- On Wednesday, Vladimir Putin escalated his war in Ukraine with a direct threat of nuclear war.
- But experts say the threat signals that Putin is exhausting 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 bold warning is less a legitimate show of force, and more a sign that Russia’s military is weakening, experts say.
On Wednesday, more than seven months into the war, Putin announced partial military mobilization in an effort to address Russia’s manpower problem in the wake of the recent Ukraine victory. During his televised speech, the president baselessly accused the West of threatening to use nuclear weapons and responded by acknowledging Russia’s own nuclear arsenal.
“To those who allow themselves to make such statements about Russia, I would like to remind you that our country also has different means of destruction and for some elements is more modern than NATO countries,” he said.
“And if our country’s territorial integrity is threatened, we will certainly use all means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a sham.”
Putin’s nuclear threat is a scare tactic aimed at Ukraine’s allies.
Between military casualties, declining troop morale and changing public attitudes, it’s understandable why Putin would focus on his warheads, said Simon Miles, an assistant professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a Soviet-Union and U.S.-historian. Soviet relations.
“The poor performance of Russia’s military on the battlefield in Ukraine is an important reminder that any claim to great power status may be predicated almost entirely on Russia’s arsenal of nuclear weapons,” Miles said.
Putin’s message, Miles posits, is also directed at Ukraine’s global supporters.
“Putin has tried and failed many times to break the resolve of Ukrainian supporters, and his latest threat is no different,” Miles said. “It is clear that he is becoming increasingly aware of how limited his real military options are in this war.”
Ukraine scored one of its biggest victories earlier this month, launching two simultaneous offensives in the northeast and south. Effective efforts to recover occupied territories. Reports from the frontline indicated that Russian troops had fled under Ukraine’s strong performance, leaving the country’s military on hold.
“The Russians are desperate, disorganized and unmotivated, just trying to survive,” University of Southern California professor Robert English, who studies Russia, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, told Insider. “Ukrainian war spirit and American weapons industry combined to thwart [Putin’s] Plan in a big way.”
Russia’s prospects are slim, especially given ongoing Western military aid to Ukraine. The most recent invasion of the country, carried out by Ukrainian forces, was made possible by US and UK intelligence, tactics and weapons.
“As long as the West is supplying better weapons – and we are supplying more and better weapons – the pressure on Russian forces is going to increase,” English said.
Experts say it is unlikely that Putin will act on his threats.
Putin’s threat of “civilization-extinguishing power,” as Miles puts it, doesn’t mean the U.S. or any other Ukrainian ally should turn around.
“It’s one thing to threaten — to use these weapons in a way that serves the Kremlin’s goals,” Miles said.
A Russian display of a nuclear weapon would be less likely to break the will of the West, he said, and might even strengthen it. Meanwhile, using the weapon in Ukraine would have devastating consequences for Ukrainian troops — but also at a cost to Russian troops fighting in the country.
Multiple experts previously told Insider that Russia is unlikely to use nuclear weapons, even if it threatens. Miles added that the logistics alone make the prospect less risky.
“Russia’s nuclear weapons are staged in hardened shelters across the country, including in the far west near Ukraine,” he said. “The process of transitioning into readiness, meeting the warhead on the delivery platform, will create a lot of observable events for US intelligence and an opportunity for Washington to make it clear to the Kremlin what a bad idea it is.”