Ukraine war: The boy who cried wolf - should Putin's nuclear threat be believed?

·2-min read

Vladimir Putin's decision to forward deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus has made headlines around the world - but forward-basing of nuclear weapons has limited military benefit.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles have virtually unlimited range, so forward-deploying nuclear weapons to Belarus territory is not driven by military necessity.

Symbolically, it provides a nuclear "shield" for Belarus.

However, the primary benefit is maintaining the omnipresent threat of nuclear confrontation at the forefront of Western leaders' minds, to deter continued western military support for Ukraine.

Ukraine war - follow the latest developments

Although NATO described this latest threat as "dangerous Russian rhetoric", the US response was more sanguine - they saw no indication that Putin was planning to deploy or employ nuclear weapons.

So, this appears to be further sabre-rattling by Putin - but at what cost? In Aesop's Tales, The Boy Who Cried Wolf gave numerous false alarms - such that when he spoke the truth he was not believed.

What is Putin's next move?

The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) while abhorrent, has deterred war between nuclear states. However, non-proliferation agreements - to avoid such weapons falling into the "wrong" hands" - never envisaged that nuclear states might abuse their status to invade non-nuclear states.

If Russia was to prevail with such a strategy, nations such as North Korea, China and others would feel emboldened. Nuclear weapons would be the only guarantee of security, thus creating increased tensions between the "haves" and "have-nots".

Putin's invasion of Ukraine is not going well, and he will do anything to deter the West from providing (potentially decisive) military support.

But, if a nuclear-armed bully prevails, global security is threatened.

Ukraine's forthcoming spring offensive could threaten Russian-occupied Crimea - which has historical significance for Putin.

Having threatened nuclear conflict for the past year, but seen the West continue supporting Ukraine unabated, expect Putin to escalate his nuclear rhetoric and potentially bring his nuclear weapons to readiness, just as happened in the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962.

Then, with the US military at DEFCON 2, eventually sense prevailed.

Click to subscribe to Ukraine War Diaries wherever you get your podcasts

To date, nations like China and India have avoided overt criticism of Russia's Ukraine adventures, but all have condemned any threat of nuclear escalation. Putin will know that nuclear escalation risks further international isolation, but the war in Ukraine is personal to him, and he loves brinkmanship.

But, to be clear, it remains hard to imagine any circumstances in which Putin will pre-emptively use nuclear weapons - he has too much to lose; however, escalating his alarming rhetoric in the pursuit of battlefield success remains an option. Meanwhile, China, North Korea (and others) will be watching intently to see how the West navigates this new challenge - the legacy of this conflict could be profound.

Putin has made clear his intent to keep the threat of nuclear war at the forefront of this conflict - but he may judge that he needs to do more than simply cry "Wolf" to achieve his objectives.