Putin’s Threats

James Meek

‘I’d seen the zinc coffins at the army compound,’ says one of the soldiers’ mothers in Zinc Boys, Svetlana Alexeyevich’s oral history of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan:

But that was when Yura was thirteen and my other son, Gena, just a little boy. I hoped the war would be over by the time they were grown up. Could it possibly drag on that long? But, as someone said at Yura’s wake: ‘It lasted ten years, as long as his schooldays.’

Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine on the assumption it would be comfortably wrapped up in a few days. Seven months, tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of hectares of blackened ruins later, he still hopes to come out, by his definition, a winner, but he made clear yesterday that he was prepared to take as much time as he needs.

If Ukraine’s remarkable recent military success east of Kharkiv raised hopes on its side, and in the West, of a Russian collapse, Putin, in his televised address, wanted it to be understood not only that Russia would fight for ever, with whatever means it had, but that Russia’s appetite for Ukrainian territory was not slaked. He supported ‘referendums’ due to be held by Russian occupying forces in four Ukrainian regions – Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhiya and Kherson – none of which Russia fully holds. It’s fighting just to keep control of the areas it does have. To pursue his stated task of defending Russia at any price, in other words, Putin intends to declare as sacred Russian soil parts of another country that his troops have yet to set foot in.

Not for the first time, Putin made vague threats to use Russia’s enormous store of nuclear weapons – couched, characteristically, in the form of accusing his enemies of his own sin, nuclear blackmail. Even the slightest possibility of nuclear weapons being used must be taken seriously. But even assuming Putin were able to get through the multiple layers of bureaucracy, planning and technical control that stand between him and the airily imagined ‘pressing the button’, what would it get him? The bloodthirsty pundits of Russian talk TV – think of an entire national network of mainstream news channels run by a council of Alex Jones, Tommy Robinson and Eric Zemmour – may urge the nuclear incineration of Britain as a smart move, but Putin and his counsellors have to think things through a little further.

The phrase ‘tactical nuclear weapon’ is misleading: there is no such thing as a small atomic warhead. Use one or two against Ukraine, and Russia would fail to do much damage to Ukraine’s military capability, but would murder thousands – or a hundred thousand, if the target were a city – and quite possibly induce direct military intervention by the rest of the world. Use more, and the northern hemisphere, including Russia, would be at risk of anthropogenic erasure. Putin has shown himself to be reckless, an egoist, a gambler and indifferent to the deaths of others, but not to be either mad or stupid.

The most significant part of Putin’s speech, followed up by a decree and a mumbled interview with the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, was that Russia doesn’t have enough men in uniform to win against Ukraine, and to get more, it needs to start pressing people into service against their wishes. It has run out of professional soldiers. Putin and Shoigu didn’t say so, but too many have been killed and wounded, and the ones Russia started with – who were too few for the task anyway – have been fighting non-stop for more than two hundred days. Intercepted calls and pro-Russian Telegram channels suggest they are mad with exhaustion and psychic trauma. Not long ago, a standard Russian army company would have about a hundred men. ‘Can you hear yourself?’ asked one 200,000-subscriber Telegram patriot this week of another who’d urged Russian forces to attack, attack. ‘I’m asking you again – press forward with what? A company of twelve people?’

Russia has tried to plug the gaps with ill-trained volunteers, with men press-ganged from the streets of Russian-held Ukrainian towns, with mercenaries, with convicts. Designating areas of occupied Ukraine as ‘Russia’ will allow existing conscripts, legally, to be thrown into the fight. But it is not enough – hence the vaguely defined ‘partial mobilisation’. Shoigu suggested only Russian men with military experience would be called up, and students and various others would be exempt. He talked of 300,000 new troops. The decree, however, was much more broadly drawn, saying only that men would be called up ‘in the numbers and at the times determined by the ministry of defence’.

It is the act of a desperate leader, who until now has tried to maintain the fiction that the invasion needn’t affect the lives of most Russians; that it was a tough job being carried out far away, by well-equipped professionals. Mobilisation is a signal to the apolitical majority of the Russian population that something is going badly wrong in Putin’s Ukraine project.

