Cornered: Could Putin go nuclear?

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At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, I was given a recording made by the Ukrainian intelligence services. It was described as an intercepted call from an officer at the Russian nuclear missile base in Siberia to a relative in Kyiv. The line crackles and a man speaks in Russian: “I don’t know what to do… His [Vladimir Putin’s] finger passes over the button. Maybe the Commander-in-Chief knows he has no way out. The Russian claims that his base had three hours to bring its nuclear weapons “to readiness”. And – a terrifying extra step – he was briefed on President Putin’s orders to enter coordinates to target Kyiv and two other Ukrainian cities. With a tremor in his voice, he said, “He just might.

At the time, a retired Ukrainian general told me that the recording had not been released for fear of causing panic. The Russians might have been trying to get just that, he said: perhaps they had ordered a missile officer to make the call, knowing the Ukrainians would listen. Of course, it’s also possible that the tape was faked by our Ukrainian allies. But there is the third possibility: that the recording is authentic and that Putin is really ready to bomb Ukraine.

We are once again talking about Russian nuclear weapons because on Wednesday Putin appeared to threaten NATO with them in an almost desperate address to the nation. It has become increasingly unpredictable since the Kremlin’s latest and most dramatic U-turn on the battlefield in Ukraine. Faced with a surprise Ukrainian counteroffensive near the city of Kharkiv, Russian soldiers abandoned their expensive armored vehicles and fled. In the memorable words of a Ukrainian commander, they “ran away like Olympic sprinters”. It was a rout, not a retreat.

What happened to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine is explained in a remarkable memoir posted on VKontakte, the Russian Facebook, by Pavel Filatyev, a professional Russian soldier (not a conscript). Although he joined an “elite” unit – the 56th Guards Air Assault Regiment – ​​Filatyev found that there were no beds in his barracks, and often no electricity or water. A pack of wild dogs roamed the buildings. He wrote in his diary that there was not enough food: just stale bread and “soup” of raw potatoes in water. He had to buy his own winter uniform after receiving the wrong size summer clothes and boots. His rifle was rusty and jammed after a few shots.

On paper, his unit numbered 500 soldiers, but in reality it was only 300. While officially some 200,000 soldiers invaded Ukraine, he believes the real number was more like 100,000. Filatyev was sent into battle without a body armor – no doubt it was stolen and sold. He was driven to the front in a truck that carried mortar shells but had no brakes. He calls the military a “mafia” and says officers continually lied to senior brass to hide the true status of their units. ‘All that [equipment] 100 years old, a lot of things don’t work right, but in their reports, everything was probably fine… the Russian army is a madhouse and it’s all for show.

Filatyev’s account comes as no surprise to Yuri Shvets, a former KGB officer. He tells me a story about four Russian tanks arriving in a Ukrainian village. Two ran out of fuel, so the crews jumped on the other two and they went to look for a gas station. Meanwhile, villagers put Ukrainian flags on the blocked tanks. Having found no fuel, the returning soldiers—perhaps forgetting where they had parked—shelled these tanks, destroying them. Then the two remaining tanks stopped. The soldiers tried to leave on foot but were caught by the villagers and handed over to the Ukrainian army.

Shvets speaks of a Russian “collapse” in Ukraine. “It seems that the whole regime, including the Russian armed forces, including the FSB [the main intelligence service], was just a big Potemkin village. Putin made the biggest mistake in starting this fucking war because he ruined the village. People are amazed that what they thought was Russia was entirely wrong. It was virtual reality. And the reality is different. It is a disaster.’ Shvets thinks defeat in Ukraine, with the army walking home, could be the end of Russia. “The army keeps this vast territory united… Putin has put himself in a corner from which he has no escape. He killed his country.

Indeed, as Shvets says, just like the former Soviet Union, Russia is a colonial empire. It is the provinces that subsidize the capital, not the other way around. Oil, gas, wheat, timber, diamonds – Moscow takes it all. There is no economic reason for much of this distant empire to remain loyal. Many places have only been part of Russia since World War II, and in large parts of the empire they don’t even speak Russian as their first language. The Russian Federation is said to have some 190 distinct ethnic groups. There are Circassians, Chechens, Ingush, Ossetians, Dagestanis, Mongols, Tartars. Many of these peoples declared their independence in the past. If there was an uprising now, the army wouldn’t be able to stop it.

Michael Cecire, senior policy adviser at the Helsinki Commission in Washington DC, believes that the end of the Russian empire would be a “pure good”. The Commission was set up by the US government to oversee the détente treaties with the Soviet Union, which still to some extent govern relations with Russia. For too long, says Cecire, the West has been “unwittingly complicit” in Russia’s subjugation of its empire. The hopes of a Russia respecting the borders of its neighbors, and of a liberal democracy in Russia itself, all depended on “decolonization”.

The United States and other Western countries could only be spectators in this process, he said. But we must not be frightened by imagining the “infallible horrors” of ethnic conflicts in a disintegrating Russian Federation: “Balkan wars but with nuclear weapons”. He didn’t want to downplay the dangers if Russia broke away, he said, but an “apocalyptic nightmare” was not predestined. Instead, just as the Soviet Union faded into history, there might be “a relatively orderly and even cordial divorce.”

Putin might not see it that way. Would he order a nuclear strike on Ukraine to prevent defeat there and ultimately the destruction of Russia? It is certainly doubling down in Ukraine. His speech this week promised partial mobilization, throwing another 300,000 into the meat grinder of his failed war. The Kremlin has arranged for the so-called “people’s republics” it controls in eastern Ukraine to start voting this week to become part of Russia proper. So an attack on them would be an attack on the homeland – and for Putin, Ukraine’s counteroffensive is also NATO’s war.

He accused NATO of trying to “blackmail” Russia with nuclear weapons. But Russia also had “the means of destruction…If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.” It’s not a bluff. Earlier, Andrey Gurulyov, a rogue Duma member who was once a top general, said Russia could turn Britain “into a Martian wasteland in three flat minutes”.

For now, NATO governments are more worried about Russian tactical nuclear weapons – the small bombs that could be used to destroy a village or regiment – ​​and less about missiles fired from Siberia towards London. US officials say there is no evidence yet that such small nuclear weapons are being transferred to Ukraine. But that could change. Then it could be whether Putin thinks fate chose him to save Mother Russia. A longtime Kremlin watcher told me that Putin is a man “driven by a dark sense of mission,” his hands already drenched in blood. But Shvets says Putin made a career out of bluffing – building his Potemkin village – and he’s bluffing now.

In interviews, Putin likes to tell a story from his childhood when he chased a rat around the corner on the landing of his building in Leningrad. The rat turned on the young Putin, his teeth bared. “There, on that stair landing, I had a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word ‘cornered’.’ The lesson for NATO and Ukraine is clear: a cornered rat is unpredictable – and dangerous.

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