Russian President Vladimir Putin has played the last card in his hand. Within days, the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia will likely be formally annexed to the Russian Federation after referendums that the West considers to be illegal asking their residents to decide on joining Russia.
The referendums, which started on Friday and ended on Tuesday, could lead to Moscow annexing 15 per cent of Ukraine’s territory.
Amid world condemnation, the Russian media have announced that the referendums in the four territories of Ukraine are “valid,” claiming the turnout has already passed 50 per cent. According to the British Ministry of Defence, Putin, who is scheduled to address both houses of the Russian parliament on 30 September, may use the address to formally announce the annexation of the territories by Russia.
By annexing large parts of eastern Ukraine, Putin wants to discourage Kyiv and its Western allies from attacking what the Kremlin now considers to be “Russian territory,” laying the groundwork for full mobilisation or even nuclear conflict if they persist in doing so.
When Putin addressed the Russian people last week to announce a “partial mobilisation” of 300,000 reservists, he framed the war in Ukraine in existential terms. The nation was defending itself against a West that wanted to “weaken, divide and destroy Russia,” he said, and thus the Kremlin could be prepared to use nuclear weapons in response.
The ominous threats are intended to force Ukraine and its Western allies to accept Russia’s gains in the war.
“The whole world should be praying for Russia’s victory because there are only two ways this can end: either Russia wins, or a nuclear apocalypse,” Konstantin Malofeyev, a nationalist Russian tycoon, told local media.
“If we don’t win, we will have to use nuclear weapons, because we can’t lose... Does anyone really think Russia will accept defeat and not use its nuclear arsenal,” Malofeyev asked.
On Tuesday, Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia, threatened the West again with the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
“Imagine that Russia is forced to use the most formidable weapons against the Ukrainian regime, which has committed a large-scale act of aggression, which is dangerous for the very existence of our state. I believe that NATO will not directly intervene in the conflict even in this situation,” he said.
“After all, the security of Washington, London, and Brussels is much more important for the North Atlantic Alliance than the fate of Ukraine, which no one needs, even if it is abundantly supplied with various weapons.”
After a very costly Russian military campaign in which Moscow has changed its strategic goals from regime change in Kyiv to protecting the Russian population in eastern and southern Ukraine, the annexation of these four regions seems the “minimum” that Putin would accept to save face internally after Russian forces have suffered heavy casualties.
Washington estimates that Russia has lost about 70,000 soldiers, either dead or wounded.
The fundamental question now before the West is what it will do about Putin’s threats to launch a nuclear attack if Ukrainian forces try to liberate the provinces that Moscow considers to be part of Russian soil.
Some in Europe say that the West should continue its military and economic support to Ukraine in order to inflict a crushing defeat on the Russian army and expel it from all Ukrainian territory, even Crimea, which Russia formally annexed in 2014.
NATO, Britain, and the Baltic states tend to minimise the nuclear threat by Russia, emphasising the need to continue support for Ukraine.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told the US channel CNN that “the likelihood of any use of nuclear weapons is still low, but the potential consequences are so big.”
British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Prime Minister Liz Truss also argue that Putin is not serious about using nuclear weapons and claim that Russia’s defeat is attainable because the Russian military is now at its weakest and the Russian economy is reeling under international sanctions.
In their view, the West has a short window to inflict the greatest damage on the Russian forces in Ukraine before they call in reserves. The 300,000 soldiers that Putin wants to train and bring to the battlefield will not be ready for several months, they say.
These views are encouraged by the serious setbacks that the Russian military has faced in recent weeks as Ukrainian forces have mounted a counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region.
But putting the Russian president in a corner and testing his true intentions regarding the use of nuclear weapons is not something many Western capitals will want to do. The US and EU believe that Ukraine, Europe, and the world should take Putin’s threats seriously.
Jake Sullivan, US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, reiterated that the Kremlin’s nuclear warnings were “a matter that we have to take deadly seriously.” EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell also warned that Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine were serious.
In an interview with the BBC on Saturday, Borrell said the Russian war in Ukraine had reached a “dangerous moment” as the Russian army was struggling in the seventh month of the invasion.
“Certainly, it is a dangerous moment because the Russian army has been pushed into a corner, and Putin’s reaction, threatening to use nuclear arms, is very bad,” Borrell said. “When people say it is not a bluff, you have to take them seriously,” he added.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also does not think Putin is bluffing when he says Moscow would be ready to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia.
“Look, maybe yesterday it was a bluff. Now, it could be a reality,” Zelensky, who had previously played down such warnings, told the US CBS News on Sunday. “I don’t think he’s bluffing.”
But the possible use of nuclear weapons, which complicates the calculations of the West, also does not make the calculations of the Russian president easier. The use of nuclear weapons on European soil from a geostrategic point of view, let alone the moral argument, could have more destructive consequences than any benefits.
Nuclear radiation could kill millions of people, including Russians, because of the geographical proximity. The catastrophic environmental impacts will not spare many of the neighbouring countries, including Russia itself.
It is certain that the West would respond with an unprecedented escalation, both militarily and economically, including by imposing a comprehensive economic blockade on Russia and possibly expelling it from international institutions, including the UN Security Council.
These consequences would be so dire that Putin himself might never resort to them, even if his forces incur heavy losses on the ground. This is what London, the Baltic states, and the NATO secretary-general are betting on.
But the bet is too dangerous for Washington, Paris, Berlin, and Brussels to put the Russian president to the test.
When Putin throws the dice, he knows he is putting the West between a rock and a hard place. If there is any benefit from the developments of the past few days, it is that the Russian calculations have become clearer for the West.
Since the Russian offensive against Ukraine began last February, Moscow’s goals have not been as clear as they are today. Now Russia has put all its cards on the table. It implicitly admits that because of the defeats it has suffered it will focus its military efforts in the Donbas region.
By annexing regions in eastern Ukraine, Moscow has made it clear that this is the minimum it will accept in the conflict. It has threatened the use of nuclear weapons if Ukraine forces, with the help of the West, tries to liberate those territories.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.