After Macron touted troops to Ukraine, Putin warns West of nuclear war risk

The Russian president, in a state of the nation address, upped the ante on Thursday. Should the world be worried about his threat?

People watch a TV broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual address to the Federal Assembly at a shop in Simferopol, Crimea February 29, 2024. REUTERS/Alexey Pavlishak
People watch a TV broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual address to the Federal Assembly at a shop in Simferopol, Crimea [Alexey Pavlishak/Reuters]

President Vladimir Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons if Western powers send soldiers to within striking distance of Russia.

His comments on Thursday, in a state of the nation address, were the kind of remarks usually uttered by Dmitry Medvedev, a Putin ally who served as Russia’s president from 2008-2012 and prime minister until becoming a top security official in 2020.

Throughout the conflict in Ukraine, Medvedev has warned of nuclear action and penned countless social media posts showering Western leaders and nations with slurs and threats.

“Medvedev used to write posts about the riders of the apocalypse in the style of [US filmmaker Quentin] Tarantino, and Putin brought his threats back to the limits of sanity,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

Putin has now upped the ante, responding to French President Emmanuel Macron’s assumption on Monday that a deployment of European troops to Ukraine cannot be “ruled out”.

Putin issued his threats during his annual national address – a carefully choreographed ceremony broadcast live to be chopped into soundbites and quotes that Russian media will likely repeat and comment on for days.

The West has “announced the possibility of sending Western military contingents to Ukraine,” Putin said on Thursday. “The consequences for possible interventionists will be way more tragic.

“They should eventually realise that we also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory. Everything that the West comes up with creates the real threat of a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons, and thus the destruction of civilisation,” he said.

Moscow has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal including a new generation of hypersonic missiles and several times more tactical nuclear weapons than the collective West.

“Now it is Putin who clearly draws a red line about using the nukes,” Kushch said, adding that Macron had probed Putin’s reaction on when Moscow would be ready to launch the nukes.

‘Nothing new’

But to Boris Bondarev, a senior Russian diplomat who quit his job to protest against Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, there was “nothing new” in Putin’s menacing diatribe.

The threats were Putin’s “usual scares and a projection of his own unrealised desires on to the West,” Bondarev, who served in the United Nations office in Geneva until 2022, told Al Jazeera.

This was not the first time Moscow bared its teeth in a confrontation with the United States and Europe.

Soviet helmsman Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on the podium in the United Nations headquarters in New York in 1960 ranting about “toady American imperialism” and promising “further interventions”.

Two years later, Khrushchev provoked the Caribbean Missile Crisis that nearly triggered a nuclear apocalypse.

Soviet leaders in the late 1970s and early 1980s routinely hinted at the possibility of a nuclear war until Mikhail Gorbachev started his perestroika reforms that prompted a sign of relief in the West, but buried the USSR.

During the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin pulled out of nuclear arms control treaties with Washington in moves that many predicted would start a new arms race.

“This is not a bluff,” Putin said in 2022 when announcing the possibility of a nuclear strike.

“Putin’s regime has not once used the scare of a nuclear war to frighten the West and convince it not to provide military aid to Ukraine,” Alisher Ilkhamov, head of Central Asia Due Diligence, a think tank in London, told Al Jazeera.

“In the past, the scare was usually voiced over by Medvedev and all sorts of propagandists, now it’s Putin’s turn to announce them,” he said.

And it wasn’t Macron’s assumption that irked Putin – it was Ukraine’s success in striking airfields, fuel depots, warships and military planes deep in Russia and Russia-occupied areas, Ilkhamov said.

So far, the West has been able to raise the stakes in providing increasingly effective weaponry to Ukraine and ignore the Kremlin’s threats, he said.

And Putin will chicken out of a direct duel because Russia’s military-industrial potential is too exhausted to support an all-out confrontation with NATO, he said.

“The power of [both] sides is too unequal,” Ilkhamov said. “Putin has nothing to lean on in the confrontation with the West. He understands it very well and won’t go farther beyond the scares.”

The widow of Russia’s most outspoken opposition leader offered a useful insight into how Putin issues his threats and acts upon them.

“You’re dealing not with a politician but with a bloody monster. Putin is the head of an organised criminal group,” Yulia Navalnaya, whose husband Alexey Navalny died on February 16 in an Arctic prison, said in a video on Wednesday.

“It’s impossible to harm Putin with yet another resolution or yet another batch of sanctions that are no different from previous ones. You can’t win over him thinking he is a man with principles, with morals and rules,” she said.

(Al Jazeera)

During his speech, Putin seemed in denial about his own role in the war that grinds into its third year.

“I noticed during Putin’s speech that he said Russia did not start the war,” Ivar Dale, a senior policy adviser with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group, told Al Jazeera.

“He thought about the risks, he decided to do it, and he failed. The right thing to do now is to withdraw all troops from Ukraine, and not continue to threaten innocent people with a nuclear holocaust,” Dale said.

Putin’s blackmail is not his first and probably not his last, and the West should indeed deploy NATO troops to aid Ukraine, said an expert on Eastern Europe.

“The emergence of Western servicemen in Ukraine will, of course, cross yet another ‘red line,'” Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s Bremen University told Al Jazeera.

“Although it would very much help Ukraine and give it a chance to free several brigades that are currently guarding the rear and the border with [breakaway and pro-Russian Moldovan region of] Transnistria.”

Source: Al Jazeera