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Our View: How worried should we be as Putin uses nuclear threat?

file photo: russian president vladimir putin delivers a speech during an event in moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin

There could not have been a more open admission that the so-called ‘special military operation’ was not going well than President Vladimir Putin’s address to the nation on Wednesday. Even the people living in Russia, who have been relentlessly bombarded with myths about the war by the state propaganda machinery, will have sensed that all is not well, listening to Putin order a partial mobilisation and bring up the spectre of nuclear war.

The decision to call up 300,000 reservists points to an escalation of the war as did Putin’s pledge that “we will without a doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people”, if the “territorial integrity of our country is threatened.” He also clarified that “this is not a bluff.” By “all available means” he was hinting at the use of nuclear weapons, although he asserted that this threat was being posed by the West.

He accused the West of “nuclear blackmail,” claiming that officials in leading NATO countries, which he failed to name, had spoken of potentially using nuclear weapons against Russia. “Those who are trying to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the wind can change in their direction,” he said, leading to speculation that he may have been building a case to justify the use of nuclear weapons. That his case is based entirely on lies is irrelevant.

Putin has backed himself into a corner and escalation seems the only way of avoiding a humiliating defeat. The Ukrainian army has driven Russian troops back in the Kharkiv region and is advancing in Luhansk, with the prospect of Russia losing territories it has held illegally since 2014.

A day before Putin’s speech, the Moscow-installed leaders of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia announced they would hold referenda on joining Russia. The sham referenda, that would lead to the illegal annexation of the Ukrainian territories, would turn these into Russian territory and his special military operation into a defensive war. Russia would claim it would be defending its ‘sovereign’ territory from Ukraine’s attack, opening the way for a declaration of war, a general mobilisation and the use of nuclear weapons.

Its nuclear doctrine allows the use of nuclear weapons if the Russian state faces an existential threat from conventional weapons. Will anyone challenge Putin if he declares that this threat existed in the Donbas? One of the most fervent supporters of the war in Ukraine, the head of the state broadcaster RT said “this week marks either the threshold of our imminent victory or the threshold of a nuclear war; I can’t see any third option.”

How worrying it is for the world that Russia is certainly not at the threshold of imminent victory.

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