The ability to deter Russia is able to exercise thanks to its powerful nuclear arsenal it had from the beginning a role of great strategic importance in the war in Ukraine.
NATO leaders, starting with Joe Biden, have repeatedly motivated the decision not to intervene directly – using, for example, their own troops or aircraft – with the desire to avoid a “third world war”, a code expression for a nuclear conflict. For this reason, among other things, they rejected without hesitation, at the beginning of the Russian invasion, Zelensky’s heartfelt request to set up a “no-fly zone” over the skies of Ukraine. From this point of view, Moscow’s threat to resort to atomic weapons has so far worked. The leaders of the Kremlin obsessively evoke the use of nuclear power with the aim, in the first place, of renewing this deterrent effect against a direct commitment by NATO.
Sanctions and threats from the Kremlin
However, when Putin, immediately after the start of the invasion, put nuclear weapons on alert, he also openly aimed at something else: to avoid a tightening of sanctions, in particular on energy products, and a progressive increase in military support for Ukraine. On this front, Russian nuclear deterrence has not had the desired effect, or has had it only partially: Western countries have not essentially given in either sanctions nor onsending weaponseven if they still do not accept some requests for military aid from Ukraine for fear, among other things, of an escalation that could lead to a direct military confrontation with Moscow.
Shaking the specter of the nuclear weapon has, of course, also the intention of frighten Western public opinion. Indeed, in some countries, such as Italy, approval for sending arms to Kyiv has significantly decreased. However, there are no second thoughts in Western governments and also the broad pro-Ukraine line-up of the “formato Ramstein” has not recorded any defections, on the contrary it has consolidated.
The more or less explicit Russian threat of using nuclear energy in response to the supply of arms to Kyiv has not found credit in the NATO countries, which have effectively treated it as a bluff. Washington has responded with extreme caution to the Russian nuclear alert and the Kremlin’s other muscular gestures, such as the nuclear exercises in Belarus, but has at the same time stepped up military support to Kyiv, as well as NATO allies. Putin certainly wanted to intimidate the Ukrainians, but he failed in this too: popular support for the war of liberation from Russian troops remains very solid.
The nuclear alarm grows
However, alarm over the nuclear risk has grown significantly in recent months. At the announcement of the Russian nuclear alert, Biden declared that he was not worried about the prospect of a nuclear war; more recently he admitted that the world is closer to a nuclear apocalypse than it has been since Cuban Missile Crisis. Rhetorical oscillations, it will be said, typical of the current American president, but there is more.
The fact is that Putin has put himself into a corner, with a series of decisions, heralding serious consequences, which have progressively reduced the strategic options available to him. Two in particular: the larger-scale mobilization of reservists and other troops, which marked a decisive step towards an escalation that appears to have no return; L’annexation of four occupied Ukrainian regions to Russia, which has put the gravestone on any realistic prospect of a negotiated settlement. Thereby, Putin can only bet on a military victory. In fact, any way out has been precluded in the event of new military setbacks or a prolonged stalemate that causes repercussions in Russia, weakening his leadership.
In this context, the nuclear danger has become more concrete. Cornered even more, the head of the Kremlin could resort to nuclear weapons, either to counter a Ukrainian counter-offensive with tactical bombs, or to signal, for example with a demonstrative nuclear test, the determination to go ahead to the extreme consequences.
Scenarios that remain improbable for the reasons repeatedly illustrated in AffarInternazionali – the very dubious military utility of tactical nuclear weapons and the sure boomerang effect for Moscow on a political level, of any action that breaks the nuclear taboo – but which cannot be treated lightly . The United States has threatened “catastrophic consequences” in the event of Moscow resorting to nuclear power, without, for obvious reasons of strategic ambiguity, specifying them. But, to avert this risk, fundamental remains above all the Western cohesion in support of Ukraine. This has been and remains by far the most effective deterrent against Putin.
Cover photo EPA/MIKHAIL METZEL/KREMLIN / POOL MANDATORY CREDIT