Russian President Vladimir Putin significantly escalated the crisis on the ground in Ukraine last week, sending troops into eastern Ukraine to open a third front. Over the weekend, he also significantly escalated the rhetoric he’s using to talk about the crisis, using language that’s been largely absent from international diplomacy since the end of the Cold War.
First, speaking at a Russian youth forum on Friday, Putin reportedly said that Russia was “strengthening our nuclear deterrence forces and our armed forces.” He also referred to Ukraine as “New Russia.”
"I want to remind you that Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations. This is a reality, not just words,” Putin said, according to Russian state media. “We must always be ready to repel any aggression against Russia, and (potential enemies) should be aware ... it is better not to come against Russia as regards a possible armed conflict."
Then, over the weekend, reports in the Italian press reported another threat from Putin told to the European.
"If I want, I can take Kyiv in two weeks,” Putin told outgoing European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in a phone call, according to La Repubblica. Putin made the threat in response to Europe’s consideration of a new round of penalties against Russia. So far, new sanctions have yet to materialize.
Taken together, Putin’s comments represent a radical change in the way nuclear weapons have traditionally been referenced. During the Cold War, they were used as a deterrent from nuclear attack. Neither the United States nor Russia alluded to nuclear weapons as part of any offensive plan.
Putin’s comments are a departure from this norm. He’s suggesting that nuclear weapons could be used as part of a strategy to take Ukraine.
However, a closer examination of the threat pokes a hole in Putin’s bluster.
Putin could probably take Kiev, not because of superior military training or technology, but because of scale -- Russia simply has more military resources than Ukraine. If he decided to take Ukraine’s capital, Ukraine’s limited resources aren’t likely to be able to stop him.
Putin’s threat to deploy nukes is also deceptive. Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons, but these missiles are a front for a weak military when compared to major world powers like the United States. That’s why Putin is in the midst of a $700 billion military modernization effort. However, that won’t be done until 2020.
The escalation of rhetoric by the Russian president is a real challenge for diplomats trying to find a peaceful end to the Ukraine crisis. However, as always with Putin, these threats are not exactly what they seem. Behind each are strains of truth surrounded by a lot of hot air.
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