How Russia Decides to Go Nuclear
Deciphering the Way Moscow Handles Its Ultimate Weapon
On September 30, following a series of sham referendums held in occupied territory in Ukraine, the Russian government declared that four Ukrainian regions were now officially part of Russia. The annexation came amid a “partial” Russian mobilization that is in fact rapidly becoming a large-scale one and that has left many Russians aghast and anxious. With these moves, the war in Ukraine has entered a new stage in which the stakes have risen drastically.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is explicitly demonstrating that he is going to do whatever it takes to win, even at the risk of undermining his own regime. Blindly believing in his own rectitude, Putin may resort to nuclear weapons if events in Ukraine continue to confound his ambitions. The key question is whether Russia’s elites and broader society are prepared to accompany their president on this journey to hell, or if Putin, in doubling down on his disastrous gamble in Ukraine, has only paved the way for his own end.
Ukraine’s counterattack, launched at the end of August, has completely changed Putin’s calculations regarding how Russia should fight. His previous plan, based on the idea that Kyiv would not dare to carry out a full-fledged offensive on Russian positions, presumed that the Kremlin had plenty of time to establish itself in the territory it had occupied, while the Ukrainian government, exhausted by the war and with the economy in ruins, would sooner or later have to capitulate.
The strategic part of Putin’s plan remains the same. It envisages that Kyiv will fall, since his paramount purpose in this war is still to put an end to what he sees as the “anti-Russia” geopolitical project managed by the West and secure a long-term Russian presence on Ukrainian territory. The tactics Putin will use to achieve this goal, however, have been fundamentally revised. The military threats to Russian positions in Ukraine, based on the Kremlin’s miscalculations, have reached the point where the Kremlin has effectively issued an ultimatum to the world: either Russia wins Ukraine or it will resort to nuclear escalation.
This ultimatum has three major parts. The first is declaring stretches of Ukraine to be Russian territory. The annexation of four regions—Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia—means that Russia has artificially transformed its war to destroy Ukraine as an independent state into a war of self-defense against foreign military forces. The annexation is a form of protest against Western involvement in the Ukrainian conflict. It frames the West’s military aid to Ukraine as tantamount to aggression against Russia. By annexing these territories, Putin is sending a blunt message: continuing to help Kyiv will inevitably lead the West into a direct conflict with Russia, something he believes Western capitals would like to avoid. This move also reflects another important shift in the Kremlin’s understanding of the current situation. Before Kyiv’s counteroffensive, Moscow did not believe that Western aid could drastically change the balance of forces and create conditions in which Ukraine would threaten Russia militarily. Now, it does.
Another plank of Putin’s ultimatum is the nuclear option, which is now squarely back on the table. After cooling his rhetoric over the summer, Putin has returned to invoking this ultimate threat as a way to influence Western policy on Ukraine. In April, when Russian forces retreated from failed offensives against Kyiv and Chernihiv, the Kremlin turned to nuclear blackmail, with Putin suggesting that his government was willing to allow the use of nuclear weapons “if necessary” and effectively blaming the West for Russian failures. By May, however, that language had died down; Putin had concluded that even with Western assistance, Ukraine was doomed to lose eventually.
With the Russian military struggling, commentators and officials are once again advocating the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. They have filled TV screens and social media with nuclear saber rattling. The pro-Kremlin segment of Telegram, a Russian information-sharing app, is buzzing with hundreds of posts justifying Moscow’s legitimate right to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine or trying to convince the world that Putin is seriously ready to resort to nuclear weapons in the event of further escalation. The profusion of posts insisting that “Yes, he can,” “he must,” and “he will” is not only part of a deliberate campaign to intimidate the West but also a demonstration of the growing determination among the most committed, ambitious pro-war elements of Russia’s elite and society that the war must be won no matter what.
Whether or not Putin is bluffing, the threat of using nuclear weapons creates higher expectations among the elites about how far Putin is prepared to go, and it dramatically reduces room for maneuvering in a hypothetical future political bargain over Ukraine. To take the nuclear card off the table, Putin would need to see the successful military advance of Russian forces combined with signals from Washington that the West will shrink its role in the conflict. If these demands are not met—and it is safe to say they will not be—Russia will resort to the nuclear option: such is the new reality that Putin seeks to shape, in effect taking the world hostage.
