. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is demanding that Putin return all occupied land, including Crimea, to “its rightful owners”.
With defeat looming, Putin is trotting out a new strategy: He will annex Ukrainian territory and then threaten to use nuclear weapons if the Ukrainians and their allies in the West don’t let him get away with it. If the West were to give in to his nuclear blackmail, what would stop him from announcing tomorrow that Kyiv is also Russian territory (which he clearly believes)? Or Tallinn? Or Tbilisi? Or even Warsaw or Helsinki? We cannot live in a world where an evil dictator can redraw international borders at will with threats of nuclear annihilation. And we don’t have to.
Before we panic over Putin’s reckless threats, let’s remember that we have nearly as many nuclear weapons as Russia and that this is hardly the first time that Putin has threatened to go nuclear. At the very beginning of the war, on Feb. 24, he said that any country that interfered with his invasion would suffer consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history”. Well, the West has supplied Ukraine with weapons that have killed or wounded at least 70,000 Russian soldiers, and Putin still has not made any nuclear move. Nor has he gone nuclear over Ukrainian attacks on Crimea, which he annexed in 2014. He is not suicidal or crazy.
While Putin’s use of nuclear weapons against NATO is unthinkable, the use of tactical nuclear warheads in Ukraine is, sadly, slightly more realistic. But that’s not stopping the Ukrainians, who are the ones in the crosshairs, and it should not stop us. President Biden needs to deter Putin by signaling that the response to any nuclear attack would be devastating. It would not even require a nuclear response; NATO air forces could probably destroy the Russian army in Ukraine with conventional munitions.
Putin’s announcement that he will mobilize another 300,000 or so troops for the war is more credible than his threats of nuclear attacks — but no more likely to enable a Russian victory. Russia has had a great deal of trouble training, equipping and supplying the forces it has already sent into Ukraine (numbering some 150,000). Imagine how much harder it will be to mobilize even more troops when equipment inventories must be severely depleted, and the army has lost many of the officers and noncommissioned officers it will need to train and lead fresh forces.
Probably the most significant part of Putin’s speech was his decision to issue what the U.S. military would call a “stop-loss” order preventing already serving soldiers from leaving the army after their terms of service expire. That Putin felt this was necessary is an indicator that few Russians are eager to fight. Indeed, the imbalance of motivation — with, as Anne Applebaum wrote for the Atlantic, Ukrainian soldiers “fighting for their country’s existence” while Russian soldiers are “fighting for their salary”— is one of Ukraine’s chief advantages. Telling Russian troops that they have to stay on the frontlines, in essence, until they are killed or wounded will only further damage their already-low morale.
Putin’s actions are the sign of a desperate dictator who knows his reckless military gambit is in danger of defeat. He knows, too, that Russian rulers of the past — Czar Nicholas II with World War I, Nikita Khrushchev with the Cuban missile crisis, Mikhail Gorbachev with Afghanistan — have not survived defeat, and he must fear the consequences for his own criminal rule. We must take Putin’s threats seriously, but we cannot allow him to bluff or intimidate us into backing off our support for Ukraine’s freedom fighters. Now, more than ever, it is necessary for Ukrainian forces to have all the equipment they need to take back lost territory before Russia can bring greater resources to bear.
Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam”.