He’s used up his old trump cards, without success; his old power over Europe, which came from dread, has faded as his ominous threats have been carried out, and turned out not to be so terrible. In the mid-2010s, he boasted that his tank armies could take Warsaw and Bucharest in two days. In seven months they have barely moved from Donetsk to Donetsk airport. For years, Europe trembled in the face of a cut-off of Russian gas. Now it has been almost cut off, and Europe is not yet begging for mercy. Few see the nuclear threats as credible. Mobilisation – dipping into the great pool of Russian manpower – was one of the few threats Putin has left.

And yet the pool is not as great as it was. Russia is not the Soviet Union. When the USSR fell apart, Russia was only half its population, and that population is falling precipitously, now smaller than that of Germany and the UK combined. It’s unclear how the new recruits will be trained, or what equipment they will get, when so much of the country’s best gear has been destroyed or captured. Mobilisation has the potential to divide Russian society, driving a wedge between the metropolitan elite and those in the provinces, between the recruiters and the mothers and wives, between the army and the civilian politocracy, and to throw into despair the tens of thousands of contract soldiers who have been fighting in Ukraine since the beginning and now see no prospect of going home or finishing their contracts as signed.

Mobilisation is, nonetheless, a war-prolonging measure. It will probably make it easier for Russia to hold onto what it has by stopping the gaps in its ranks with cannon fodder and rear-echelon gophers. Ukraine triumphed east of Kharkiv, but is still struggling to win back land in the south. It’s possible that winter could see a lapse back into a war of attrition, with few big gains or losses of territory, and a war of missiles, with Ukraine using new Western air-defence weapons to try to shoot down Russian rockets aimed at destroying the power plants that keep the country warm. After the dread of Russian tank armies, after the dread of a gas cut-off, after the dread of mobilisation, Putin’s next threat is winter.


  • 23 September 2022 at 5:55pm
    Rowena Hiscox says:
    It's not OK to threaten to destroy civilisation. People have the right to feel safe.

  • 23 September 2022 at 8:09pm
    shewie says:
    "Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine on the assumption it would be comfortably wrapped up in a few days". How does James Meek know this?

    • 24 September 2022 at 1:50pm
      William N fordes says: @ shewie
      Because Putin’s war-mongering lunatic military said it would take 3 to 7 days. According to the CIA: “CIA Director Bill Burns told lawmakers last week that Putin's strategy for the war was centered on ‘seizing Kyiv within the first two days of the campaign.’ US intelligence likewise assessed that the city could fall soon after the invasion. ‘. Good enough for you?

    • 24 September 2022 at 8:28pm
      shewie says: @ William N fordes
      "According to the CIA...". You have to be joking!

    • 26 September 2022 at 12:11pm
      Rory Allen says: @ shewie
      The evidence fior the '3 to 7 days' idea is the fact of the of the dash for Kiev, that if successful, would have led to the occupation of the capital in a matter of days. The only logical reason to send a twenty mile convoy of vehicles down the road to Kiev is to occupy it within hours or days. And with the fall of the capital, the rest of the country would likely follow. Meek's conclusion seems perfectly reasonable.

  • 24 September 2022 at 10:25am
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    The war could be over soon, or it might go on for years yet.
    Putin could decide to nuke London tomorrow, but he probably won't, unless he does.
    The current Ukrainian offensive could become the crucial tipping point, but it might be the next one, or perhaps it's already happened and we haven't noticed yet.
    The sanctions could be working, or they might be having no effect.
    It could be vitally important for us to carry on doing whatever it is we're doing right now, or perhaps we should do something different.
    All-out nuclear war could be concerning, but it might be nothing to worry about, so let's don't.

    Where can I get my expert analyst certificate?