Having raised the stakes through his annexation of Ukrainian regions and his invocations of nuclear war, Putin further upped the ante by making ordinary Russians part of the war. His mobilization order in September caught Russians off-guard. Over the summer and in the first half of September, polls recorded an uptick in the positive mood among Russian society, growing fatigue with military rhetoric, and declining interest in the war in Ukraine. Although the pro-war part of the establishment, together with the military, demanded that Putin announce a mobilization as soon as possible, those in the presidential administration who oversee domestic policy had tried to minimize the war in the minds of the public. They sought to calm the angry jingoists who were advocating for Moscow to take Kyiv. Now, mobilization has irretrievably changed the lives of millions. In the latest Levada Center poll of Russians, 47 percent of respondents said that the partial mobilization made them feel “anxiety, fear, and horror,” 23 percent felt “shock,” and 13 percent felt “anger and indignation.” Only 23 percent said they felt “pride in Russia.” Even if the mobilization has not prompted mass protests, it has undermined the public’s trust in the state and state media.
Beyond the question of how the mobilization will affect domestic affairs, this drastic political decision reveals much about Putin’s priorities. The president has dared to announce what looks to be the most unpopular political decision in his 22 years of rule, regardless of how mass conscription will stoke anger, resentment, and social tensions and threaten domestic political stability. This decision puts in doubt any further social consolidation between the authorities and ordinary Russians over the war.
Until recently, the majority of Russians accepted the deal offered by the Kremlin: Putin would fight for “historical justice” against Ukrainian “Nazis,” relying on “professionals” and volunteers to avert the strategic threats posed to Russia by the West’s involvement in Ukraine. This goal found significant social support, but on one important condition: that Russia fought without the direct involvement of ordinary Russians, who have been living their lives more or less as usual since the invasion began. Mobilization has ripped up this contract. Having chosen mobilization despite the predictable public anger, Putin has shown that if it comes to a choice between achieving his goals in Ukraine and placating Russian society, Putin will opt for the former, sacrificing popular support at home for geopolitical victory in Ukraine. It is an explicit rebuttal to those who have suggested that Putin’s fear of a collapse in his political support among Russians would stop him from taking risky decisions. In truth, he is single-mindedly driven to turn his gamble in Ukraine into a victory, whatever the cost.
Putin’s nuclear ultimatum and mobilization order put significant pressure on both Russian society and the increasingly nervous Russian elites, who must decide which losing scenario is less tragic: to accompany the furious leader until the end of the world, to escape both Putin and the retribution of the West, or to wait for Russia to lose. It puts Putin in an unprecedentedly vulnerable position. Most of the Russian elite does not share his obsession with Ukraine to the same extent, and much of his own electorate does not share his readiness to sacrifice thousands of Russian lives. He appears to be pushing a scenario in which he is the only one who has the capacity to pay whatever price it takes, to fight under the banner of “all or nothing.” The president’s manic course of action carries a distinct and bitter taste of suicidal exasperation.
But it would be wrong to think that it cannot get any worse. At this stage, however cornered Putin may seem, he still believes he can win. In his eyes, the mobilization should help the Russian army drive out Ukrainian forces from the newly annexed territories and convince the West to step back from Ukraine, leaving Kyiv doomed to surrender and opening the opportunity for the Russian government to establish some facsimile of normal life in the new regions.
So what happens when things don’t go according to plan once again? What happens when Russian forces fail to defeat the Ukrainians, the West increases its military aid and demonstratively ignores Putin’s blackmail, and people in the new territories continue to resist their Russian occupiers, targeting senior officials and administrative buildings in terrorist attacks? Then the pivotal moment will arrive when the only option Putin sees available to him is the nuclear one. It will also be a decisive moment for the Russian elites who still do not dare to countenance this worst-case scenario, something that many today avoid thinking about. Domestic political conditions may be reaching the point where senior officials would dare to disobey, speak out louder, and fight with each other more resolutely. Ukraine may become a poison pill for Putin: in seeking to swallow it, he is dooming himself to defeat.