How to respond to land grabbing and Putin’s nuclear gamble

On September 30, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed agreements illegally incorporating the Ukrainian oblasts of Lugansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson into Russia. He said Moscow would “defend our land with all the forces and resources at our disposal.” He previously hinted that this could include nuclear weapons. Nuclear threats are no small feat, but Ukraine and the world should not be intimidated. The West should respond with its own political and military signals.

Sham referendums

The annexation of the four oblasts came 31 weeks after Putin’s disastrous decision to invade Ukraine and four days after the Russian occupiers concluded so-called “referendums” on joining Russia. These “referendums” were illegal under international law, lacked credible independent observers, and in some cases forced people to vote literally at gunpoint. No account was taken of the opinions of the millions of Ukrainian citizens who had previously fled the Russian occupation.

On this fragile basis, Putin declared Lugansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson as part of Russia, even though the Russian military does not control all of these territories. Indeed, the Russian army finds itself on the defensive and beats a retreat while Ukraine presses the counter-attacks. Nevertheless, on October 3 and 4, Russia’s legislative bodies, the Federal Assembly and the Federal Council, each unanimously approved the annexations.

Putin’s territorial hold has two apparent motives. First, it seeks to distract national attention from the costs of war (including tens of thousands of dead and wounded Russian soldiers), recent battlefield setbacks, and chaotic mass mobilization. He wants to sell the Russian public the idea that Russia has gained territory, so it must be a winner.

Second, he hopes to dissuade Ukraine from continuing its counter-offensive and the West from supporting Kyiv. On September 30, Putin declared that the four Ukrainian oblasts would be Russian “forever” and would be defended “by all means at our disposal”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said attacks on the four oblasts would be considered attacks on Russia itself.

Putin hinted at a nuclear threat, seeking to intimidate Ukraine and the West. The Russian declaratory policy contemplates the possible use of nuclear weapons in the event of a conventional attack on Russia “when the very existence of the state is in danger”. Putin seeks to put a nuclear umbrella over the territories that Russia has seized.

Putin’s nuclear bet

Putin’s scheme cannot be ignored: after all, it is a nuclear threat. But it must also be understood that he has made a serious excess.

Russia could lose this war – that is, its army could be pushed back to the lines before the Russian invasion on February 24 or even before Russia seizes Crimea – and the existence of Russia would not be in danger. Ukraine’s objective is to drive the Russians out of Ukraine. The Ukrainian army will not march on Moscow; indeed, the Ukrainians were extremely judicious in carrying out only a small number of attacks against targets on Russian territory (i.e. Russian territory as agreed by the post-Soviet states in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union).

Moscow pundits are trying to portray the war as a conflict with the West, which they say is aimed at destroying Russia. Maybe it’s better to lose to the West, not just Ukraine. Yet Western leaders have made it clear that while they will support Kyiv with arms and other assistance, they will not send troops to defend Ukraine. They do not seek the disappearance or dismemberment of Russia; they want to see Russia out of Ukraine.

Losing the war would therefore not be existential for Russia. This may well prove it for Putin, or at least for his political future. The nuclear scare arises because Putin, as he grows increasingly desperate, may see Russia’s fate and his own as one and the same.

However, Putin probably understands that if Russia were to use nuclear weapons, it would open a Pandora’s box full of unpredictable and potentially catastrophic consequences, including for Russia. Moreover, more sober Russian political and military leaders understand these risks. Would they allow Putin to put Russia in such peril? The decision to go to war belonged to Putin; losing may be existential for him, but not necessarily for others in Moscow.

While minimizing nuclear risks is an understandable concern, the West must also weigh the price of buying into Putin’s gamble. If he can use vague nuclear threats to persuade the West to agree to illegal annexations following bogus “referendums,” then what? Putin himself has suggested that Narva, a city in NATO member Estonia, is “historically Russian” land. If his scheme succeeds in Ukraine, could he be tempted to seize portions of the Baltic states, annex them and declare a nuclear threat in an attempt to secure his ill-gotten gains?

Western courier

Putin seeks to create a new geopolitical reality in Europe, one that few, if any, others will accept. The West should respond with its own pointed messages, some of which have started.

First, Washington set the right tone. On September 18, US President Joe Biden warned Putin against using nuclear weapons, saying the US response would be “substantial”. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reiterated this point on September 25, noting “that any use of nuclear weapons will have catastrophic consequences for Russia, which the United States and our allies will respond to decisively.” Both correctly left ambiguous the specific nature of the response by the United States and its allies. The strategic ambiguity leaves the Russians worried about what might happen.

Washington sent private messages to Moscow warning against the use of nuclear power. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley have spoken periodically with their Russian counterparts and are now expected to speak with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov. Shoigu and Gerasimov would be closely associated with any reflection on the use of nuclear weapons. They may well have a more serious understanding of what nuclear use might mean for Russia than Putin does, and what is existential for Putin need not be existential for them.

Second, Washington’s and Kyiv’s other Western friends should communicate their position to the Russian people, perhaps in a joint public statement. Such a statement should emphasize that the objective of the West is not the destruction of Russia but the withdrawal of the Russian army from Ukrainian territory or, at the very least, a negotiated settlement on terms acceptable to Kyiv.

Third, Western diplomats should discuss with their counterparts in Beijing, Delhi and other southern capitals the Russian threat. Moscow must understand that any use of nuclear weapons in a failed war against Ukraine would make Russia an international pariah.

Fourth, the West should increase its military assistance so that the Ukrainians can move forward and liberate more territories from Russian occupation. In particular, Washington should provide ATACMS – surface-to-surface missiles with a range of 200 miles – on the condition, as currently applies to shorter-range rockets supplied by the United States, that they do not target Russia (within its 1991 borders). But the door should be left ajar to end this restriction if Russia were to step up.

As the Kremlin continues to wage a war of aggression and tries to persuade the world that its annexations are legitimate, Putin has chosen to play a risky game. Western messaging should ensure that Russian political and military elites understand that gambling poses serious risks both to Russia and to them personally.

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