Ukraine’s successful counteroffensives and the recapture of its territory have persuaded Putin that he needs to act.
At the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) summit in Samarkand on September 15-16, supposedly friendly states pressed him to end the war, or expressed concerns.
But the Russian leader has also been war party, headed by the Secretary General of the United Russia party Andrei Turchak, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev, and the head of the paramilitary Rosgvardiya, Viktor Zolotov. They demanded mobilization. The ultra-radical war correspondents (voenkory), who met Putin on September 17, insist on the same.
The war correspondents of the pro-government media and such figures as former FSB agent Igor Girkin, the most prominent of the milbloggers, became active participants in discussions on television and on Telegram channels. They enjoy privileged access to military information, which is often used to criticize the government, and their influence has become significant.
Even before Putin’s mobilization announcement, their position was as follows: declare the occupied territories in Ukraine to be Russian territory, abandon the term special military operation (the official rhetoric) and call the war a war. Thereafter, any Ukrainian attacks on these territories require a national effort, including mobilization to include the transformation of the economy to military needs. Furthermore, once the occupied lands are declared Russian, the Kremlin can launch a preemptive nuclear strike to protect its territory. This idea has been widely promoted both on telegram channels and on television.
Professionals oppose the voenkory and other far-right supporters of a nuclear strike. In September, the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Kremlin strongly rejected such a possibility, and underlined the country’s existing nuclear doctrine, which states that the Russian Federation can use nuclear weapons in the event of aggression which amounts to a threat to the very existence of the state.
The Kremlin has stuck to this line, even when Ukraine attacked Belgorod and Kursk. These brought no official threats of nuclear retaliation. In addition, some prominent patriotic leaders, such as Alexander Garnaev, an honored test pilot, and a Hero of Russia with experience in piloting nuclear-weapon-carrying aircraft, spoke out against nuclear threats in the media and filed a criminal complaint to the FSB on criminal complaint against those demanding a nuclear strike.
Yet Putin and his government have regularly spoken of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, or because of Ukraine, even though their use is ruled out by the absence of any threat to the existence of the state. The President of Russia allows this ambiguity to thrive.
Speaking on September 21, Putin noted that Russia has various means of destruction, that many are more modern than those of NATO countries, and that “when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people . . . And those who are trying to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should remember that the wind can turn in their direction.”
This is an intentional ambiguity. The nuclear doctrine allows the use of nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear strike, or when the very existence of a state is threatened, and not a threat to territorial integrity. Even Vladimir Kozin, a pro-Kremlin expert from the MGIMO Center for Military and Political Studies, and a former officer of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says that cross-border shelling is not a threat to the existence of Russia, and not is the offensives of the Armed Forces of Ukraine against Russia. The threat is the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons by Western nuclear powers.
The Vice-Speaker of the Federation Council Konstantin Kosachev said this: “As long as the conditions for the use of nuclear weapons as described in the corresponding Russian doctrine are observed, our nuclear weapons do not threaten anyone.” That is, they exist as a means to carry out a retaliatory strike.
Threats to use nuclear weapons in other cases or an expanded interpretation of the concept of “the very existence of the state” is an artificial extension of the Russian concept of deterrence. The Kremlin does not want to use nuclear weapons, but hopes to deter direct intervention by NATO and the United States in the war in Ukraine. This is confirmed by articles in pro-Kremlin media that promote the thesis that NATO forces might participate in the war, or launch a nuclear strike on Russian troops in Ukraine.
However, the voenkory are not afraid of NATO. They are confident that the alliance will not fight for Ukraine and, moreover, would not agree to a nuclear response to a Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine. They, therefore, argue the Kremlin should sanction a tactical nuclear strike on Ukraine. For example, Oleg Pakholkov, editor-in-chief of the Notepad network, believes that “Putin pitied Ukrainians. The people of Russia are in the majority for nuclear strikes on Kyiv and that there should be no mobilization.”
So far, this group of loud-voiced ultras is losing to professionals from the Foreign and Defense Ministries, who are brought up in the understanding that there will be no winners in a nuclear war and do not want to risk a clash with NATO.
It is logical to assume Putin really wants a quick end to the war. Realizing he’s not winning, he is seeking additional manpower to break the Ukraine forces without using nuclear weapons. This increase will be used to try to force negotiations on the Kremlin’s terms.
However, if the additional 300,000 troops are unable to achieve the desired results, the question of further mobilization or a nuclear strike will arise again.
It seems that Putin will continue to spend human resources at a prodigious rate, but further defeats will raise the temptation to use alternative and more extreme measures.
Maxim Starchak is an independent expert on Russian nuclear policy, defense, and the nuclear industry. Based in Moscow, he is a Fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy of Queen’s University in Canada, and a contributor to the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor. He has also written for the Atlantic Council, FPRI, Marshall Center, and others.