The Russian dictator’s hypnotism has broken; his blackmail has stopped working
SVITLANA MORENETS 2 August 2023 •
While Vladimir Putin generally refrains from clear nuclear threats, his henchmen are far less subtle. Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and current Deputy Security Council Chief, has threatened Ukraine and its Western supporters with nuclear weapons nearly sixty times since last February.
At 57, Medvedev holds an important role in Russia’s strategic communications, laser-focused on nuclear propaganda. His job is to say what Putin can’t; to remind the world who has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world – and where it can be used. The problem is that now nobody takes him seriously. “Red line” after “red line” has been crossed by the West, with no response. The nuclear blackmail has stopped working.
In fact, it’s become a semi-useful indicator about the state of Russia. Medvedev’s threats usually follow Russian military failures, and follow the lines of “if we’re about to lose a war, then we have a red button we can press”. Sure enough, last weekend as the counter-offensive gathered strength, Medvedev popped up to act as harbinger of the Apocalypse on his telegram channel, calling the Russian army the only force keeping “global nuclear fire from flaring up”.
In the early days of the full-scale invasion, the West took this seriously: would helping Ukraine mean risking a nuclear war? But it didn’t take much imagination to see an alternative horror: if Kyiv fell then the Baltic states would be next in line and we’d end up risking nuclear war anyway. Appeasing an aggressor can be the most provocative act of all.
The West found its courage and faced Russia down. And what happened? Western weapons poured into the battlefield; Ukraine hopes to join Nato when the war ends; and the only change in Russian nuclear posture has been the alleged transfer of tactical nuclear warheads to Belarus.
But Russia already has the ability to launch a nuclear strike anywhere it really wants to, so there was no military logic in rebasing the missiles to Belarus. The value was purely psychological; Moscow is attempting to persuade the West that further military and financial support for Ukraine will lead to escalation and increase the threat to Ukraine’s territory through missile launches, including those with nuclear warheads. “Nuclear weapons have already been used – we know by whom and where – which means there is no taboo!”, said Medvedev in July.
But the fact that Moscow has decided to put the “nuclear argument” on the table only shows that its conventional army has been shown up and Putin currently has no other ways to increase pressure on Ukraine and its allies. Ashamed to make threats directly, he hands the job to Medvedev, who does not seem to do it very well – his nuclear bluster rarely makes it to the Western headlines. He now inspires more ridicule than fear. Just as North Korea’s regular threats to attack America are now seen as part of a deranged everyday vocabulary. Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, ignore him, other than to recommend he drinks less vodka before opening Telegram.
Putin’s attempt to conquer Ukraine has proved the greatest disaster of his presidency. He can’t secure a military victory. He knows Ukraine won’t surrender in negotiations. And he knows nuclear war would be the end of his regime, and his life. As this war has shown, Putin is ready to sacrifice anyone, but not himself.
Svitlana Morenets is a Ukrainian journalist and staff writer at the Spectator