Defcon Watch: Russia ratchets up nuke rhetoric
As Moscow's military losses mount up in Ukraine, so does threat of WWIII
The Russians have been threatening to pull the nuke card since the beginning of March, when it first became clear that their “special military operation” in Ukraine was not going to plan—in fact, far from it. Things haven’t gotten much better, even with their shift away from Kyiv and to the Donbas (where they should have focused all along, and would have likely had the quick clean sweep that Putin had anticipated going after the entire country rather than the one region that is—with its natural gas reserves and promise of a land corridor to Crimea—actually of strategic value to Russia, with a much greater proportion of pro-Russian Ukrainians to welcome Russian troops as “peacekeepers” under different circumstances, but that train has already long left the station, and Putin decided to go big or go home instead), with the Russian military still suffering a brutal attrition rate that at this point has hobbled the Kremlin’s conventional war-making capability for years—perhaps decades—to come. That’s great, right?
As The Foreign Agenda stated just over a week ago: “The more the situation in Ukraine worsens for Russian forces, the more desperate the Kremlin will become—and the greater the desperation, the greater the possibility that Putin will order the use of a tactical WMD…” Or, it turns out, even a strategic one. In the last week since that article, Russia has tested its latest, greatest MIRV-nuke and hypersonic-capable Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, and—in just the last twenty-four hours—issued three separate warnings of nuclear war, specifically citing US and NATO-ally activities in Ukraine, and defining that activity as conducting “in essence…a war with Russia through a proxy and [as] arming that proxy.” This according to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking on Russian state television in an interview in which he further warned that the threat of nuclear conflict and WWIII between the US/NATO and Russia “should not be underestimated.”
So, now it’s not just Russia’s potential use of a tactical WMD that might trigger greater conflict, but US/NATO military/defensive support for Ukrainian forces in their war against Russian forces. The moment Russia decides that any such support poses a threat not just to its operation in Ukraine, but to the existence of the Russian state itself through the failure of that operation, or even the further degradation of Russian forces to the point that they are incapable of defending “the motherland”—thus heightening the threat to its existence to an unacceptable degree—will prove the tipping point that could trigger direct conflict between the United States and Russia and very likely the rapid escalation to all-out nuclear war.
Meanwhile, Russian media mouthpiece Vladimir Solovyov last night urged Vladimir Putin to use his newest nuclear-tipped toy to wipe out Great Britain, saying: “One Sarmat missile means one less Great Britain,” while Putin himself just today hinted once again at the possible use of nuclear weapons should the US and NATO continue to “interfere” in Ukraine. More importantly, however, he took the opportunity to clearly define such interference as “an unacceptable strategic threat to Russia,” meaning a potential threat to the existence of the state itself, which, according to Russian strategic defense doctrine, would allow the use of WMD—namely, strategic nukes—in defense of the state.
To put it lightly.
Alex Holstein is the co-author of Warfighter: The Story of an American Fighting Man, due out May 15, 2022, from Lyons Press, and available for pre-order NOW at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. He holds an MSc in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies from the London School of Economics, where he wrote his thesis on the Soviet KGB.