John Humphrys - Putin’s Big Bluff: Or Is It?

September 23, 2022, 12:38 PM GMT+0

How quickly Vladimir Putin’s dream has turned into a nightmare for him. It’s little more than six months since his tanks rumbled across the Ukrainian border. The dream was that the country would swiftly succumb to the overwhelming military might of Russia and become a province of the all-powerful Russian empire. His own people would applaud his courage in defying the west, whose leaders would be forced to acknowledge that Russia was truly a great force to be reckoned with. Such was the dream. The reality is rather different. Are you comforted by the apparent destruction of that dream or are you fearing the nightmare of what an increasingly desperate Putin might do?

The one thing of which we can be absolutely certain is that when Putin gave the fateful orders to his military chiefs back in February, he did not expect it to turn out like this. The resistance from the Ukrainian military was predicted to be half-hearted at best. That notion was swiftly blown away – literally. The great column of tanks advancing on the capital Kyiv were (again literally) stopped in their tracks. By now eastern Ukraine, which came under vicious bombardment, should have been occupied by Russian soldiers. Instead the Ukrainian military staged a counter offensive and drove them out of strategically vital areas. Ukraine’s armed forces have retaken thousands of square miles of territory in Donbas. Nato states have imposed stringent sanctions on Moscow, given vast amounts of weapons and equipment to Kyiv and accepted millions of Ukrainian refugees.

As for the Ukrainian government which, according to Putin, was riddled with Nazis, it would be replaced by Russian sympathisers and President Zelensky would either be in a Russian jail, seeking sanctuary in the west, or dead. Instead, Zelensky is an international hero and every one of Putin’s boasts have been shown to be just that. When he addressed his nation this week it was not the speech of a victorious war leader setting out his terms for the inevitable surrender, but that of a desperate man making desperate threats.

A sign of that desperation was announcing the mobilisation of 300,000 reservists in Russia. For all his braggadocio, Putin must have known how that would be received by those affected. And if he did not, the message came loud and clear within hours of his speech. Protests spread throughout Russia – the biggest since the start of the war. Thousands of young men suddenly decided that they had urgent business to attend to in the few countries for which Russian citizens no longer need a visa. Huge queues formed at the land borders with Georgia and Finland. Airports were packed and ticket prices rocketed – some selling for eight times their original price. Social media groups offered advice on how to get out of Russia for those terrified of being forced to fight.

How much more evidence did Putin need that this was not the speech of a president who scented victory? If things really were going according to plan, why were so many more conscripts needed? And as winter approaches, the battlefields of Ukraine will become even more of a nightmare for the invaders. It’s safe to assume that even those Russians who may still be broadly sympathetic to Putin’s war will increasingly have second thoughts.

Unsurprisingly, Putin blamed Nato for whatever military success Ukraine might have been enjoying. Without Nato countries supplying them with modern weapons, the war might have taken a very different direction. And the warning he delivered to his Nato enemies was chilling by any standards. Here’s how he put it: “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to defend Russia and our people we will use all means we have. I shall stress – by all means available to us. Those trying to blackmail us with threats of nuclear weapons should know that the tables can turn on them.” Lest there be any doubt he added: “This is not a bluff.”

That threat was reinforced the following morning when Sergei Markov, a former close adviser to Putin, appeared on the Today programme. Here’s part of what he said: “If Great Britain will continue to be the aggressor against Russia…If prime minister Liz Truss still has a plan to destroy Russia … people in London should understand the threat.” That threat, he made clear, was the threat “of nuclear weapons.”

Russia has more of them than any other country on the planet, even the United States. It’s true that America’s nuclear technology is thought to be superior to Russia’s but some believe that is effectively a distinction without a difference. No-one doubts, after all, that Moscow is technically perfectly capable of firing nuclear missiles that could devastate any city at which they are targeted, including London.

At this point you may well say that there is a pretty powerful element of needless shroud waving. To which the response might very well be that on one level you’d be right. Of course Putin and his cronies know full well that a Russian nuclear attack on a Nato country would invite a reprisal that would end civilisation as we know it. It’s not so very long ago that the hideous acronym ‘M.A.D.’ – Mutually Assured Destruction – was coined to describe the outcome of nuclear war. And, as many commentators point out, it is entirely possible that Putin and his henchmen are using the “nuclear blackmail” rhetoric to justify their increasingly desperate measures in Ukraine. After all, this is not exactly the first time we have been here. It’s nearly six months since Putin’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned that if Nato continued to supply Ukraine with military equipment there would be a “considerable threat” of nuclear conflict. When Boris Johnson, then prime minister, was asked whether he shared the fears many were expressing about the dangers of a nuclear conflict he said: “No. I don’t”.

And perhaps Mr Johnson was right. But those who are less optimistic will point out that the greatest risk does not lie in Putin giving orders in the Kremlin to press the red button and send inter-continental missiles screaming to the west. They’d be right about that – if only because we are assured by the experts that no such button exists. The reality, they say, is that there are several layers of senior military chiefs through which such an order would have to pass first. And even if we accept that Putin himself is, in the literal sense of the word, “MAD”, each of those officers might be rather more sane.

But the pessimists say the true danger lies elsewhere: in the use of battlefield nuclear weapons. It is not impossible to imagine, they say, that the war in Ukraine might reach a stage where the most senior Russian commanders on the ground report back to Moscow that a Russian defeat is inevitable unless Moscow authorises the use of such a weapon against a specific target. The destruction would be total but limited. Or so they would argue. It would destroy Ukrainian morale and President Zelensky would have no option but to sue for peace.

It would also be the first time a nuclear weapon had been fired in anger since 1945. What no-one can predict is how Nato would react. In this nightmare scenario there is no response that is even remotely acceptable. To allow Moscow to go unpunished would be unthinkable. Would it not be seen as a green light? Yet to retaliate in kind would also be unthinkable. Escalation would be inevitable, they say.

The most optimistic assessment of Putin’s speech is based on his boast: “I’m not bluffing”. Why, ask the optimists, would he use such a crass expression if he didn’t mean the exact opposite?

So what’s your view? Are you one of those optimists?

Do you believe that the Kremlin might sanction the use of a battlefield nuclear weapon if it becomes clear that the only option is defeat? And if you do… how should Nato react?

Let us know your views.

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