Analysis. Putin has hinted at the prospect of a nuclear attack publicly. But nuclear scientists in Russia, analysts elsewhere and even Zelensky himself say that’s not likely.

In Moscow, the nuclear threat may not be what it seems

The nuclear threat that has been much talked about in the media has produced a lot of speculation, some valid, some less so. No one is sure how Putin and his government intend to proceed in this regard, but one thing is certain: setting off a nuclear device would be unlikely to resolve a situation which is becoming increasingly critical for Russia. As even Zelensky has said repeatedly, Putin is not suicidal, and a nuclear attack would most likely mean his death – if not physical, at least political.

I’ve just returned from Moscow, where I had meetings with scientists involved in the nuclear field (both civilian and military), who all agreed that the increasingly heated speeches of some Russian politicians can be seen as looking for a glimmer of dialogue with the United States and, secondarily, with the European Union. It often happens in politics that one must be more suspicious of reassurances than of threats.

Setting off a nuclear weapon, even one of limited power, would be a serious tactical error on Moscow’s part, especially now that Ukrainian successes have lifted the nation’s morale. Detonating an atomic bomb would only massively buoy Kiev’s nationalist fury, multiplying the ongoing offensives, and, in the end, would have an exactly opposite effect to that intended by the Russian government.

Putin would also risk international isolation, something which Russia has not yet undergone, despite Western media proclamations to this effect. India, and even more so China, would move away from the spurious form of partnership that binds them to Moscow.

The last thing Beijing wants is further destabilization of the international chessboard, as Xi Jinping also stated in his speech at the opening of the 20th CPC Congress. Chinese policy has always been to consider Ukraine and its borders inviolable, not out of solidarity with Kyiv, but out of political expediency: any breakup or secession of Ukrainian regions would be a dangerous precedent for a country that already has major problems with its minorities. This is why, from Beijing’s perspective, separatist referendums have never been viewed positively, in whichever country they are held. Back in 1991, as people in the West were toasting the collapse of the Soviet Union, 1991, China, pragmatic as ever, warned that the voids of government control that would be created with the new republics, unable to police their own territories, would create dangerous situations, as has indeed happened since then. It’s about time we started listening to Chinese policymakers as well.

China is engaged in an immense energy transition effort in which nuclear power plays a prominent and highly visible part: public opinion tends not to distinguish between civilian and military nuclear power, and the detonation of an atomic bomb, even of of limited power, would shake Beijing’s energy program as well, in the face of street protests and political proclamations.

NATO’s response to a Russian nuclear attack would be devastating, while weapons of similar kind are very unlikely to be used. As Stoltenberg has repeatedly said (not because he believes in the prospect of a Russian nuclear attack, but because he’s being pressed by journalists), the alliance would prefer striking back with conventional weapons, which – just for the sake of exploring a scenario – would not cause less devastation than an atomic weapon (see Dresden or Tokyo), but instill less psychological fear and are less subject to ethical condemnation.

We should also recall that at least one of the three key men who have the Russian nuclear codes, Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, has always been much more realistic and willing to engage in dialogue than his other two colleagues (Putin and Sergei Shoigu). Unlike them, he knows full well that Russia’s military arsenal is a great one on paper, but technologically backward and inefficient in terms of destructive power. Many of the launchers that are supposed to carry the warheads are inoperable due to lack of maintenance and a shortage of spare parts from the military industry, the main target of Western sanctions, which has not had steady supplies for many months.

Thus, the current likelihood of an atomic threat remains very remote – while it cannot be absolutely ruled out – and the repeated proclamations from the Russian side, not so much by Putin but by his cabinet colleagues, are instead to be interpreted as a desperate search for a way out of a poorly prepared and even worse managed military adventure which wouldn’t lose face for Moscow.

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