An expert on Russia’s nuclear approach, and how Putin is raising the stakes — even if risk of a nuclear war is still low.
“In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a speech Wednesday. “This is not a bluff.”
When a nuclear-armed state says it’s willing to use “all weapon systems available to us,” it is impossible not to take the threat seriously. For everyone involved in the war in Ukraine — Russia, Ukraine, and the West — Putin, at least rhetorically, raised the stakes of the conflict he started.
But for Russia watchers and nuclear experts, Putin’s warning about protecting Russia’s “territorial integrity” also added a new degree of unpredictability. Russian-backed officials in four Ukrainian regions partially occupied by Russian troops will soon hold referenda on formally joining Russia. Western countries backing Ukraine have already said they won’t recognize these sham votes. The Russian army also does not have full control over any of these territories — Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson — but Moscow will almost certainly use these referenda as a pretext for formally annexing the territories. If that happens, as it’s expected to, some experts fear that Moscow will interpret any Ukrainian efforts to retake these lands as bringing the fight directly against Russia.