Nuclear fears surrounding the uprising against Putin

The uprising led by the “warlords” of the Wagner Group highlights, once again, the imminent and existential risks that instability and the escalation of internal tensions in a nuclear power like Russia.

Ever since Russia’s full-scale invasion of the Ukraine began last year, and especially since it became clear that Putin would not achieve the quick victory he apparently hoped for, a nightmare scenario has unfolded. Putin could be ousted from the Kremlin, leaving behind a fragmented Russia where various “warlords” vie for power, including control of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

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Although Yevgeny Prigozhin’s uprising did not materialize, there is no guarantee that another will not followespecially in light of the support that the Wagner leader seems to enjoy among some segments of the Russian population.

But, even if Putin remains in the Kremlin, Russian nuclear weapons pose an imminent risk. After all, it is the threat of nuclear escalation that has prevented the West from intervening militarily to defend Ukraine and has forced Nato to carefully gauge military support for Ukrainian fighters.

The possibilities of using nuclear weapons

Indeed, Putin has repeatedly reminded the West to be careful. In 2014, when Russia invaded the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea, the country modified its military doctrine to include the use of nuclear weapons in response to a conventional attack that threatens the existence of the Russian state.
Four years later, Putin reiterated his commitment to that principle. It would be a “global catastrophe,” he said, but a world without Russia doesn’t have to exist at all.

And Putin continued to escalate his belligerent nuclear rhetoric. Last September, in his speech announcing the annexation of four more Ukrainian regions, he made heated denunciations of the US military record, including its status as the only country to have used nuclear weapons.

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Earlier this month, Putin reconfirmed his willingness to use nuclear weapons to protect the “existence of the Russian state”, its “territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty”. He also noted that he views Russia’s massive arsenal as a “competitive advantage” against Nato. In February, Russia withdrew from New Start, the last nuclear arms control treaty with the United States that it was in.

Putin’s provocative nuclear rhetoric has of late been replicated by other prominent Russians. In a recent comment, the honorary chairman of the Russian Foreign and Defense Policy Council, Sergei Karaganov, defended pre-emptive nuclear strikes. By hitting “a bunch of targets in various countries,” he says, Russia could “bring sense to those who have lost their minds” and “break the will of the West.”

That is a shocking proposition. But even more troubling are the inflammatory statements by historically moderate figures. Dmitri Trenin, former director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and considered a voice of reason in Russia, advocated firing the “nuclear bullet.” Trenin suggests that a preemptive strike could “dispel the mythology” about NATO’s collective defense clause and lead to the dissolution of the alliance.

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Undoubtedly, some dissenting voices have emerged from those ideas. Figures such as Fyodor Lukyanov, president of the Presidium of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy; Ivan Timofeev, director general of the Russian Council for International Affairs, and Alexei Arbatov of the Russian Academy of Sciences have challenged Karaganov’s logic.

For now, Putin says that Russia does not need to use nuclear weapons, at least not to defend the existence of the Russian state. But a “warlord” like Prigozhin might not agree. In any case, the use of lower-yield “tactical” nuclear weapons in Ukraine seems increasingly likely. With its conventional arsenal running low, Russia recently delivered a batch of such weapons to the territory of its closest ally, Belarus, and plans to send more.

In April, a third of Russians polled by the Levada Center thought their leaders were prepared to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, although 86% of Russians believe that nuclear weapons should not be used under any circumstances.
Last week, US President Joe Biden acknowledged the “real” threat of Russia deploying tactical nuclear weapons.

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Such a move would make the world a much more dangerous place, especially if Putin is allowed to get away with it. If the West submits to Russia’s nuclear blackmail, more attacks could be expected, in Moldova and beyond.

The war in Ukraine has posed as a scenario not only the possible disintegration of Russia, but also a nuclear confrontation. similar to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which might prove impossible to defuse. In this context, the West must use all the tools at its disposal to assess the temperature of Russian internal discourse and gauge the severity of Russia’s “nuclear fever”.

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Of course, as the Prigozhin rebellion showed, anything can happen in Russia. And as Kremlin pundits learned from decades of reading Cold War tea leaves, it is impossible to determine whether the public statements and debates are indicative of a new consensus between the political and military elites. But the stakes are too high not to try

© Project Syndicate.

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