- Putin has made a lot of nuclear threats since the war in Ukraine began.
- But the threats appear to be carrying less and less weight. The West seems skeptical he would actually use a nuke.
- Putin’s latest threat involves moving tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a variety of nuclear threats since he launched his invasion of Ukraine last year, prompting condemnation and alarm across the world, but with each new threat, Moscow’s rivals and adversaries seem to be growing increasingly skeptical that Putin would actually use such a weapon.
Over the weekend, Putin announced a plan to place tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, which borders members of the EU and NATO, by summer. Tactical nuclear weapons (also known as battlefield nukes) are generally intended for use on a smaller scale at shorter ranges and are less powerful than strategic nuclear weapons. That said, tactical nuclear weapons still have the capacity to wreak havoc and kill tens of thousands of people.
Though NATO condemned Putin’s rhetoric as “dangerous and irresponsible,” the alliance also said that it had “not seen any changes in Russia’s nuclear posture that would lead us to adjust our own.” In other words, NATO signaled that it was monitoring the situation but not taking any major steps in response.
Similarly, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby on Sunday told CBS News the White House hadn’t seen anything to indicate Putin was preparing to use tactical nuclear weapons “in any way whatsoever in Ukraine.”
“I can also tell you that we haven’t seen anything that would cause us to change our own strategic nuclear deterrent posture,” Kirby said.
Ukraine shares a border with Belarus and saw Russian troops invade via the Kremlin-allied country last year, and its foreign ministry called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in response to Putin’s latest threat. But Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, also mocked Putin as “too predictable” in response to the news.
“Making a statement about tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, [Putin] admits that he is afraid of losing & all he can do is scare with tactics,” Podolyak said via Twitter.
Many top analysts largely view Putin’s bombastic rhetoric on nuclear weapons as a sign of the Russian leader’s frustration over how poorly the war in Ukraine has gone for Russian forces.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based research organization that has closely tracked the war in Ukraine and provided frequent updates, said that Putin’s announcement on placing tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus were part of an “information operation” and “irrelevant to the risk of escalation to nuclear war, which remains extremely low.”
Putin is vying to “exploit Western fears of nuclear escalation,” ISW said, adding that it continues to assess that the Russian leader is “a risk-averse actor who repeatedly threatens to use nuclear weapons without any intention of following through in order to break Western resolve.”
Last year, there were serious concerns that Putin could resort to using nuclear weapons as Russia failed to reach its goals in the war. CIA Director Bill Burns last April warned that Putin might use a nuclear weapon if becomes desperate enough. But those fears have seemingly faded. On Monday, for example, nuclear expert Joseph Cirincione tweeted that he got “bumped” from a scheduled interview with Sky News to discuss Putin’s nuclear threats because the network instead decided to focus on a celebrity trial involving Gwyneth Paltrow in relation to a 2016 ski accident.
Just days before Putin said Russia would send tactical nukes to Belarus, he was hosting Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Moscow. Xi in early March also hosted Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko in Beijing. GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, who chairs the House select committee on US competition with China, on Sunday told ABC News that Putin’s repeated “nuclear saber-rattling” was a concerning, but should not deter the US from continuing to arm Ukraine with vital weapons.