October 1, 2022

    • Vladimir Putin escalated his war in Ukraine on Wednesday with a direct threat of nuclear war.
    • But experts say the threat indicates Putin is running out of military options.
    • Putin is increasingly “aware of how limited his real military options are,” one expert said.

Vladimir Putin on Wednesday threatened to use nuclear weapons in a brazen escalation of his war in Ukraine.

But the Russian president’s brazen warning is less a show of legitimate strength and more a sign that the Russian military is faltering, experts say.

On Wednesday, more than seven months into the war, Putin announced a partial military mobilization in an effort to address Russia’s manpower problem amid a string of recent Ukrainian victories. During his televised speech, the president also falsely accused the West of threatening to use nuclear weapons and responded by acknowledging Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

“To those who allow themselves to make such statements about Russia, I want to remind that our country also has various means of destruction, and for some components more modern than those of NATO countries,” he said.

“And if the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff.”

Putin’s nuclear threats are a scare tactic aimed at Ukraine’s allies.

Amid mounting military losses, deteriorating troop morale and changing public sentiment, it makes sense why Putin would turn to his warheads, said Simon Miles, an assistant professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a Soviet-US historian. Soviet relations.

“The Russian military’s poor performance on the battlefield in Ukraine was an important reminder that any claim to great power status that Russia may have is based almost entirely on its nuclear weapons arsenal,” Miles said.

Putin’s message, Miles said, is also aimed at Ukraine’s global supporters.

“Putin has tried and failed many times to break the resolve of Ukrainian supporters, and his latest threats are no different,” Miles said. “It is clear that he is becoming increasingly aware of how limited his real military options are in this war.”

Earlier this month, Ukraine scored one of its biggest victories to date, launching two simultaneous offensives in the northeast and south in an effective effort to regain the occupied territory. Reports from the front lines indicate that Russian troops have fled as the country’s military buckled under Ukraine’s powerful force.

“The Russians are disheartened, disorganized and unmotivated, just trying to stay alive,” Robert English, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies Russia, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, told Insider. “Ukraine’s fighting spirit and the US arms industry have teamed up to thwart it [Putin’s] plans in a big way.”

The outlook for Russia remains bleak, especially given the West’s continued military support for Ukraine. The country’s latest offensive, carried out by Ukrainian forces, was made possible by US and UK intelligence, strategy and weapons.

“As long as the West supplies better and better weapons – and we supply more and better weapons – the pressure on Russian forces will only increase,” English said.

A Russian nuclear missile was seen during a parade in Moscow.

A Russian nuclear missile rolls along Red Square during a military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis, June 24, 2020, in Moscow, Russia.

Mihail Svetlov/Getty Images

Experts believe that Putin is unlikely to follow through on his threat.

Putin’s threat of “civilization-extinguishing capabilities,” as Miles put it, does not mean the US or any other Ukrainian ally should turn around and run.

“It’s one thing to threaten, it’s another thing to actually use these weapons in a way that serves the Kremlin’s cause,” Miles said.

A Russian demonstration of nuclear weapons is unlikely to break the will of the West, he said, and may even strengthen it further. Meanwhile, using the weapon in Ukraine itself would have devastating consequences for Ukrainian troops – but Russian soldiers fighting in the country would also pay a price.

Multiple experts have previously told Insider that Russia is unlikely to use nuclear weapons, even if it has threatened to. Miles added that the logistics alone make the prospect low-risk.

“Russian nuclear weapons have been placed in safe havens across the country, including in the far west near Ukraine,” he said. “The process of transitioning to readiness, connecting warheads to delivery platforms, would create a lot of visible phenomena for US intelligence and an opportunity for Washington to explicitly let the Kremlin know how bad that would be.”

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