Thursday briefing: How to make sense of Putin’s nuclear threats

·12-min read

Good morning. Threats of nuclear war from Vladimir Putin are never likely to go unnoticed, and the Russian president’s speech yesterday is all over the front pages of British newspapers this morning.

Putin said that “when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal” and added “It’s not a bluff”. That led to condemnations from both Joe Biden and Liz Truss at the United Nations general assembly, with Truss saying at 2am UK time that the Russian president’s “bogus claims” were simply about “trying to justify his catastrophic failures”.

But there were other aspects of Putin’s speech that could turn out to be more consequential, from the suggestion that occupied Ukraine will soon be part of Russia to an announcement that hundreds of thousands of reservists will now be called up to the military.

So how should we view Putin’s threats and the west’s response – and what impact will new military service obligations have in Russia? For today’s newsletter, I asked the Guardian’s foreign correspondent Peter Beaumont and world affairs editor Julian Borger to explain how they’re thinking about the answers to those questions. That’s after the rest of the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Economy | Britain’s mounting debts will be unsustainable if the government presses ahead with sweeping tax cuts in a mini-budget on Friday, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies thinktank. The IFS said government borrowing would miss Treasury targets legislated in January.

  2. Fracking | Fracking in the UK will be impossible at any meaningful scale and will not help with the energy price crisis, the founder of the UK’s first fracking company has warned. Chris Cornelius, the founder of Cuadrilla Resources, told the Guardian that he believed the government’s support for it is merely a “political gesture”.

  3. Football | A statement from Uefa blaming Liverpool fans for the delays in the Champions League final in Paris was pre-prepared before the day of the match, the Guardian has learned. The accusation outraged Liverpool fans, many of whom were kept in dangerous queues and subjected to riot policing. See the visual investigation here.

  4. Policing | A serving Metropolitan police officer and a former officer accused of sharing racist and misogynistic messages in a WhatsApp group with Sarah Everard’s killer have been found guilty of what a judge described as “sickening” and “abhorrent” behaviour.

  5. Health | No patient should have to wait more than two weeks to see a GP, the new health secretary will demand on Thursday. Thérèse Coffey’s plan was criticised by GPs’ representatives who said it would increase the burden on doctors without improving care.

In depth: ‘You can see how this could turn out to be his Vietnam’

A billboard that reads “Serving Russia is a real job” in St Petersburg.
A billboard that reads ‘Serving Russia is a real job’ in St Petersburg. Photograph: Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

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Why did Putin make this speech yesterday?

Ukrainian officials have been expecting an escalation for some time, said Peter Beaumont. “Even when I was last in Ukraine a couple of months ago, they thought it was on the cards.” But with winter approaching – and with it the prospect of a forced pause in aggressive operations – alongside disastrous recent news for Russia in Kharkiv, where Ukraine has rapidly taken back control of about 6,000 sq km, it finally came.

News of the mobilisation of military reservists and references to nuclear weapons can hardly be read as good news for Ukraine or its allies – but it does suggest “an awareness that actually the Kremlin can’t keep pretending things are going well in the ‘special operation’,” Peter said. As Keir Giles, a fellow of the Chatham House Russia and Eurasia programme, wrote in the Guardian yesterday: “The speech is a further recognition that Russia has been unable to win on the battlefield – so, to defeat Ukraine, it has to win elsewhere.”

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What does Putin want to achieve?

While the most obviously alarming feature of Putin’s speech was his reference to nuclear weapons, it has to be understood through a subtler aspect of what he said: references to Russian “territorial integrity” and a new emphasis on attempts to frame his invasion as a defensive operation. The speech coincided with an announcement that four Russian-occupied regions will hold referendums this weekend on joining the Russian Federation – widely viewed as a sham pretext for annexation.

“You cannot separate the two,” Peter said. “By claiming he is fighting a defensive war, Putin is trying to set the stage for annexing these regions, ‘freezing’ the conflict, and then declaring that they are now part of Russia and under the nuclear umbrella.”

