The West must face down Putin’s nuclear brinkmanship

Instead of shying away, the West needs to make clear its strategic objectives: Ukraine’s sovereignty over all its pre-2014 territory

Robert Clark

30 January 2023 •

As the war in Ukraine enters its twelve month with no clear end in sight, Moscow is once hinting at the use of nuclear weapons. Last week former president and close Putin-ally Dmitry Medvedev sent a stark warning to European leaders, saying that “nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends”. This was swiftly followed by a prominent Russian commentator calling for a nuclear strike against Berlin in retaliation against Germany’s decision to allow its Leopard 2 tanks to be sent to Ukraine.  

For all the frenzied coverage of a potential nuclear conflict between NATO and Russia, the Kremlin’s threats – usually issued when it has suffered a setback on the battlefield – actually betray their own thinly veiled bluster. Russian military doctrine dictates that a nuclear strike follows “aggression against the Russian Federation with conventional weapons” in circumstances “when the very existence of the state is threatened”. And despite the threats regularly emanating from Moscow, there is no military threat to sovereign Russian territory.

Instead, any nuclear escalation is likely to result from threats to Putin’s position as leader, whether real or perceived. Much has been written about Putin’s state of mind during this war. It is clear that he holds no regard for Ukrainian sovereignty, and still views Ukraine through the myopic and outdated Cold War prism of a Soviet territory. Consistently fed poor intelligence by his generals, surrounded by yes-men reinforcing harsh group-think decision-making, and with no military background, we see in Moscow an increasingly isolated decision-maker, and one who consistently lacks the right information upon which to base strategic decisions. These decisions include the possibility of going nuclear amid continued battlefield failures at the tactical and increasingly operational level. 

The Russian leader’s increasingly erratic behaviour is not a reason for the West to back down. If nothing else, the actual state of the Russian nuclear arsenal is unknown. The flaws in Russia’s conventional capabilities highlighted throughout the past twelve months, and in particular the poor maintenance of equipment and its low serviceability, have raised the prospect of there being significant gaps in Moscow’s nuclear capability – and its credibility as a threat. 

Instead of shying away, the West needs to make clear its strategic objectives and give Putin room to plot an exit strategy within Russia – one that can handle a reality where Ukraine regains its pre-2014 territory. While isolating Russia diplomatically sends the right message that Moscow has become an international pariah, Ukraine’s allies do need to reinforce that their central objective is not to directly threaten the Russian state or its rightful territory, but to assist Kyiv in expelling Russian forces from Ukrainian soil.  

The British and American governments appear to believe that this objective includes Crimea, which Moscow continues to assert is Russian territory. The point that Western tanks and their Ukrainian operators would cease at the pre-2014 Russian border is an important one to convey; Russian forces in Crimea retreating in disarray with unclear lines of communication is the sort of situation which could result in misinterpretation and potential escalation.

This can be avoided if the West is clear in its messaging, and its willingness to support Ukraine in this eventual – and likely decisive – battlefield. Put simply, a return to the pre-2014 borders has to be conveyed to Moscow as the end goal for Ukraine – along with the point that this is hardly the sort of existential threat to Russia which would merit the use of nuclear weapons.

Robert Clark is the Director of the Defence and Security Unit at Civitas. Prior to this he served in the British Army, including combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.


  1. Selected comments from DT readers :

    Percy Blakeney:
    “Putin made the biggest mistake of his life by invading Ukraine. The West and NATO won’t allow him to get away with it this time! The only hope left for Russia is that someone in the Kremlin, probably backed up by the armed forces, removes Putin and tries to get a deal with Ukraine and the West. But it won’t be an easy or palatable one for the once superpower.”

    Andrew Crowe:
    “Russia must return all Ukrainian territory. That includes Crimea. End of discussion.”

    Troll “Peter Tabard” writes:
    “We should be on Russia’s side trying to prevent the genocide of ethnic Russians in Ukraine.”

    Reply from Andrew Crowe:
    “You really are a complete tool, aren’t you?”

    Peter J Taylor:
    “Neither NATO nor Ukraine nor anyone else threatens Russia sovereignty over its own territory. Russia agreed to “guarantee” Ukraine’s borders in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in return for Ukraine’s surrender of the third biggest nuclear arsenal in the world. Therefore the return to the status quo ante that pertained between 1992 and 2014 would be a just conclusion to this bloody expansionist war.”

    Anthony Meyer:
    “Medvedev is the kind of tete de merde to whom the naive/arrogant Obama said in 2012 “after the elections I will have more flexibility”
    Or the same year during his last debate with the centrist Republican Romney when he said Russia was our most immediate foes, “you are stuck in a Cold War mentality”

    Robert Martin:
    “Putin, who enjoys the creature comforts of this world rather than those which may or may not be on offer in the next, has an interest in himself, his family and close associates not exiting the planet along with the rest of us. I am convinced that will inform his decision making.”

    Charles Fielding:
    “I think Putin is already at risk (though likely not very soon, unless his health is failing, no idea on that). There’s no doubt there is growing division in the Kremlin and between ‘Russia’ and ‘Wagner’ and other mercenary groups. There will be no nukes by Putin. It is bluster.
    As I say the Russian diplomat (writing in the Mail this week) states that Russia sees the US and the West as weak and Russia as strong (two false narratives). The diplomat sees defeat for Putin as the only solution. I don’t have the answers but what I do know is that support for Ukraine should be strong and unwavering.”

    Auclan McIntire:
    “There is nothing unclear about Crimea. It was handed to Ukraine by Russia in 1954, when Ukraine was part of the USSR. The agreement was confirmed by Russia in 1996 when it ratified the Autonomous Republic of Crimea as “inseparable constituent part of Ukraine.” This is accepted by international law.
    There is no argument over this. Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea was unlawful, violent, and should have been sternly challenged by the west. Sadly, no-one stood up to the plate.
    There is no need to prevaricate and waffle about this. Russia must be put back in its pre 2014 box, and its military teeth pulled. Any attempt to pretend otherwise, Mr Clark, is simply appeasement of an out-of-control dictator.”

    Reply to Auclan McIntyre
    Peter Jenkins:
    “I doubt we’ll be able to pull its military teeth but the Russian military is being ground down by the Ukrainians. That will stop when the Russians return tp the 2014 borders. After that, as Putin has cowed the Russian people, he will no doubt start re-arming. The US’s response during the Cold War was to re-arm faster than the Russians could and bankrupt them. Europe will need to play its role in this both to guard against Russian expansionism as well as to be ready for Chinese military challenges.”

  2. “Instead of shying away, the West needs to make clear its strategic objectives: Ukraine’s sovereignty over all its pre-2014 territory”

    That’s not going to happen. Looking at the losers called Biden, Scholz and Macron makes me recoil with disgust. Their overall behavior in the hour of the free world’s urgency is nauseating.

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