After Key Battlefield Loss, a Big Worry Emerges on Putin

Chechen leader urges him to use nuclear weapons, and the West is concerned
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 2, 2022 7:50 AM CDT
After Big Battlefield Loss, Putin Is Urged to Go Nuclear
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks in Moscow Friday during celebrations marking Russia's claim of annexation of four regions of Ukraine.   (Sergei Karpukhin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russia suffered another humiliating defeat this weekend when it lost the key city of Lyman—which belongs to a region that Vladimir Putin just claimed to annex. A growing worry in the West is that Putin warned last week that any attack on annexed regions would be considered an attack on Russia itself, and he made clear he was considering the use of nuclear weapons. On Saturday, that threat was driven home in comments made by Chechen leader and Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov, who declared that "more drastic measures should be taken, up to the declaration of martial law in the border areas and the use of low-yield nuclear weapons," per Reuters.

Kadyrov thus becomes "the first prominent Russian official to openly call for such a strike," per the New York Times. The Times analysis and another in the Washington Post agree that the odds remain low that Putin will actually go nuclear, but both pieces take note of the growing alarm as Putin's rhetoric escalates. For example, in his speech on Friday, Putin declared that the US "created a precedent" for nuclear strikes with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some assessments, reaction:

  • “It’s a low probability event, but it is the most serious case of nuclear brinkmanship since the 1980s,” Franz-Stefan Gady of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London tells the Post. “It is a very dangerous situation and it needs to be taken seriously by Western policymakers.”
  • "Senior American officials say they think the chances that Mr. Putin would employ a nuclear weapon remain low," per the Times. "But they are far more worried about the possibility now than they were at the beginning of the Ukraine conflict in February. ... Putin clearly sees the threat of his nuclear arsenal as a way to instill fear, and perhaps to recover some respect for Russia’s power."
  • Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Endowment tells Axios that the chances of a nuclear strike have risen from "single digits" to "double digits" in just the last two weeks.
  • National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan warned last weekend that Russia would face "catastrophic consequences" if it goes nuclear, per the Guardian. On Friday, he acknowledged that Putin (as the Russian leader himself insists) might not be not bluffing. "There is a risk, given all the loose talk and the nuclear saber-rattling by Putin, that he would consider this." The Times notes that one deterrent for Putin might be the risk of a backlash from China.
(Read more Russia-Ukraine conflict stories.)

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