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Frustration, Rage Could Spur Putin to Make His Nuclear Threat Explicit

'The thing about Putin is, if he has an instrument, he wants to use it. Why have it if you can’t?,' a U.S. expert on Russia cautions

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A Russian flag waves outside one of the Kremlin towers on Monday.
A Russian flag waves outside one of the Kremlin towers on Monday.Credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV - AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Most of the world's attention is naturally focused on the horrific images from the combat zones in Ukraine: bombed-out buildings, dead and wounded people, panic in the streets and an endless column of armored vehicles from Russia, winding down the highway heading south to Kyiv. But the dramatic week in Eastern Europe brought with it some potential for even worse news. Russian President Vladimir Putin has escalated his nuclear threat rhetoric together with the alert level for Russia’s nuclear forces. International experts are already describing the resulting situation as a developing nuclear crisis that could prove to be the worst since the end of the Cold War.

Prof. Dima Adamsky of Herzliya’s Reichman University is one of those experts. From our long acquaintance, I can say that Adamsky, who recently published a book on the topic (“Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics, and Strategy”) is a man who chooses his words with great care. But in a conversation with Haaretz Wednesday, he sounded even more worried than he was a week ago, when the ground offensive began – his appraisals from then have since been borne out.)

The outbreak of the war, he said, already contradicted many of the early assessments in the West as to Putin’s intentions. Another miscalculation may place Russia on the path to nuclear escalation. Adamsky rests his analysis on the Russian president’s unusual statement on Sunday that accompanied his order to raise the alert level. Alongside the harsh rhetoric, the religious and historical terms in which Putin couches the conflict, and the military friction on the ground, he sees potential for significant danger.

Adamsky compares the current crisis to three previous escalations that involved nuclear threats between the Soviet Union and the United States: the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and a near-confrontation in 1983, when the Soviet Union feared a NATO invasion. Even before raising the alert level, Putin directed an explicit threat at Western leaders in a speech last week, warning “those who may be tempted to interfere” that “the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”

Adamsky believes that Putin’s behavior, while informed by messianic considerations, also stems from frustration at the slower-than-expected progress of Russian forces in the field, and his anger at the harsh sanctions with which the international community responded to the invasion. Putin was particularly furious over the promises of European states to provide weapons to Ukraine.

According to Adamsky, the mere act of increasing the level of alert, absent nuclear provocation from Russia’s enemies, constitutes an escalation, executed quickly in a manner that surprised the West. Among the steps Putin may consider next, according to Adamsky, are a nuclear weapons test, the use of hypersonic missiles and even the deployment of nuclear missiles in Moscow-friendly countries such as Kazakhstan, Belarus or (in a step that is sure to trouble Israel deeply) Syria.

Adamsky judges that Putin seeks to end the war only on terms that are favorable to Russia and that he is willing to take the risk of sending explicit nuclear signals in order to guarantee such an outcome. These could come, for example, in response to a Western decision to send volunteer forces to aid Ukraine. “The combination of messianic intentions and nuclear signaling is particularly dangerous,” Adamsky tells Haaretz. “It doesn’t mean that Putin is insane. To him, there is value to an intentional projection of irrationality toward Ukraine and the West. For all these reasons, we are approaching the most dangerous moment of this crisis.”

Fiona Hill, who holds a doctorate in history from Harvard, is among the leading U.S. experts on Putin’s Russia. She gained unsought-for global attention in November 2019, when she testified as a U.S. Natonal Security Council official during the first impeachment proceeding of President Donald Trump, over his dealings with Ukraine. In an interview with Politico this week, she gave assessments similar to those of Adamsky, taking them perhaps a step further. Putin, she said, is trying to take down the entire world order.

“Well, we’re right there. ... he’s making it very clear that nuclear is on the table,” Hill said when asked how close we are to a nuclear conflict. “The thing about Putin is, if he has an instrument, he wants to use it. Why have it if you can’t?," she said, going on to mention Russia’s use of radioactive polonium to poison dissidents. “So if anybody thinks that Putin wouldn’t use something that he’s got that is unusual and cruel, think again. Every time you think, ‘No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, he would, and he wants us to know that, of course.”

One may assume that to most news consumers, who have grown into a post-Soviet world (and with it a certain reduction of nuclear powers’ arsenals), the scenario sketched by Adamsky and Hill seems clearly unreasonable. Yet times change. The initial reports from Wuhan, China, a bit over two years ago, sounded like distant rolling thunder, only marginally connected to our lives here.

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