  • 24 September 2022 at 1:17pm
    XopherO says:
    What is the response to the use of a battlefield nuclear weapon? The old USSR and USA replaced MAD with flexible response, which implies a gradual escalation of a conflict to the use of battlefield nukes and beyond. That was the point of cruise missiles on Greenham Common, which became no longer necessary as nuclear warheads and delivery methods evolved. It is still the chosen strategy of both sides, though Russia, having claimed never to use them first, began to worry about the USA's first use policy. Russia subsequently joined the US in declaring the intention of 'first use', so there is nothing really new in Putin's threat
    The obvious response to first use on the battlefield is to reply the same. At the time Flexible Response was declared the new strategy it was assumed that the battlefield would not be in either power's homeland - somewhere else. So retaliation would remain 'over there'. However, what would be the response to a Putin nuke in Ukraine? A Biden nuke in ...Ukraine? That does not make a lot of sense if indeed Putin is controlling areas that do not want Russian control, and are looking for some kind of liberation. But the moment the US nukes Russia it has to do it hoping to win an all-out nuclear war or expect retaliation on US territory. Putin might calculate that any nuclear retaliation would be suicidal for the US and thus not likely. A dangerous calculation, but not idiotic. These kinds of thinking are surely absorbing a lot of both sides tactical and strategic planning. We can't just throw up our hands in horror and end up in all-out nuclear war, can we?

  • 24 September 2022 at 1:52pm
    William N fordes says:
    Putin is not insane, not even in the way Donald Trump is ‘insane,’ i.e., a sociopath, and he is not stupid. But he is desperate and he is dangerous and he has nukes. Should he use so-called ‘tactical’ nukes in Ukraine, the proper US/WEST/NATO response would be to destroy his Black Sea fleet with conventional weapons, shut off all borders to Russia and simply utterly isolate the country from the rest of the world. Let them eat their gas and nukes.

    • 25 September 2022 at 2:17pm
      XopherO says: @ William N fordes
      So tens of thousands die from a single nuke, polluted land, nuclear fallout over Europe, and even more Russians are left to their fate - starvation? But Putin simple sends another nuke into Ukraine. Don't be so glib.

    • 26 September 2022 at 12:16pm
      Rory Allen says: @ XopherO
      Sadly, tens of thousands have already died from very un-nuclear artillery shells and rockets. The proper response to a tactical nuclear weapon would be a conventional response, involving actual NATO intervention in Ukraine to defeat the Russian forces in the field and restore Ukrainian territory to the Ukrainians.

    • 26 September 2022 at 9:23pm
      XopherO says: @ Rory Allen
      Hooray! I really don't think some contributors understand much about nuclear weapons strategy or the devastation they can cause.Maybe just too young...

  • 24 September 2022 at 9:39pm
    Colin Woodward says:
    While losing the propaganda war, and (apparently - or at least not winning) the action on the ground, Putin IS winning the sanctions war, more through western incompetence than for any other reason. While Russian gas flowed westwards throughout the long cold war, and was paid for, past Bay of Pigs, Prague and all the rest this time US (etc.) banking sanctions started to threaten the flow of dollars in return for gas. Putin - pragmatically - asked for payment in Roubles instead to solve that technical problem. And here came the blunder: The west simply refused. Putin wasn't going to supply gas for payment into a dollar bank account he couldn't access and lo and behold -- no Russian gas and now we have European inflation of over 10% and a rising panic about unaffordable energy prices. (Plus a slump in the pound and all sorts of other side effects - but let me avoid British politics here, that's not the issue). One European leader, bless her, was so out of touch with reality that she pushed for a maximum price for Russian oil. (I still can't quite work out whether that was simple ignorance of how markets work or whether she realised this was silly but thought citizens would be impressed). Ho hum. But no western politician dare admit their blunder for maybe their electorate would have preferred affordable heating to banking sanctions. Is there a way back out of this particular lose-lose position ? I suspect not, it's simply too late. Silver lining: Good for long term CO2 levels (will encourage alternatives to hydrocarbon usage).

    • 29 September 2022 at 7:54am
      nlowhim says: @ Colin Woodward
      Yeah from what I’m hearing there will be political repercussions for the higher energy prices. Let’s see what it leads to when winter picks up. Wonder when all sides will decide on dialogue.

    • 1 October 2022 at 6:20am
      Delaide says: @ Colin Woodward
      Paul Krugman, writing in the NYT, said the real significance of sanctions is their effect on imports, especially, but not only, those materials needed to run the mechanism of war. Putin has drafted more soldiers but how are they going to get to the front and what will they do when they get there? Share rifles? PK’s line, as I recall.