That is unlikely to persuade Ukraine to simply give up. “After all, they’ve already attacked Crimea, which is annexed Russia territory,” Peter said. Instead, “Putin wants the more cautious nations in the western coalition to think: ‘Are we going to be made to go too far?’ But I’m not sure that’s going to work. So far it appears to have just reinforced the view that this is a rogue regime.”

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How did Biden and Truss respond to the nuclear threat?

US president Joe Biden at the United Nations general assembly on Wednesday.
Joe Biden at the United Nations general assembly on Wednesday. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Initially, at least, it doesn’t look as if saying “it’s not a bluff” has been as slam-dunk a proof of authenticity as Putin appears to have hoped.

“It is a consequential thing, to talk about a nuclear attack, and you should never treat it as absurd,” said Peter. “But on balance you do have to think about it as a bluff, whatever he says. I don’t have that view of Putin as mad: he has acknowledged before that nuclear war is unthinkable and unfightable. And the Kremlin knows that any kind of nuclear escalation” – like exploding a warhead over the Black Sea – “would mean that the rest of the world, including China, saw this conflict in the west’s terms, not Russia’s terms.”

That’s the context for Liz Truss’s and Joe Biden’s speeches at the United Nations general assembly, which acknowledged the gravity of Putin’s speech – but also insisted that his nuclear threats would not cause any rift. Truss accused Putin of “doubling down” but accused him of “sabre-rattling threats” and concluded: “This will not work.” Biden said Putin’s “overt nuclear threats against Europe” showed “a reckless disregard for the responsibilities of the non-proliferation regime.”

Liz Truss addresses the U.N. General Assembly.
Liz Truss addresses the U.N. General Assembly. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

“It’s a delicate balance,” said Julian Borger, the Guardian’s world affairs editor, speaking after Truss’ speech this morning. “And those were the briefings from the US – that we’re not going to be deterred, but we can see the dynamics of escalation and we’re not going to overplay our hand. The thinking is that they need to continue to lay down their own lines for what is acceptable and what is not, and ignore Putin’s – not to reward him for his sabre-rattling.”

In practice, what that means is maintaining that an attack on Russian territory by Ukraine would not have western support – but that Putin’s attempt to define parts of Ukraine as Russian via sham referendums will not be accepted.

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How will it be received in Russia?

While nuclear threats are bound to preoccupy western audiences, the announcement of a partial mobilisation is likely to have more impact at home. Bringing a new 300,000 troops into the conflict might sound ominous, but “it doesn’t actually make a huge amount of sense”, said Peter.

“The most useful part is ensuring that contracted soldiers who had been planning to leave the military after six months stay in the campaign. And there’s a view that you can use these mobilised forces to take on jobs that combat soldiers are doing, and sharpen your capability on the frontlines. But it seems pretty fanciful to think they can easily absorb this many troops.” Ed Arnold, of the thinktank Rusi, tells Dan Sabbagh in this piece that “operationally, this won’t make any difference this year and probably not into next year ... the infrastructure isn’t there in terms of equipping that level of force at the moment.”

Police officers in Novosibirsk following calls for people to protest against partial mobilisation.
Police officers in Novosibirsk following calls for people to protest against partial mobilisation. Photograph: Rostislav Netisov/AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Peter said, the announcement “immediately creates a class of people whose view of the war is suddenly a lot more personal than it was before”.

That is not likely to lead to outright rebellion, Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center says in this piece by Pjotr Sauer about the domestic reaction. “Russia’s repressed society will accept this obediently,” he said. “They will deal with the issue in their own practical way, avoiding the draft however they can.”

But in the hours after Putin’s speech, more than 1,300 people had been arrested during anti-war protests in dozens of cities, according to the independent OVD-Info protest monitoring group. Another immediate index of that impact: direct flights to countries allowing Russians visa-free entry were sold-out on Wednesday morning, while searches for phrases like “how to break your arm” and “how to avoid the draft” rocketed. In this piece, Andrew Roth hears from some of the dismayed Russians who could be affected by the draft, one of whom says: “I’d rather leave than fight in this war.”

