Putin's nuclear warning makes it more difficult for Russia

Putin's nuclear warning makes it more difficult for Russia

LONDON: President Vladimir Putin's latest warning that he is ready to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia amid the war in Ukraine has made a troubling question more urgent: Is the former KGB spy bluffing?

Putin warned that it was not a bluff, and Western politicians, diplomats and nuclear weapons experts are divided. Some think he could use one or more smaller, tactical nuclear weapons to try to stave off military defeat, protect his presidency, scare off the West or intimidate Kyiv into capitulation.

The Kremlin may be considering an escalation after Russia annexes four Ukrainian regions that it only partially occupies after Putin's warning was followed by a more specific threat to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine from an ally.

Russia's parliament is expected to declare the regions part of Russia on October 4. If that happens, the way would be clear, from Moscow's point of view, for a possible defensive strike if it felt the territory was under serious threat.

It would be a sign of desperation, so whether or not Putin would go nuclear is dependent on how humbled he feels in a conflict that has so far humbled a former superpower.

Putin controls the world's largest nuclear arsenal, including a new generation of hypersonic weapons and ten times more tactical nuclear weapons than the West, and the United States and the NATO military alliance are taking him seriously.

Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Russia, told Reuters in August that if Russia is fighting a losing war, losing badly, and Putin falling, or some kind of nuclear demonstration, I wouldn't bet that they wouldn't go for the nuclear demonstration.

Putin warned the West that Russia would use all possible means to defend Russian territory and accused the West of discussing a potential nuclear attack on Russia in his most recent comments.

This is not a bluff. He said that those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them.

Such blunt Kremlin rhetoric is very different from the more nuanced nuclear signals preferred by late Soviet leaders after Nikita Khrushchev took the world to the brink of nuclear war in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told US television networks that President Joe Biden's administration was seriously considering Putin's comments and warned Moscow of the possible consequences if it uses nuclear weapons.

Washington has not spelled out its likely response, but using a nuclear weapon could cause a nuclear escalation, which is why most experts believe a massive conventional attack on Russian military assets would be more likely.

Asked if Putin was moving towards a nuclear attack, CIA Director William Burns told CBS on Tuesday: "We have to take very seriously his kind of threats given everything at stake." Burns said that US intelligence had no practical evidence that Putin was moving towards using tactical nuclear weapons imminently.