Sadakat Kadri

On Sunday afternoon, Vladimir Putin warned that aggressive statements by ‘top officials in Nato’s leading countries’ had obliged him to put Russia’s ‘deterrence forces’ on high alert. The Kremlin press secretary blamed ‘various representatives at various levels’ and didn’t want to name names, ‘although it was the British foreign minister’. Liz Truss has denied responsibility.

Putin loyalists seemed as baffled as everyone else. Even the defence minister and chief of staff, peering at their commander-in-chief from the far end of a long table, looked quizzical. I happened to be watching the Kremlin-owned TV channel formerly known as Russia Today at the time (it’s still viewable via Freeview, despite recent bans by the EU and many online platforms), and its live coverage abruptly ended when the on-air translator stumbled over the president’s words. Caught on the hop, the studio presenter looked ashen – as though realising for the first time that his job now involved justifying a war of aggression. The only explanation the official news agency TASS could put forward, rather hesitantly, was that Putin was introducing ‘what he described as a “special service regime”’.

Since then, explanations of the threat have tightened up. A video clip that RT posted on YouTube (no longer available) was given subtitles, presumably with the approval of someone important, which said that Russia’s ‘nuclear deterrent forces’ were being put ‘on highest alert’. TASS’s initial report has been updated to explain that the special service regime extends to ‘various types of weapons, including nuclear ones’, while the defence minister, Sergei Shoygu, assured Putin that an array of forces, offensive and atomic as well as defensive and conventional, have been ‘switched to enhanced combat alert’. That doesn’t clarify much, except perhaps that Putin wants the world to worry about his state of mind.

Last September, Russia and Belarus staged Zapad-21, a war game involving up to 200,000 troops. The show of strength had felt ominous even then – not least because I was in Lithuania at the time, and one of the places I visited was a former Soviet nuclear base with links to the Cuban Missile Crisis – but I’d assumed Putin and Lukashenko were just rattling sabres.

Zapad is a quadrennial exercise that dates back to the 1970s. The 1977 war game postulated a Western aggressor using supposedly routine military movements as the pretext for an invasion. Planners hypothesised that the attack would peter out, causing panicked Western forces to prepare for a nuclear strike. That obliged the Soviet camp to press home its advantage by pre-empting it. In a section headed ‘Exploitation of Success with the Use of Nuclear Weapons’, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov reported that the ensuing exchange of one to two thousand warheads left behind ‘extensive zones of contamination, destruction and fires’ and 250,000 military fatalities on both sides, hypothetically. The likely number of civilian casualties wasn’t assessed.

I didn’t write about any of this last autumn because I reasoned that military doctrines and political structures in Russia had evolved considerably since Zapad-77. Even if the Putin-led oligarchy didn’t have all the checks and balances it should, it didn’t look then as if it might turn into a war machine on autopilot. Even when I learned that Russia had initiated another notional first nuclear strike during Zapad-99, and that Zapad-09 ended with atomic missiles fired at Poland, it seemed wrong to dwell on ideas about military deterrence and mutually assured destruction. I’d read a very well argued and informative analysis acknowledging the contention that Russia had lowered its threshold for the use of battlefield nuclear weapons, but it felt provocative and alarmist to wonder if Cold War fantasies of nuclear-enabled success might linger in Russian military circles. Perhaps it wasn’t.


  • 2 March 2022 at 6:43pm
    XopherO says:
    I think the same fantasies of nuclear success have continued in US military circles, at least since the Cuba Crisis when Kennedy had hawkish generals prepared to start such a war. The US has never renounced first strike, nor has the UK, and Russia has joined the club. Now for both sides Ukraine is disposable, it having been led up the garden path by US /NATO hegemonic ambitions. We are in grave danger in Europe from inflexible quasi-morons on both sides, Russia and the USA, particularly the latter.

    • 3 March 2022 at 12:43pm
      Reader says: @ XopherO
      I agreed with everything you wrote up to the phrase: "having been led up the garden path by US /NATO hegemonic ambitions." I see the claim regularly repeated that Ukraine was involved with NATO, without evidence. Can you please be more specific about what precisely the connection is? But I return to agreement with you in your final sentence, if you are referring to the likely return of Donald Trump to the White House in 2024.

    • 3 March 2022 at 5:19pm
      XopherO says: @ Reader
      Since 2014 Ukraine has been wooed by the USA in particular - democracy, sovereignty etc, words the USA has made meaningless through its own hegemonic ambitions - and there have clearly been discussions between NATO and Ukraine, which moved up a step recently, going by statements made by NATO officials (who always sound a bit aggressive, maybe all senior military figures do) and apparently NATO has said no to membership for the moment, but has held open the possibility sometime but not in the near future. It is not at all clear, however. But Ukraine has been slowly absorbed into the Western/USA zone of influence and has been receiving arms from the West. Not just referring to Trump, but Biden as well, his statements about a possible Russian invasion seemed to be inviting an incursion, quickly withdrawn, but was this discussed in the White house, and let slip by mistake? NATO and its members said over and over again that NATO would not respond to an attack. So it almost seemed as if Russia were being invited to invade in the belief it would get bogged down, another Afghanistan, and seriously weakened, with Ukraine as 'collateral damage'. A terrifying thought, which I hope is not true! But what I mean by being led up the garden path. Realpolitik!

    • 4 March 2022 at 11:32am
      Reader says: @ XopherO
      It may be that the US has done all this and more. Then if Putin's invasion was the result of American provocation, he has fallen into a trap. But all this speculation about motives is untestable. The one undoubted fact we have is that a Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused, and will cause terrible damage not only to Ukraine but also to Russia. Time will tell, but Putin's decision seems certain to weaken his country.

    • 4 March 2022 at 1:21pm
      XopherO says: @ Reader
      I agree entirely. A tragedy which surely could have been avoided, but looks extremely difficult to stop, and could spread.

  • 3 March 2022 at 1:41pm
    bikethru says:
    The Tass reports cited above refer to the Russian "deference forces". If only.

  • 4 March 2022 at 2:40pm
    Graucho says:
    So it's all NATO's fault. Well in so far as Ukraine and Georgia were not incorporated ASAP when there was time to do it, I guess it is. Anyone who had had to live under Stalin's evil shadow and that of his successors would never ever want to do it again. Remember the starvation of the Kulaks, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Stasi, the Russians bombing aid convoys and hospitals in Syria. What was it the Russian communist party called their apologists and fans in the West ? "Useful fools " I believe.

  • 10 March 2022 at 5:36pm
    Petr Favorov says:
    "the studio presenter looked ashen – as though realising for the first time that his job now involved justifying a war of aggression" That's a surprisingly cheap take. Why on earth not "as though realising for the first time that nuclear conflict is now not an impossibility", for example - which would be a natural reaction for anybody?

Read more