The risk of Russia resorting to nuclear weapons in its confrontation with a NATO-supported Ukraine has been present from the outset. Three days after the Russian troops invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, President Vladimir Putin ordered his military to “put on high alert the nuclear deterrent forces”. Interestingly, this announcement coincided with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s declaration of sending a delegation to Belarus for talks with Russia “without conditions”.
Washington has been downplaying the risk, primarily because it is uncertain how to respond to such a threat. Understandably, given the doctrine of MAD (mutually assured destruction) between Washington and Moscow, no American president would risk New York and Chicago to deter a nuclear attack on distant Ukraine or even retaliate in kind after such an attack.
The latest warning from Russia that it might resort to nuclear weapons came on 30 July 2023 from former President Dmitry Medvedev who is currently the deputy chair of the Russian Security Council headed by Putin. “Just imagine that the offensive in tandem with NATO succeeded and ended up with part of our land being taken away. Then we would have to use nuclear weapons by virtue of the stipulations of the Russian Presidential Decree,” said Medvedev. “There simply would not be any other solution. Our enemies should pray to our fighters that they do not allow the world to go up in nuclear flames.”
The latest warning regarding the potential use of nuclear weapons came on 30 July 2023 from former President Dmitry Medvedev, who currently serves as the deputy chair of the Russian Security Council headed by Putin. Medvedev stated, “Just imagine that the offensive in tandem with NATO succeeded and ended up with part of our land being taken away. Then we would have to use nuclear weapons by virtue of the stipulations of the Russian Presidential Decree.” He added, “There simply wouldn’t be any other solution. Our enemies should pray to our fighters that they do not allow the world to go up in nuclear flames.”
Referring to Russia’s nuclear doctrine, Medvedev further elaborated on the grounds on which Russia would be entitled to use nuclear weapons. The first ground, he said, is a case of nuclear missile strikes on Russia, the second is the use of other nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies, and the third is an attack on critical infrastructure that paralyze their nuclear deterrent forces.
“And the fourth case is when an act of aggression is committed against Russia and its allies, which jeopardized the existence of the country itself, even without the use of nuclear weapons, that is, with the use of conventional weapons,” he emphasized.
Let us contextualize the latest warning from Medvedev. On that day, there was a drone attack on a building housing numerous government offices. Moscow has seen similar attacks in the past, but this attack on 30 July had a marked difference: Ukraine, for the first time, claimed indirect responsibility, with President Zelenskyy characterizing them as an “inevitable, natural, and absolutely fair process” during the ongoing war between the countries.
Regarding the US’s public reaction, there is a contradiction not widely highlighted by the Western media. On 19 June 2022, President Joe Biden denounced Russia’s relocation of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus and acknowledged that Russia’s threat to use such weapons was ‘real’. However, the Pentagon has been downplaying this threat. The Washington Post’s report of 2 November 2022, titled ‘Russian military leaders’ talk of nuclear attack rattles US calculus’, reflects the dilemma faced by the White House.
Now, let us explore potential scenarios for Putin’s decision to resort to threats. Firstly, if and when the Ukrainian counter-offensive advances too close to mainland Russia or even Crimea and the annexed part of Donbas. Secondly, a series of successful drone attacks on Moscow and elsewhere. And thirdly, as an attempt to spoil Biden’s chances of re-election.
These scenarios are not necessarily exclusive. For instance, envision October 2024, one month before the November presidential voting, with Democrat Biden and his Republican rival Donald Trump as candidates. Ukrainian forces are making advancements, and drone attacks on Moscow persist. Putin issues an ultimatum:
“Ukrainian forces at coordinates X Y advancing towards Russia should stop and start reversing in 24 hours. Otherwise, consequences will follow.”
Biden will be compelled to ask Zelenskyy to obey the ultimatum, while Trump will argue that Biden’s handling of the war has humiliated America. The undecided voters, comprising about 10%, may decide to support Trump, leading to his victory. With Trump in the White House, Putin offers a unilateral cease-fire and proposes talks. This raises the question: What will Zelenskyy do? Additionally, Germany, facing an economic recession, and other European nations might urge Zelenskyy to agree to a cease-fire without conditions, given the new political landscape with Trump as president.
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