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Putin’s nuclear threats raise the risk of disaster

In a rare televised address on Wednesday, Putin warned that if Russia’s territorial integrity is threatened, the Kremlin “will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. It is not a bluff”.

Gavriil Grigorov | Afp | Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultimatum to the West dramatically increases the risk of nuclear conflict, analysts and campaigners warned, with world leaders decrying what they describe as “reckless” and “irresponsible” threats.

In a rare televised address on Wednesday, Putin called for additional troops for the war in Ukraine and warned that if Russia’s territorial integrity were threatened, the Kremlin would “certainly use every means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.” It’s not a bluff.”

It was widely interpreted as a threat that Putin is willing to use nuclear weapons to escalate the war after a string of Ukrainian successes.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday doubled down on the Kremlin’s nuclear stance, saying that any weapons in Russia’s arsenal can be used to defend its territories — including strategic nuclear weapons.

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It comes as pro-Moscow regional leaders in areas of southern and eastern Ukraine announced referendums on joining Russia. The votes are expected to take place in the Russian-controlled regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya, which are said to make up about 15% of Ukraine’s territory.

It is widely believed that the outcome of the referendums was determined by the Kremlin, prompting the US and its allies to denounce it as a “sham”.

Political analysts say the Kremlin could then view Ukraine’s military action against these four areas as an attack on Russia itself.

“The citizens of Russia can rest assured that the territorial integrity of our motherland, our independence and freedom will be guaranteed, I emphasize this again, by all means at our disposal,” Putin said.

Putin’s threats dramatically increase the risk of escalating into a nuclear conflict. This is incredibly dangerous and irresponsible.

Beatrice Fihn

ICAN Executive Director

“These statements go beyond Russian nuclear doctrine, which only suggests that Russia is first used in a conventional war when the very survival of the state is threatened,” said Andrey Baklitskiy, senior researcher in weapons of mass destruction and other strategic weapons programs. at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.

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“Coming from the person who has sole decision-making power regarding Russian nuclear weapons, this will have to be taken seriously,” Baklitskiy said, pointing out that Putin’s citation of “territorial integrity” has been tricky to determine as the Kremlin plans to shut it down. to include. four Ukrainian regions.

“None of this means that Russia would resort to nuclear use. This would be a truly world-changing decision,” Baklitskiy said.

“And it’s not clear whether such a move would even lead to the desired results for… [President] Putin… But expanding the terms of possible use amid the ongoing war is a huge gamble,” he added. “A gamble that we all, including Russia, would be safer without.”

‘Breaking the taboo’

US President Joe Biden condemned Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons and urged allied UN leaders to reject Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Speaking at UN headquarters in New York City on Wednesday, Biden accused the Kremlin of making “reckless” and “irresponsible” threats, saying “a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought.”

His comments echoed the comments made by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who told Reuters on Wednesday that the 30-nation Western defensive alliance would remain calm and “not engage in the same kind of reckless and dangerous nuclear rhetoric as President Putin.”

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Beatrice Fihn, Nobel laureate and executive director of the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons, urged political leaders to renew their efforts to get rid of all nuclear weapons by signing and ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images

Putin has alluded to Russia’s nuclear weapons at various times during the conflict with Ukraine. Still, there are doubts among Western leaders as to whether Moscow would resort to deploying a weapon of mass destruction.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told German media on Wednesday that he did not believe the world would allow Putin to use nuclear weapons.

Beatrice Fihn, Nobel laureate and executive director of the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons, told CNBC that Putin’s “incredibly dangerous and irresponsible” threats dramatically increase the risk of escalating into a nuclear conflict.

“Threats to use nuclear weapons lower the barrier to their use,” Fihn said via email. “Subsequent discussions by politicians and commentators about the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons and about possible nuclear reactions without also discussing the devastating humanitarian impact of using even so-called ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons breaks the taboo on their use.”

Fihn called on the international community to “unequivocally condemn any and all nuclear threats” and urged political leaders to renew their efforts to get rid of all nuclear weapons by signing and ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

‘Not going back’

Max Hess, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute think tank, described Putin’s nuclear threats as a “very important announcement”.

“The real threat from Putin’s speech was his willingness to use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory, including the one they plan to annex,” he told CNBC’s Street Signs Europe.

“This includes not only the Donetsk and Luhansk region, the traditional Donbas, but also all of Zaporizhzhya and all of Kherson – Ukrainian regions that are still very contested and where the Russians do not have their full control.”

“What this means for those areas that are still under Ukrainian control in relation to Putin’s threats has still not been said,” Hess added.

If Putin were to use a so-called tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, there would be “no turning back” and “no negotiation” according to Timothy Ash, emerging markets strategist at BlueBay Asset Management.

In such a scenario, Putin “is done with the West forever, and probably even the Chinese, India, South Africa, the BRICS and the rest of the nonaligned world are turning against him,” Ash said. The abbreviation BRICS refers to Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

A weapon of mass destruction, or WMD, “is a deterrent,” Ash said. “Once it’s used, its power is actually bare.”

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