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DOMINIC LAWSON: Putin's threats of nuclear war must not deter us
DOMINIC LAWSON: Putin is a ‘false tsar’ whose repeated threats of nuclear war must not deter us from giving Kyiv all the weapons it needs
When the Russian winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, Dmitry Muratov, in an interview with the BBC, warns of the imminent use of nuclear weapons by his country, many in the West will feel at least a twinge of terror — followed by the thought: let’s not provoke Vladimir Putin too much with further military aid to Ukraine.
That is exactly what the Russian President would like us to think — although Muratov is anything but a Putin supporter: the independent newspaper he founded and edited, Novaya Gazeta, has been shut down by the Kremlin.
Muratov told the BBC’s Moscow correspondent, Steve Rosenberg: ‘Two generations have lived without the threat of nuclear war. But this period is over. Will Putin press the nuclear button, or won’t he? Who knows? No one knows this.’
He went on to point out how Russian ‘state propaganda is preparing people to think that nuclear war isn’t a bad thing. On TV channels here, nuclear war and nuclear weapons are promoted as if they’re advertising pet food . . . so that people here are ready.’
It’s true that Russian TV programmes about the war in Ukraine are full of pundits almost salivating about the prospect of ‘destroying’ Britain with nuclear strikes in retaliation for our steadfast military support for the Ukrainians — against a studio backdrop of mushroom clouds over London.
many in the West will feel at least a twinge of terror — followed by the thought: let’s not provoke Vladimir Putin (pictured) too much with further military aid to Ukraine.
Muratov told the BBC’s Moscow correspondent, Steve Rosenberg: ‘Two generations have lived without the threat of nuclear war. But this period is over. Will Putin press the nuclear button, or won’t he? Who knows? No one knows this.’ Pictured: October 2022 Russian Yars missile launch
Then, last week, Putin announced that Russia would build a facility for tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, accompanied by a warning from that allied country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, that if Russia felt its survival was threatened by the way the West had been funnelling arms to Ukraine, Moscow could ‘use the most terrible weapon’.
That these statements followed on from Putin’s warning that Russia would ‘respond accordingly’ after the UK announced it would be supplying Kyiv with Challenger 2 tank shells containing depleted uranium has led some to suggest that London is provoking a dangerous nuclear escalation.
In fact, as Putin knows, such munitions are also used by Russia and have nothing whatever to do with nuclear warfare.
And in a later statement, the Russian president pointed out that the moving of nuclear weapons to Belarus was part of an existing plan ‘outside the context’ of the UK’s supply of depleted uranium shells to Ukraine.
More pertinently still, the facilities that Putin says will be constructed in Belarus take years to build — and there is no sign of any start to them.
In other words, while Putin has repeatedly attempted to use the threat of nuclear war as a deterrent against the West, while our governments consider how to respond to Ukraine’s request for the weapons they need, our media must be careful not to amplify the Kremlin’s threats, or exaggerate their significance.
This point is well made in a paper published by the Chatham House think-tank last week, entitled ‘Russian Nuclear Intimidation: How Russia Uses Nuclear Threats To Shape Western Responses To Aggression’.
The author, Keir Giles, who worked in Russia for many years, observes: ‘Russia has achieved substantial success in constraining Western support for Ukraine through use of threatening language around the possible use of nuclear weapons. Western leaders have explicitly justified reluctance to provide essential military assistance to Ukraine by reference to Russian narratives of uncontrollable escalation.
‘This represents a striking success for Russian information campaigns . . . It is essential for responses to Russia’s intimidatory rhetoric to be guided by a realistic assessment of its basis in reality, rather than by fear-induced paralysis.’
The truth is that whenever the West — which in this context principally means the U.S. government — has overcome its nervousness about supplying certain categories of weaponry to Ukraine, the Kremlin’s response has not been to escalate, whatever its previous threats.
So, at the outset of the war, Putin warned the West that if it interfered at all, ‘Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never experienced in your history’ — and added, for the benefit of any who did not get this crudest of hints, that Russia is ‘one of the most powerful nuclear states’.
But the West began to intervene with the supply of weapons to Kyiv on a hitherto unimaginable scale: and Putin made no move whatsoever against Washington or London, still less on a nuclear scale.
President Biden did, however, for months refuse to supply Ukraine with the HIMARS long-range artillery system, probably because of Putin’s ominous threat that Russia would ‘strike new targets’ if the U.S. did so.
But when Washington changed policy and said that it would send these devastatingly accurate weapons systems to Kyiv, Putin gave a sort of verbal shrug, to the effect that such weaponry ‘doesn’t change anything’.
Now, the weapons system that Ukraine has been begging for is the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), which has a range of almost 200 miles and which would allow Kyiv to strike the main Russian supply routes in occupied southern Ukraine, greatly aiding the campaign to recapture the vital Black Sea port of Mariupol, where many thousands of the Kremlin’s troops are massed.
Yet Washington has so far refused to supply ATACMS. It claims there are problems with availability, but it’s clear the main reason is concern about how Putin would respond, in terms of ‘escalation’.
The same rationale applied to the delays on the part of the West, notably Germany, to give a positive answer to Ukraine’s longstanding request for tanks: there was a fear that this would cross some sort of line, and even provoke nuclear retaliation by the Kremlin.
Again, however, when the supposed red line was crossed, there was no ‘escalation’ from Russia — just yet more hysterical threats of nuclear strikes against Berlin from the increasingly desperate-sounding pseudo-military shock jocks on state broadcasting channels.
The fundamental point is this: if Western governments truly want Ukraine to force Russia out of the sovereign Ukrainian territory it has seized since its invasion just over a year ago, it makes no sense to refuse Kyiv any of the weapons that would make such an outcome more likely — and thereby help bring the Russians to the negotiating table in a position of the greatest military disadvantage.
There are some cynics who say Washington’s aim is to keep the war going as long as possible, and that it doesn’t truly want Ukraine to ‘win’, just for the Russians not to be the victor.
But economically as much as militarily, it is not at all in the West’s interests that this war should drag on for many years. Nor is it in our interests to augment the deterrent force of Putin’s nuclear bluster.
Obviously, it is not impossible that he might use a tactical nuclear weapon, if only in a demonstrative way, in Ukraine. I have spoken to someone previously closely involved, at the highest level, with our own nuclear war-gaming, and he thought it very feasible that Putin would do something like that.
But he added that he saw ‘no prospect of a nuclear war as traditionally understood’ — the spectre which Vladimir Putin and his propagandists want us to fear he might unleash.
Apart from anything else, it is not Putin who physically or autonomously could ‘press the button’: such a decision goes through a chain of command. And even if a despairing Putin were to make such an order, would his general staff obey it?
Last week, much less publicised than Dmitry Muratov’s warning of nuclear war, came a very different analysis from Russia’s most celebrated author, Mikhail Shishkin, marking the publication of his book My Russia: War Or Peace?
Asked by a Western interviewer if Putin would ‘go nuclear’, Shishkin replied that while he was sure that the Russian president would be prepared to ‘press the red button’, ‘nobody will fulfil his order to destroy the Earth. Nobody . . . ‘
Shishkin continued: ‘Putin’s generals told him they would take Kyiv in three days, and he miscalculated. He failed. And now he is a false tsar. Nobody will fulfil [such] an order from a false tsar.’
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