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Is the first use of nuclear weapons ever justified? A top adviser to Vladimir Putin now says yes

A hawkish Russian analyst with President Vladimir Putin’s ear ignites a debate over whether it's time for the Kremlin to use a nuclear weapon to end the war in Ukraine. The escalation of nuclear threats — some coming from Russia's top political thinkers — coincides with Ukraine's counteroffensive.

Escalation of nuclear threats from Russia coincides with Ukraine's counteroffensive

An intercontinental ballistic missile system drives moves through Moscow's Red Square during a military parade.

Blood-curdling bluster from Russian propagandists about nuking Western cities has been a mainstay of state-controlled television programs since the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

But what's new — and chilling — for many in Western strategic circles is how the discussion and specific warnings have evolved to include Russia's top political thinkers, including some with especially close links to President Vladimir Putin's inner circle.

"The enemy must know that we are ready to deliver a pre-emptive strike … to prevent a slide into global thermonuclear war," wrote Sergei Karaganov, chair of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, a prestigious Russian think-tank, and an adviser to Putin.

Karaganov is believed to be one of the architects of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and has frequently provided an ideological justification for waging war on that country.

Laid out in an article titled "A Difficult but Necessary Decision," Karaganov's thinking appears to be that to prevent a civilization-ending nuclear war, Russia needs to lower the threshold for using nuclear weapons and consider initiating a smaller, containable attack that will split the NATO alliance and ensure Russia emerges victorious against Ukraine.

A bald man with glasses and wearing a green jacket and tie sits in front of a glass display case.

He says the only way Russia may be able to break the will of Western countries so they stop helping Ukraine is by launching nuclear weapons at "a bunch of targets in a number of countries."

Putin and members of Russia's ruling elite continually present their country's unprovoked attack on Ukraine as a defensive struggle. In fact, it's a war of aggression and empire-building.

Not long after Karaganov's article was published, another politically well-connected Russian foreign policy analyst, Dmitri Trenin, doubled down on his own view.

Nuclear deterrence has not stopped the West from trying to contain and destroy Russia by conducting a proxy war in Ukraine, he argued.

"To avoid a general catastrophe, it is necessary to return fear to politics and public consciousness," Trenin wrote.

Trenin was director of the Carnegie Moscow Center until it closed in April 2022, and his opinions were widely respected and sought after by Western governments and institutions.

Counteroffensive raises stakes

The ratcheting up of the nuclear threats coincide with the launch of Ukraine's much-anticipated counteroffensive to try to retake Russian-occupied territory, with the stakes for both countries about as high as they can get.

Many Ukrainians believe their existence as a nation can only be guaranteed if Russian troops are pushed back to 2014 borders, including reclaiming the strategically important Crimean Peninsula.

The body of a soldier is shown near a destroyed tank.

Many Russians, especially those in government, see a defeat in Ukraine as unthinkable and something that must be prevented at all costs.

In the days and weeks following Russia's initial attacks on Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, and other cities, Russian officials repeatedly resorted to nuclear threats to try to dissuade Ukraine from defending itself — and the West from supplying Ukraine with weapons.

Since then, Western arms have flowed into the country, with the United States alone providing more than $38 billion US in military assistance, including tanks, air defence systems and artillery.

There also now appears to be strong support among Western nations for sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine — something President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's government has been asking for and Russia has been warning against.

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Russia counting on waning interest in West

Some Western experts believe the nuclear threats are being strongly pushed again because Russia has no clear exit strategy from the war.

"There is an increasing despondency about how the war is going and an increasing need to think of how it might end without a complete catastrophe for Russia," said Patricia Lewis, director of the international security program at Chatham House, a think-tank in London.

A woman wearing a black suit sits in a chair.

Lewis, a physicist and arms control expert, is a former director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.

In an interview with CBC News, Lewis said Putin may want to freeze the conflict with the front lines as they are now, and she noted that the nuclear bluster serves as a warning about the consequences for the West of not doing so.

"'We [Russia] made the threat before, but no one could see the rationale because it was too early in the war;' Lewis said of the possible Kremlin mindset. "'But now it's much later, so this time it might work if we up the ante.'"

Analysts who have studied the Russian leader believe he has set the stage for a years-long conflict with Ukraine, resolute in his belief that eventually waning public interest in the West for Ukraine will leave Russia victorious.

Sixteen months on, however, Lewis said there have been no splits in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or with Ukraine's major international donors.

"I think [the Kremlin wants] people on the streets of London and Berlin marching on their governments saying, 'Stop supporting Ukraine, enough is enough, they are going to nuke us.' And they have not seen any of that."

No consensus from Putin-watchers

Whether Putin and his top generals would actually press the nuclear button remains a hotly debated issue, with no consensus from those in the West who track Kremlin decision-making.

"I think we all need to say, 'I don't know,'" Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said on National Public Radio in the U.S.

"We do not have good intelligence about the way [Putin] thinks. The way he talks about these things is one thing; the way he thinks about them is another," said McFaul, who has known the Russian leader for more than 20 years and has written several books about him.

A balding older man wearing a dark suit and a purple tie stands at a podium.

Within Kremlin policy circles, Sergei Karaganov's incitement to "bring back the fear" has met with unusual resistance.

"Nuclear war is a bad way to solve problems," read a headline in the Russian business and politics newspaper Kommersant. It featured a point-by-point rebuttal of Karaganov's main points by three prominent foreign policy analysts.

"All the stages of possible escalation are unpredictable," they wrote, "but the first stage is not difficult to foresee."

It would involve a massive strike by NATO forces on Russian military targets on sea and land using conventional weapons, the authors hypothesized. Unable to agree on a ceasefire, the crisis would rapidly spiral and all that would be left is further nuclear escalation, they concluded.

Don't dismiss, don't overreact

Putin confirmed last week that for the first time since the Cold War, Russia has deployed nuclear warheads outside of its territorial borders to Belarus.

He linked the deployment to Western military support for Ukraine.

Two older balding men, one wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and the other wearing a blue blazer, speak outside a building.

"It is precisely as an element of deterrence so that all those who are thinking about inflicting a strategic defeat on us are not oblivious to this circumstance," Putin told an economic forum in St. Petersburg.

While condemning the move, American officials have also said they have seen no indications that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons, such as moving warheads out of well-known storage sites.

Sam Greene, a professor in Russian politics at King's College London, said while it would be irresponsible to dismiss the renewed Russian threats outright, it's also important not to overreact to them.

"The decisions about how Russia is going to prosecute this war are not going to be made in public," he told CBC News in an interview.

"And these voices are not in the room when the decision is being made," he said, referring to Karaganov and Trenin.

"I read this … as trying to provoke the kinds of conversations we are having now, rather than focusing on what Russia is doing on the battlefield."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

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