Putin’s nuclear weapons talk is a bluff, but one with significant consequences

President Putin has been clear in his intentions to use all force necessary, including nuclear weapons, to achieve his goals. This, argues Albrecht Rothacher, is a bluff, but its very use has hugely damaging consequences for international relations

The history of nuclear threats

So far, the great powers have held back with threats of nuclear war, and with good reason. The closest the world may have come to nuclear annihilation is the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. At the last minute, Kennedy and Khrushchev backtracked, withdrawing intermediate-range missile deployments from Cuba and Turkey.

In 1982, Yuri Andropov tried nuclear threats to prevent deploying the Pershing II and cruise missiles of NATO's double-track decision against his SS20 medium-range weapons. His threats inspired the so-called 'peace movement' of communists and greens in the West – controlled from the East, as a fifth column. In vain.

Otherwise, nuclear threats have been the exclusive preserve of North Korea's Kim dynasty. Successive regimes have threatened North Korea's enemies in the south, in Japan and the USA, with nuclear annihilation.

Putin’s failure and his nuclear threats

Putin's planned blitzkrieg of Kyiv has failed, and his campaign is experiencing mounting setbacks on all fronts. Since then, his threats to use nuclear weapons have increased in vague forms. Such threats have been expressed more explicitly by Putin's agitator Dmitry Medvedev. They have also been voiced by mercenary leaders Yevgeny Prigorizhin and Chechen Emir (Ramzan) Kadyrov.

As Putin experiences mounting setbacks on all fronts, his vague threats to use nuclear weapons have increased

These people do not represent official Kremlin policy. Yet they are evidently useful to test foreign reactions. For example, the regime will watch with interest whether such comments deter Berlin from supplying the Ukrainians with battle tanks and armoured personnel carriers. So far, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has called talk of nuclear deployment 'unacceptable' and 'dangerous for the world'.

The muddled response from the West

Vladimir Putin had the €5 billion Kerch Bridge built as a supply artery for Crimea. He recently had it blown up just in time for his 70th birthday. President Zelensky subsequently called for 'preventive strikes' to rule out Russian nuclear weapons deployment.

Now, to be clear, tactical nuclear weapons are not just lying around in tank garages to use on a whim. American satellite intelligence is sophisticated enough to read a muzhik's newspaper. If Russia began moving warheads and delivery weapons from bunkers, the US could immediately strike pre-emptively and detonate the weapons on Russian soil.

In any case, the use of tactical nuclear weapons near the front is unlikely, because it would affect Russian soldiers and the (recently created) 'Russian' civilian population. Neither of these groups have any nuclear-biological-chemical protective equipment or decontamination agents. Such an offensive would be tantamount to the use of poison gas at Ypres in 1915, when the wind changed direction

A Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine would inevitably affect Russian soldiers and the 'Russian' civilian population

In addition, the decentralised operating Ukrainian military lacks any troop concentrations or central bases, such as Sevastopol, which would make a worthwhile target.

In this respect, Joe Biden's rhetoric at a recent fundraising gala in New York is astonishing. Biden warned of an 'Armageddon' (the biblical final battle between God and the governments of evil) if and when the threat ('no kidding') of Russian tactical nuclear weapons materialised. Until then, retired US generals had only gone so far as to hint at the sinking of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, the destruction of Russia's military infrastructure, and the destruction of Putin's palace near Sochi by conventional means.

Nuclear panic

In fact, the atomic bomb rhetoric can have devastating, if not fatal, consequences. It throws the world public into a panic that overrides rational conflict management. Moreover, it offers Kim-style tinpot dictators a cheap instrument to ensure their survival with impunity through constant attempts at blackmail. And that only encourages nuclear armament enthusiasts such as the Iranian mullahs, as well as the Saudis.

Atomic bomb rhetoric throws the world public into a panic that overrides rational conflict management

In truth, however, none of the nuclear powers have seriously considered using nuclear weapons in humiliating lost wars. These include the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (1989), China in the border war with Vietnam (1979), France in Algeria (1962), the USA in Vietnam (1975) and Afghanistan (2021). Even the nuclear powers India and Pakistan in their fourth war (1999) held back from nuclear deployment.

Hysteria among the political class and the media about nuclear death is as destructive to rational management as panicking about global warming or the coronavirus. As if there weren’t enough other concerns about the future of western civilization, our economy and our prosperity.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Albrecht Rothacher
Albrecht Rothacher
Independent Researcher

Albrecht gained his MA in sociology from the University of Bridgeport in 1978, and a PhD in international relations from LSE in 1982.

A stint at Deutsche Bank in the EU’s diplomatic service followed from 1984–2020, with postings in Vienna, Singapore, Paris and Tokyo, lastly as Minister Councillor, mostly dealing with economic and trade issues.

He then worked in Brussels as a policy officer, mostly concerned with economic relations with countries 'East of Berlin and Vienna'; lastly with Russia mainly.

He has published 24 books mostly on Asian affairs, economic and military history, but most recently a biography on the French presidents of the 5th Republic.

Current research work includes a collective biography of the Austrian chancellors of the 2nd Republic, and French colonial wars 1945–1962 (Indochina and Algeria).

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