“I’m not bluffing.” Three words – uttered by Vladimir Putin in his address to the nation yesterday – that appeared to threaten nuclear armageddon.
His brag about Russia’s stash of “weapons of destruction” had his loyal media lieutenants salivating, with Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the state-owned broadcaster RT, predicting either “the threshold of our imminent victory or the threshold of a nuclear war”.
So is he bluffing or not? The assumption in the West appears to be that he is and that, like Nikita Khrushchev 60 years ago, Putin will blink first. At the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, Joe Biden called his bluff and vowed: “We will stand in solidarity against Russia’s aggression. Period.” Other Western leaders uttered similar sentiments.
Putin claimed repeatedly after invading Ukraine that there had been no military attack. So when he says he’s not bluffing, why should we believe him?
When I asked one of his ardent supporters, Natalya Narochnitskaya, a former politician, on last night’s Channel 4 News whether he really was prepared to use nuclear weapons, she answered without hesitation: “No, no”, insisting he was “very sober with regard to preventing universal human calamity and catastrophe for the whole globe… you should not be fearful of course with regard to possible Russian attack.”
There remains, though, a great deal of fear that perhaps the West’s response smacks of dangerous complacency, or at least an attempt to put on a brave face so as not to scare people further.
I remember back in June, the defence secretary Ben Wallace mused on a phrase doing the rounds at that time: “Putin doesn’t lie.” That might have sounded pretty laughable, but Wallace pointed out that the Russian leader had made plain his intentions over Ukraine some time ago, and we just hadn’t believed him. “Putin says lots of threats. He often carries them out,” Wallace warned. Assuming the defence secretary hasn’t changed his mind, he must be seriously worried now.
Dr Fiona Hill, a Russia expert and former member of the US National Security Council, has been expressing the view for months that Putin wouldn’t hold back from going nuclear. “The thing about Putin is, if he has an instrument, he wants to use it. Why have it if you can’t?
“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,” Hill told Politico as long ago as March.
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The risk, several months into a seemingly disastrous military campaign which has killed many thousands of his own people, is that Putin may now have nothing to lose. As extraordinarily brave Russian citizens take to the streets to protest about his war, he may realise time is running out for him. And who knows what he’s capable of when he’s confronting his own end?
Let’s not comfort ourselves that a “tactical” nuclear weapon in a war zone is any less catastrophic than a “strategic” attack capable of taking out a city. Any nuclear assault is a catastrophe. And Putin watchers have a hunch he knows that. I hope they’re right.
Not long after the start of the war, I asked Nina Khrushcheva, great-granddaughter of Khrushchev, if she thought Putin would trigger nuclear war. There was a long pause before she answered that she hoped he wouldn’t. The pause was powerful. Because when mutually assured destruction is a genuine prospect, hope is really the only weapon left in our arsenal.
Cathy Newman is presenter and investigations editor of ‘Channel 4 News’