  • 25 September 2022 at 1:30am
    Dan Birdwell says:
    We can all agree that Putin is a megalomaniac and shows little regard for human life, but nations should not base their foreign policies on hatred for one man or the heroic posturing of another. We should not forget that the people doing the actual fighting and dying on both sides of the conflict share the same desire for a Western European standard of living far more than they disagree on any ideology or nationality.

  • 26 September 2022 at 12:19pm
    Rory Allen says:
    Trying to anticipate what Putin may or may not do is not necessary. We simply do not know how he will react, and equally, how the Russian people as a whole will respond to mobilisation. The decision to be made is simply: do we continue to support Ukraine militarily at the same level, at a higher level, or stop supporting them? And there the most obvious answer is: while the Ukrainians are doing so well by themselves, continue supporting them economically and with the supply of advanced weapons.

    • 26 September 2022 at 5:06pm
      shewie says: @ Rory Allen
      I don't want to keep supporting the Ukraine economically or with weapons (through my taxes). Do I get a choice? Or are you telling me that's what I have to do.

    • 26 September 2022 at 5:08pm
      shewie says: @ Rory Allen
      *Ukraine military

    • 27 September 2022 at 9:31am
      Rory Allen says: @ shewie
      You get no more, or less choice than with any other government decision: such as the one to lift bonus limits on bankers, eliminate the top tax rate or to cap fuel prices. Your opportunity to choose occurs every five years or so, along with the rest of us. And it's not me telling you what to pay by way of taxes, it's HMRC or whatever they call themselves these days. Try arguing your point with them, why don't you?

  • 29 September 2022 at 7:57am
    nlowhim says:
    Thanks for the update. Not sure I would minimize the threat of using nukes by Russia. Didn’t some US intel say that he would only use nukes in an existential threat and losing in Ukraine would be just that?

    Here in the US the propaganda is off the charts and yet if Putin is the madman they say he is, they need to press for talks. Of course I’m wondering if, like the Cuban missile crisis someone has a back channel to the Kremlin so that we can avoid such actions. I’ll put the odds of that as pretty low right now.

    I think the madness is all around now

  • 1 October 2022 at 4:20am
    James Mccall says:
    It's worth noting that not only the high numbers of Russian casualties in the Ukrainian war have been significant, including many colonels and generals, but also the low ratio of Russian killed to wounded (reportedly 1 to 4). The latter indicates that Russian forces have not been able to evacuate quickly their wounded to receive necessary medical treatment. Clearly, it isn't "Russia's appetite for Ukrainian territory was not slaked" but rather Putin's. At some point, if the Russian military catastrophe continues to worsen, that distinction will become decisive.

  • 5 October 2022 at 5:46pm
    Adam Chmielewski says:
    The period of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency is known among the Russians as smuta, or despair. Some of that time I spent in the company of young people from the post-Soviet bloc. The Soviet habit of heavy vodka drinking had not yet been then superseded in Central Europe by the liberal wine-sipping. In the alcohol-induced frankness, one of the Russians bitterly said: „На что мена такая великая родина, когда в нее порядка нет?” („Why should I need such a great homeland, if there is no order in it?”)
    In this straightforward way, he pointed out two main, closely related Russia’s problems: its size, and its endemic disorder. Soon after, Vladimir Putin found a solution to these problems, establishing the order much longed for by Russians. Though at the top of the political hierarchy this order turned out to be a system of organized crime, it brought some relief to all. After more than two decades of despotic rule, Putin decided to expand the Ruskij mir he founded. He miscalculated. As a result, the Russian order has just begun to disintegrate and, together with it, the global order as well. The problem is that no empires arose, and fell, without causing great destruction.

    A nuclear strike by Putin would be tantamount to an admission of the weakness of his army, corruption of his state, and an acknowledgement of his impotence. But he might do it nevertheless, precisely to demonstrate his might. Turning Russia into a pariah would not matter to him.
    It already is one.

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