What does the clicking of Putin’s nuclear saber mean?

Either out of political desperation or military vanity, Vladimir Putin is playing the nuclear card in the crisis caused by his invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s war has taken on global dimensions, even though the Ukrainians are the only ones repelling Russian forces on the ground. In Putin’s incendiary rant announcing the invasion last week, an ominous phrase from the Russian leader threatened more than Ukraine. “Anyone who tries to interfere with us,” he warned, “should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and lead you to the consequences you have never experienced in your story. He said Russia “is one of the strongest nuclear states today.”

Putin went further on Sunday in a bizarre meeting with his longtime defense minister Sergey Shoygu and legendary military strategist General Valery Gerasimov. Putin sat at the head of a long, banquet-like table. Her commanders, who looked like deer caught in the headlights, clustered at the far end. Putin ordered them to put Russian nuclear forces on “special combat alert”. It’s an unconventional term, but it means that Putin wants the world’s deadliest weapons readied for eventual launch – or so the world thinks so.

The Biden administration has not taken Putin’s bait. He responded coldly to Moscow’s latest provocation. When asked on Monday whether Americans should be worried about a nuclear war, Biden answered bluntly, “No.” The United States has not changed the posture of its nuclear forces. The US alert level has not been raised. “We have the ability to defend ourselves,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. A senior Pentagon official said Washington remains “comfortable and confident in our own strategic deterrence.” In London, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said Putin’s threat was a diversion meant to scare the West.

The rattling of Putin’s nuclear saber sounds like an epic bluff, meant to distract the world’s attention and raise the heartbeat. This seems to reflect weakness rather than strength, after his army’s early poor performance. “He wouldn’t say those things if the war wasn’t going badly,” Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia, told me. Yet Putin’s repeated references to nuclear weapons succeeded in suddenly bringing the subject of bombs back into the public consciousness after decades of assumptions that the atomic threat belonged to a bygone era, delineated by the explosion of the first nuclear bomb. in 1945 and the apparent end of the Cold War in 1989. Russian aggressiveness followed a little-noticed decision by Belarus in December (which was approved last week) to change its constitution and allow Russia to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in the country, which borders Ukraine and also three NATO members—Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. I asked Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, if the world was entering the nuclear age. “We never left him,” he replied. “But this is a new part of the nuclear age.”

There are some thirteen thousand nuclear weapons on Earth, in the arsenals of nine countries. The number has fallen by about eighty percent since the end of the Cold War, but today the global system to limit existing nuclear arsenals and prevent their spread “is in chaos,” Kelsey told me. Davenport, nuclear arms control specialist, last winter. . The threat of a new nuclear arms race is growing. The Pentagon estimates that China could have a thousand bombs by 2030, while India and Pakistan are engaged in their own nuclear arms race, and North Korea has built up to sixty nuclear devices.

According to the Arms Control Association, 90% of all nuclear bombs are now under Russian and American control. It is estimated that Russia has more warheads, about six thousand. Most Russian and American bombs are more than ten times more powerful – in terms of explosive yield – than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killed an estimated two hundred and fourteen thousand people at the end of 1945, according to the Arms Control Association. . In 1981, I traveled with Pope John Paul II to the two Japanese cities. We visited the hospital on Mercy Hill in Nagasaki where people were still dying – thirty-five years later – from radiation poisoning. “And they’re still hurting and dying today,” Kimball said Monday.

State Department spokesman Ned Price called Putin’s nuclear forces order “provocative rhetoric,” but noted that it “adds to the risk of miscalculation.” And that’s the rub, given Putin’s irrational behavior in Ukraine, which defied international law, 21st century conventional wisdom and his own past policies. After Putin and Biden held a summit in Geneva in June, they issued a joint statement reaffirming the premises of a policy that dates back to negotiations between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. “Nuclear war cannot be won and should never be conducted”. both the current American and Russian presidents repeated, once again, on behalf of their nations.

In contrast, Dmitry Kiselyev, a longtime Kremlin propagandist who is known as one of the most sulphurous personalities on Russian television, opened its state television program Sunday with an overview of the Russian nuclear arsenal. “In total, our submarines are capable of launching more than five hundred nuclear warheads, which are guaranteed to destroy the United States and all the countries of NATO to start,” he said. “It’s according to the principle: ‘Why do we need a world if Russia is not part of it?’ He continued, “We’re not even going to talk about strategic rocket forces. . . .Putin warned them. Don’t try to scare Russia.

Putin’s announcement – ​​which seemed intended to pressure, cajole or coerce the West to stay out of Ukraine – carries inherent dangers. “Despite the best intentions, we have a situation here where there can be miscalculations and escalation, and Putin raising his forces to alert level is extremely risky,” Kimball told me. The Ukraine crisis has already put much of the world on edge. Friday, as a defensive measure, NATO activated its rapid reaction force – some forty thousand soldiers. NATO On Sunday, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged Putin to defuse the situation in a CNN interview: “If you combine that rhetoric with what they are doing on the ground in Ukraine, waging war against an independent sovereign nation, waging an invasion of Ukraine, this adds to the seriousness of the situation.

Putin may slug it out in embarrassment after his forces failed to quickly take the capital, Kyiv, as he expected. In one propaganda leaflet For ages, Russian news agency RIA Novosti prematurely published an article on February 26, just two days after the invasion, celebrating a Russian military victory. “There will be no more anti-Russian Ukraine,” he boasted. “This does not mean that its statehood will be liquidated, but it will be rebuilt, restored and returned to its natural position in the Russian world.”

The article reflected the reality of Putin’s intentions in Ukraine: the war is as much about his rivalry with the West as it is about who rules in Ukraine. “The rest of the world sees and understands perfectly well – this is a conflict between Russia and the West, this is a response to the geopolitical expansion of the Atlanticists,” RIA Novosti wrote. “It is Russia’s return to its historical space and its place in the world.” The irony, of course, is that Putin’s invasion generated greater unity in the West – and greater support for NATO– than at any time since the collapse of its Soviet Union three decades ago.

Putin’s coterie also gave the bird to the West. On Saturday, former President Dmitry Medvedev threatened that Russia could withdraw from the new strategic arms reduction treaty which was signed in 2010 and which Putin and Biden agreed to extend into 2021. It is the latest major deal on arms between the two nations. On social media, he also said that Russia no longer needs diplomatic relations with the United States and its allies. “It’s time to padlock the embassies and pursue contacts by looking at each other through binoculars and sights.”

After becoming an outcast to much of the world, Putin has resorted to tough-guy rhetoric for audiences at home and abroad. He hopes to influence public opinion and political decision-making in other countries, Gustav Gressel, senior policy researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “There is no other tool available in Putin’s hand to change this than to play with Europeans’ fear of nuclear war. But it’s a game on the brink, nothing more.

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