Russia’s war in Ukraine has entered a crucial and uncertain phase. Substantial losses on the battlefield due to the advances of the Ukrainian army – such as this past Saturday in the key city of Lyman in the Donbas region, a territory that President Vladimir Putin, in his eagerness to redraw borders by force, already considers part of Russia – are pushing the Kremlin to raise the tone of its nuclear threats, in an escalation of a de-escalation strategy that is taking the war to its most dangerous moment since the beginning of the conflict on February 24. Putin is losing battle after battle, and has stressed that he is not bluffing in his warnings. Both NATO and the EU have warned that the risk of nuclear war is real. “It is the most serious escalation since the conflict began,” said the secretary general of the Atlantic Alliance, Jens Stoltenberg, on Friday.
The illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions signed on Friday by Putin; his desperate order for military mobilization, which has shaken the country; the incessant nuclear threats and an increasingly furious anti-Western rhetoric are four pivotal points in the large-scale war launched by the Russian president. Putin is now maneuvering his new recruits like pawns, waiting for winter to relocate and resupply, a Western intelligence agency source maintains. Meanwhile, back home he is keeping up an ultra-nationalist rhetoric aimed at containing growing discontent. He is also issuing increasingly harsh warnings in a bid to halt the advancing Ukrainian forces and cut off the shipment of long-range weapons to Kyiv by the West.
It is not easy to find historical parallels in Russia’s war against Ukraine, says Luis Simón, director of the Elcano Institute think tank in Brussels, especially because Moscow is a nuclear power. “Although nuclear weapons have not come into play directly, they have done so indirectly and they limit the parameters of interaction between both parties, as well as the possible modalities of participation by the West in the conflict”, he notes.
The Kremlin has assured that, following the illegal annexation of the Ukrainian regions of Kherson, Zaporizhia, Luhansk and Donetsk – which the international community has roundly rejected – an attack on those territories would be treated as an attack on Russia. In the furious speech with which he signed the annexation decree, Putin hardly gave any new details about the nuclear threats that are worrying Western capitals, but he highlighted that the United States is the only country to have used nuclear weapons in war. And this, in his words, “created a precedent.”
Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum in the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, sees Putin’s latest maneuvers and nuclear threats as “blackmail.” “We must act responsibly and not talk about probabilities without having information. And we don’t have it. We are talking about a person who made the final decision to invade Ukraine one day before doing it,” she said. “Ukraine is winning the war and it will not capitulate, even if they use tactical nuclear weapons it will not surrender,” said Lutsevych.
Jamie Shea, who has served in several key NATO positions, describes three dynamic forces at play that, depending on how they interact and play out, could determine the outcome of the war: the Ukrainian military’s advances into territory that Putin now considers part of Russia, the discontent caused by his mobilization order, and an escalation that combines indiscriminate attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, nuclear threats and even, says this former NATO official, “the sabotage of gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea” (based on circumstantial evidence).
“Putin is obviously trying to scare us into making concessions, but his strategy of reckless escalation also carries risks for him,” says Shea, now a professor of security and strategy at the University of Exeter. “Russia is increasingly isolated. Even Moscow’s friends, such as China, Serbia and Kazakhstan, have reacted coldly to the fake referendums in Ukraine.” Furthermore, he points out, Russian nuclear strikes would have catastrophic consequences for Russia that go far beyond additional sanctions. And that’s without forgetting the internal consequences that all these movements could have for the Russian leader. “The Kremlin’s escalation into ever riskier steps could well cause the Russian security establishment to rise up against Putin and seek peace,” says Shea.
Warnings before the nuclear attack
Nikolai Sókov, who was part of the Russian negotiating team for the START I and II disarmament agreements, believes that the situation is still far from catastrophic and that the Kremlin would send several warnings before taking the step to launch a nuclear attack. “It could use conventional weapons or other measures. It could even resort to an underground nuclear test,” he predicts. “In any case, we will be able to see that the situation is becoming more dangerous and acute. A surprise nuclear attack is not on the cards,” emphasizes Sókov, now an analyst at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.
The cold weather is approaching and the Ukrainian and Russian forces still have a long road ahead of them to complete their objectives. In Belgorod, a Russian city bordering Ukraine’s Kharkiv, stands selling military clothing to professional soldiers have sprung up like mushrooms. The recruits who are part of the chaotic mobilization decreed by Putin last week are now beginning to arrive at the front. Some said that they do not even have proper equipment, that officials at the recruitment center gave them a list of things that they should take to the front, which includes basic items such as suitable footwear and clothes for winter.
But Putin – the former head of the Russian secret services, the man who came to power largely because of the bloody war in Chechnya and with support from the oligarchy, the leader who has wiped out the opposition and snuffed out every sprout of organized civil society – is also battling to stay in power at home. Citizens have not received the illegal annexation of the four Ukrainian provinces with the kind of nationalist jubilation with which they reacted to Crimea in 2014. The draft has triggered an unusual public response in a Russia that severely punishes those who protest, and where the population had remained largely quiet about the alleged operation to “denazify” Ukraine.
According to a poll released this week by the Levada polling center, under half of Russians (48%) supported continuing the war in the first week of recruitment. Meanwhile, thousands of men are fleeing the country to avoid being recruited. But Putin needs more soldiers to fuel his war in Ukraine and the recruitment will continue. Proof of it, notes the political scientist Ekaterina Shulman, is the fact that the annual call for young people who must do their mandatory military service – and which exempts them by law from going to the front – has been postponed until November.
Moscow is also beginning to feel the effects of the sanctions, after managing for months to weather the storm thanks to high energy prices. The West’s punishment has taken a big bite out of its exports as well as imports of key products for its defense industry, which, according to intelligence sources, is already in a difficult situation.
As Putin raises the tone and the war in Ukraine becomes more uncertain, the West is carefully measuring its next steps. The US and the EU have embarked on a quiet but frantic diplomatic crusade, using a measured tone that seeks to tone down the Kremlin’s narrative about this being a proxy conflict between Russia and the West. “Europe is not at war,” insisted NATO’s secretary general.
Meanwhile, the EU is rushing to approve saving measures, boost energy efficiency and intervene in the markets to stop the consequences of the Kremlin’s economic war against the EU, in which the Russian president uses energy as a weapon to fragment the unity of the partners. And in that battle, fueled by inflation and the seed of discontent, winter will also be a crucial time.