Is the first use of nuclear weapons ever justified? A top adviser to Vladimir Putin now says yes

Ever since Russia initiated its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, terrifying and exaggerated threats from Russian propagandists regarding bombing Western cities have consistently featured on state-controlled television programs.

Many discussions have revolved around the specific warnings and how the strategic circles in the West, including some top political thinkers in Russia, have evolved close links with President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle – a development that is particularly concerning and chilling.

Sergei Karaganov, the chair of the prestigious Russian think-tank, the Defence and Foreign Policy Council, stated that in order to prevent a global thermonuclear war, it is crucial to acknowledge that we must be aware of the enemy’s readiness to launch a pre-emptive strike.

Karaganov is believed to be one of the architects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and he has often provided an ideological justification for waging war on that country.

In an article titled “Decision Necessary but Difficult A” by Karaganov, it is suggested that Russia needs to lower the threshold for nuclear war in order to prevent a nuclear war and consider initiating a smaller, containable attack to ensure that Ukraine remains split and prevent the emergence of a victorious Russia. It also highlights the importance of an alliance with NATO in this context.

He suggests that launching nuclear weapons at multiple targets across several nations could potentially be Russia’s sole means to undermine the determination of Western countries and compel them to cease their assistance to Ukraine.

It is a conflict of hostility and territorial expansion. In reality, Putin and individuals from Russia’s governing elite consistently portray their nation’s unwarranted invasion of Ukraine as a protective conflict.

Not long after Karaganov’s article was published, another politically well-connected Russian foreign policy analyst, Dmitri Trenin, doubled down on his own view.

He contended that the Western nations have been attempting to restrain and dismantle Russia through the execution of a proxy conflict in Ukraine, and the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence has not been able to put a halt to these efforts.

Trenin wrote that reintroducing fear into the realm of politics and public awareness is essential in order to avoid a widespread disaster.

Trenin, the director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, was sought after and highly regarded for his opinions by Western governments and institutions until April 2022.

Counteroffensive raises stakes

In an effort to regain control of Russian-occupied territories and counter the anticipated launch of Ukraine’s much-awaited counteroffensive, countries are striving to escalate the nuclear threats, aiming to reach their maximum potential.

Many Ukrainians believe that the only way their nation’s existence can be guaranteed is if Russian troops are pushed back from the borders in 2014. This includes the strategically important Crimean Peninsula being reclaimed.

Many Russians, especially those in government, see a defeat in Ukraine as unthinkable and something that must be prevented at all costs.

In the weeks and days following Russia’s initial attacks on the capital of Ukraine, officials from Russia and Kyiv repeatedly resorted to nuclear threats in an attempt to dissuade Ukraine from defending itself and to deter the supply of weapons from the West to Ukraine.

Since then, Western countries have supplied the United States with more than $38 billion worth of military assistance, including artillery, defense systems, air support, and tanks.

Additionally, it seems that Russia has been cautioned and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government has been requested to provide something – strong assistance to Ukraine in the form of fighter jets F-16. It also seems that there is now a strong display of support among Western countries to send fighter jets F-16 to Ukraine.

Russia counting on waning interest in West

Some Western experts believe the nuclear threats are being strongly pushed again because Russia has no clear exit strategy from the war.

Patricia Lewis, the head of the international security program at Chatham House, a think-tank based in London, expressed, “In the absence of a total disaster for Russia, there is a growing necessity to contemplate the potential outcome and an escalating sense of hopelessness regarding the progress of the war.”

Lewis, a physicist and specialist in arms control, is a previous director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.

In an interview with CBC News, Putin said that the nuclear bluster serves as a warning about the consequences of doing so and now they may want to freeze the conflict with the front lines.

“But now it is significantly later, so this time it could potentially succeed if we increase the stakes,” Lewis commented on the potential mindset of the Kremlin. “Russia previously issued the threat, but nobody could comprehend the reasoning behind it as it occurred too early in the conflict.”

The Russian leader, who has been studied by analysts, believes that the conflict in Ukraine, which has set the stage for a years-long conflict, will eventually leave Ukraine for the West, as the public interest in Russia’s victory wanes.

Nevertheless, Lewis stated that there have been no divisions or disagreements among Ukraine’s primary global supporters or within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, even after a span of sixteen months.

And they haven’t witnessed any of that, I believe [the Kremlin desires] individuals on the streets of London and Berlin parading against their governments, exclaiming, ‘Cease backing Ukraine, we’ve had enough, they intend to launch nuclear weapons at us.’

There is no consensus among those in the West on whether the top generals and Putin himself would actually press the nuclear button, which is a highly debated issue in the Kremlin’s decision-making process.

Expressed on National Public Radio in the United States, Michael McFaul, a former United States envoy to Russia, stated, “I believe it is essential for all of us to acknowledge, ‘I am uncertain.'”

McFaul, who has been acquainted with the Russian leader for over two decades and has authored multiple books about him, expressed, “The manner in which he discusses these matters is distinct; his thought process regarding them is separate. Our understanding of Putin’s mindset is lacking.”

Within Kremlin policy circles, Sergei Karaganov’s encouragement to “restore the sense of apprehension” has encountered uncommon opposition.

The featured rebuttal in the Russian newspaper Kommersant, by three prominent foreign policy analysts, provides a point-by-point critique of Karaganov’s main arguments. It argues that nuclear war is not a viable solution to solving problems, as it is a detrimental approach.

“All the phases of potential escalation are uncertain,” they stated, “but the initial stage is not hard to anticipate.”

The authors postulated that a substantial assault on Russian military objectives at sea and on land using conventional armaments would occur, according to the hypothesis. They deduced that, due to the inability to reach a ceasefire agreement, the crisis would quickly deteriorate, resulting in only further nuclear escalation.

Don’t dismiss, don’t overreact

Last week, Putin confirmed that Russia has deployed nuclear warheads outside the territorial borders of Belarus for the first time since the Cold War.

He connected the deployment to the Western military assistance for Ukraine.

At the economic forum in St. Petersburg, Putin conveyed, “It serves as a means of discouragement to ensure that anyone contemplating causing a major setback to us is fully aware of this situation.”

Russian officials have also stated that they have not seen any indications of moving warheads out of well-known storage sites, in preparation for the use of nuclear weapons, even as American officials condemn the move.

Stated that although it would be unwise to completely disregard the revived Russian intimidations, Sam Greene, an expert in Russian politics at King’s College London, emphasized the significance of not overreacting to them.

During an interview, he informed CBC News, “The choices regarding how Russia will conduct this war will not be publicly disclosed.”

“And these voices are absent from the room during the decision-making process,” he stated, mentioning Karaganov and Trenin.

On the battleground, instead of centering on Russia’s actions, I interpret this as an attempt to incite the same discussions we are currently engaged in.