“I don’t like predicting things,” Peter said. “So this is only a possibility. But when you think of 300,000 troops being recruited who would plainly rather be doing anything else, you can see how this could turn out to be his Vietnam.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • Zoe Williams compellingly lays out the case for marriage sabbaticals. Once we move away from the idea that marriage is a linearly harmonious experience, Williams argues, there can be more room for growth and fulfilment. Nimo

  • Ahead of today’s expected announcement of an interest rate rise by the Bank of England, William Davies says good riddance to the era of very low rates: “One of the most extraordinary economic policy experiments in modern history,” and an “unpleasant form of economic progress that breeds paranoia and resentment for all”. Archie

  • At least 3.4 million children in Pakistan need lifesaving care after devastating floods have left them with waterborne diseases. Shah Meer Baloch spoke to some of the flood-affected victims who cannot afford healthcare for their children. Nimo

  • With a coalition led by the far-right Brothers of Italy party expected to win comfortably in Sunday’s Italian elections, Julian Coman has an alarming report from the swing seat of Sesto San Giovanni. “They don’t want to acknowledge that times have changed around here,” one far right activist says. “They’re still in mourning!” Archie

  • As Donald Trump’s legal drama continues, Trevor Timm reminds commentators to be wary of cheering on the law that is being used to prosecute him. The Espionage Act, Timm argues, is used to target journalists and whistleblowers: “I hope Trump is held accountable … But let’s not prop up one of the most pernicious laws on the books to do it.” Nimo

Sport

Football | The Football Association believes it has assurances that LGBT+ couples who hold hands in Qatar during the World Cup will not face prosecution. Qatar’s laws, which criminalise same-sex relationships, have raised considerable concern for the safety of LGBT+ fans.

Rugby | English club rugby has been plunged further into turmoil with Wasps facing the prospect of relegation after they failed to repay a debt of £35m due to bondholders in May. Meanwhile, the Worcester Warriors were told they would be suspended if they could not produce a “credible plan” for their own financial crisis by Monday.

Football | Scotland produced a superb second-half showing to beat Ukraine 3-0 in the Nations League. A goal from John McGinn and two from Lyndon Dykes secured the victory.

The front pages

Putin’s sabre-rattling speech takes top spot in most papers in one form or another. The Guardian carries a picture of Putin but the story is about Joe Biden’s reaction to the Russian president’s threats. The headline is: “Biden condemns Putin’s imperial aims as Moscow raises the stakes”. The Times adds more snarl in its grab of Putin’s speech but same headline idea: “Biden condemns nuclear threat to West”. The Mail chose the Liz Truss angle with lines from her UN speech. “We won’t be cowed by Putin’s nuclear threats” is the headline. The Telegraph takes the same approach, with “‘Desperate’ Putin will be defeated, says Truss”. The Sun has it both ways, reporting the release of British prisoners of war in Ukraine, plus Putin’s threats, with: “Good news, Vlad news”. The FT says “Putin makes nuclear threat as he mobilises army reserves for war”. Metro looks at the anti-war protests in Russia with “Russians see red at Vlad”. The Express reports on the health secretary’s pledge that GPs must see patients within two weeks. The i looks ahead with analysis of Friday’s mini-budget. “Warning over Truss gamble on tax cuts” is the headline.

Today in Focus

Liverpool fans stuck outside the ground show their match tickets off at the Stade de France, Paris.
Liverpool fans stuck outside the ground show their match tickets off at the Stade de France, Paris. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA

How the Champions League final nearly ended in disaster

Liverpool fans attending this year’s Champions League final faced a crush outside the stadium that held stark echoes of the worst day in the club’s history. David Conn has spent months investigating what happened.

Cartoon of the day | Steve Bell

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

The Indigenous population in the remote Tiwi islands have won a historic court battle against oil and gas company Santos. The Tiwi islanders complained that Santos began drilling for gas in their traditional waters without consulting them. Santos has been given two weeks to shut down and remove its rig, derailing its $4.7bn project. Dennis Tipakalippa (pictured above), a senior lawman of the Munipi clan who brought the case against Santos, told the court his clan and other traditional owners have “sea country” that they have spiritual connection to. After the ruling, Tipakalippa made his position clear: “We want Santos and all mining companies to remember – we are powerful, we will fight for our land and sea country, for our future generations, no matter how hard and how long.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.