Analysis |

Is the West Taking Putin's Nuclear Threats Too Lightly?

Prof. Dima Adamsky from Reichman University thinks that the probability of Putin using nuclear weapons is still low. But he is concerned by what he calls 'a strategic destabilization of the Russian nuclear systems'

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during an event to mark the 1160th anniversary of Russia's statehood in Veliky Novgorod on September 21, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during an event to mark the 1160th anniversary of Russia's statehood in Veliky Novgorod on September 21, 2022.Credit: ILYA PITALEV - AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Perhaps the Israeli engagement with the territories is negligible compared to what’s happening on the world’s center stage. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech on Wednesday sent a shiver of fear down the spine of his country’s citizens. So much so, that all the tickets for outbound flights were immediately snapped up, as anxiety struck draft-age men following the Kremlin’s announcement that 300,000 reservists would be called up for the bogged-down war in Ukraine.

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But in the eyes of Prof. Dima Adamsky, from Reichman University in Herzilya, who studies Russian strategy, there was another worrisome element in the speech. Adamsky told Haaretz that he doesn’t want to be seen as an alarmist, but he thinks that many in the West are taking too lightly the Russian president’s repeated threats to use nuclear weapons in the war. “Putin reemphasized that the nuclear option is a possible lever in the war,” he noted. “He said explicitly: I am not bluffing, don’t try me. In the escalating scale of declarations, he can hardly climb another rung.”

Adamsky discerns a dangerous combination of Russian moves: “an accelerated referendum about annexing territories captured by Russia, a callup of reserves, and a nuclear threat – and all of them against the backdrop of the Ukrainian counteroffensive that scored surprising success in the east, while inside Russia the protest against continuing the war is increasing.”

“No one in the world will recognize the annexation of the conquered regions to Russia, but from Putin’s viewpoint, the referendum will help him formulate a narrative,” he said. “According to the Russian doctrine, nuclear weapons can be used when there is a threat to the integrity of Russian territory or to its sovereignty. From his point of view, the continuation of the war in these regions, amid the use of Western weapons, as well as systems and training supplied by NATO countries to Ukraine, creates a new situation once these regions are coopted to Russia. By means of the nuclear threat, he hopes he will be able to deter Kyiv and its supporters in the West from continuing to fight, and to strive for a ceasefire along the present line.”

Russia’s situation in the fighting, Adamsky observes, is “quite catastrophic. The counteroffensive’s success undermined the trust Russia’s citizens placed in Putin as an invincible leader. The president is being criticized from both right and left, by those who believe that more force needs to be used in Ukraine, and also by those who want to withdraw. He has never suffered a blow like this, not in Georgia, not in the Second Chechen War and not when he assisted the Assad regime in Syria.”

He says: “The Russians are trying to hang on along a frontline that is about 1,000 kilometers long. Objectively, they simply don’t have the manpower after the losses they have sustained. But the whole concept of a reserve system in Russia is hardly known. The Russian army will not manage to organize at a pace like the IDF. They need to locate, mobilize and equip these reservists before sending them to the front, so they won’t become cannon fodder – all at a time when most of the field commanders are occupied in the fighting itself.”

Newlyweds pose for a picture with Russian service members next to a mobile recruitment center for military service under contract in Rostov-on-Don, Russia September 17, 2022.Credit: SERGEY PIVOVAROV/ REUTERS

Thus, he says, a critical window of time has emerged, in which Putin is liable to consider employing tactical nuclear weapons. “He wants to prevent the Ukrainians from advancing further, but he doesn’t have enough forces in the war,” he says. “On top of it, Ukrainian gains spur the West to provide additional advanced weapons, hoping they will liberate more territories before winter sets in. Putin has a genuine operative problem on the front. It’s possible that the principal response remaining in his arsenal is a threat to use chemical or nuclear weapons.

“I still think it’s low probability, but even so, we are at the closest point to the nuclear danger zone since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. We have entered a space in which the Russian nuclear system is in a state of strategic instability. That is what worries me most,” Adamsky said. “In Western eyes, there is no logic for Putin to use nuclear weapons, but that same Western logic did not foresee the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February.”

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