Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov began to talk about the possibility of a nuclear strike to protect interests of Russia. Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation chimed in today. For the last couple of months, Medvedev has been used to voice the most radical messages of the Kremlin after a pseudo opposition politician Zhirinovsky passed away.
The nuclear sabre rattling is, however, a bluff, and the last one possible. The Russian leadership raises stakes because of blunders in the war against Ukraine. It is Medvedev who voiced a hope that the West would not dare to strike back and would acquiesce to Russia’s nuclear attack against Ukraine.
In such a case, though, the existing rule-based world order will fall because any nuclear country can seize another’s territory and then hold it with the help of a nuclear blackmail. This is unacceptable because it will lead to a catastrophic destabilization in the world.
Therefore, the biggest deterrent is a clear Western plan of action in response to a possible nuclear strike with such a price for Russia that it will not be able to pay. Yet, just sanctions will not enough, as they did not help to deter Russia in the past. Russia is ready to survive any economic sanctions in the short run. A nuclear strike in return cannot be used either because it will most likely lead to the mutual destruction.
There remains the scenario of the US entering the war on the side of Ukraine, for example, with a massive conventional strike on the Russian army. Additionally, in order to reduce Putin’s motivation to even voice nuclear threats, the West should dramatically increase aid to Ukraine immediately and thus show that intimidation does not achieve its goal and is not an effective tool.
It seems Putin has already been warned at the highest level by diplomatic channels and publicly, including by the U.S., that his nuclear threats are unacceptable and the consequences for Russia in case of the first use of nuclear weapons will be catastrophic.
The only question is whether Russia actually sees these consequences as catastrophic for itself, as only this understanding can influence the Kremlin’s decision not to use nuclear weapons.