What Do Vladimir Putin's Threats Really Mean For Russia, The West And The Ukraine War?

Russian president claimed he is "not bluffing" when he warned he could go nuclear.
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Contributor via Getty Images

Vladimir Putin’s rambling address on Wednesday signalled the start of a new, alarming phase for the war in Ukraine.

He announced he would be introducing partial mobilisation – the first time this has happened in Russia since World War 2 – and that there will be so-called referendums in certain Ukrainian territories so they can join Russia.

The president also claimed he “was not bluffing” about using his nuclear weapons unless the West stopped its own supposed “nuclear blackmail” against Moscow.

The loaded speech reveals a lot what is going on behind closed doors in Russia – here’s what you need to know.

1. What do the nuclear threats mean?

The president issued an alarming warning to the West – including the UK – and said: “Those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction.”

He claimed Ukraine was shelling the occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is on the frontline. This is actually an accusation Ukraine, in turn, has thrown at Russia. Shelling around the plant is extremely dangerous because it could lead to a large nuclear reaction comparable to Chernobyl.

The Russian president also claimed that some Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) states have threatened nuclear war, although this is an unfounded claim.

Foreign office minister Gillian Keegan responded to Putin’s statement on Wednesday and told Sky News he was telling “lies” about what was happening in Ukraine and the accusations of “nuclear blackmail”.

Still, she noted the west should take Putin’s own nuclear threat “very seriously” because “we’re not in control” – although she added: “I’m not sure he’s in control either really.”

But, this doesn’t mean Putin will go nuclear – necessarily. The Russian president has been threatening using his nuclear weapons since early on in the invasion, in the hope of intimidating Kyiv and getting Nato to back off. And so far, it has helped prevent the West from direct intervening in the war.

As former British ambassador to Russia, Sir Laurie Bristow, told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “Russia has no more interest in getting into direct conflict with Nato than Nato does with Russia.”

Then again, as retired US army colonel Daniel Davis told The Guardian: “This is little [Putin] won’t do when he feels it is necessary to win on the battlefield.”

2. Why has he introduced partial mobilisation?

Until now, Putin has avoided mobilising the Russian public for battle by describing his invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation”. This gave the impression that it would be an easily won offensive, as the Russians were going to “liberate” their European neighbours from their supposed “neo-Nazi” government.

However, Ukraine’s astounding counteroffensive and general defence means Russia has since suffered significant losses on the battlefield, while being pushed back off Ukrainian land.

By calling for the 300,000 reservists to be deployed – out the 25 million reservists within the country – Russia clearly hopes to bolster its manpower.

However, the Kremlin has also ruled out sending students or conscripts under the age of 27 into military mobilisation. According to University of Oxford international relations tutor Samuel Ramani, this is key because “support for the Ukraine war is significantly lower amongst Russian millennials”.

The Russian Duma also amended laws to increase the punishment for desertion or from people refusing to fight on Tuesday.

BBC diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams also claimed that the partial mobilisation will “have little immediate effect”, because it takes months to prepare, equip and organise new fighting forces, even if they have previously been in battle.

“Unless Russia starts throwing the new forces into the battle piecemeal, then they won’t be involved in the fighting until next spring,” Adams claimed.

“And given Russia’s catastrophic material losses, Moscow may struggle to give new units the equipment they need to fight effectively.”

He added that morale is already low among the forces already fighting – and it could dip even further when the already fatigued soldiers learn their contracts are being extended.

The general sense is that, by U-turning on his previous promises not to mobilise the Russian population, Putin’s latest announcement is a sign that the invasion is not going to plan.

It’s worth noting that this announcement meant the stock market took a sharp downturn at the news.

The BBC also reported that “many Russians, especially young professionals” will be considering leaving the country as soon as possible, and there have been claims that the sale of plane tickets leaving Russia is soaring. Flights from Russia to Istanbul, for instance, reportedly sold out just hours after the public address.

3. Why mention referendums?

Putin claimed the two breakaway territories, Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, along with seized regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, want to hold referendums to join Russia. Together, these areas makes up 15% of Ukrainian territory.

He claimed that all these regions already have Russia’s support, and “we will do everything to ensure” the safe conduct of these so-called public votes.

The West has already said it would not recognise the results of such referendums, which are set to go ahead between September 23 and 27.

The Russian president also claimed that, while the West wants to destroy Russian and turn Ukraine’s people into cannon fodder, Moscow’s aim is to “liberate the Donbas”.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine
Russia's invasion of Ukraine
PA GraphicsPress Association Images

By suggesting Ukrainian territories controlled by Russia want to join the country, Putin is still trying to paint his invasion as a defensive act in a bid to deter the west and Ukrainian forces. It also means any future attempts for Ukraine to reclaim this land later will justify an extreme use of force from Putin.

The UK’s Ministry of Defence warned the push for these referendums were “likely driven by fears of imminent Ukrainian attack and an expectation of greater security after formally becoming part of Russia”.

The BBC’s Rosenberg also pointed out: “With Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine about to hold so-called referendums on joining Russia, that is a clear message to Ukraine and the West: Don’t try to take back land we have seized and will claim as our own.”

4. What about Putin’s international partners?

While the president did not mention anything about Russia’s place on the international stage, the speech came just days after he visited his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Azerbaijan.

It was there that he publicly said Russia understands China’s “concerns” – a surprising admission to many in the West, considering China is only buying fossil fuels from Russia at a discounted rate, But, this has become a lifeline to Russia because its usual clients in Europe have been pulling back from its natural gas and oil exports.

Last Friday, another ally, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, made a surprising intervention and told Putin: “Today’s era is not of war.”

He said: “We have talked to you many times over the phone on the subject that democracy and diplomacy and dialogue are all these things that touch the world.”

Putin simply replied acknowledging the concerns Modi “continuously expresses”, promising: “We will do everything for all of this to end as soon as possible.”

US secretary of state Antony Blinken said last week that these concerns from China and India increase “the pressure on Russia to end the aggression”.

It’s therefore unlikely that either nation were particularly pleased by Putin’s nuclear threats.

5. What’s the atmosphere in Russia?

Pro-war nationalists have been calling for more extreme steps to ensure Russia wins – but that’s only at one end of the spectrum.

As Sir Laurie Bristow pointed out: “The vast majority of Russian people are being kept passive – this is one reason why Putin did not want to mobilise up until now, and why partial mobilisation is quite a big step.

“There’s a third category of people who are vehemently against the war; they have been marginalised, some are in exile some are in jail.”

Sir Laurie also claimed that the Russian president was “trying to get to a situation where there are more limited aims” for instance on taking the Donbas – a long way off the initial goals laid out by the Kremlin at the start of the war – so that he can still appease the nationalists with a smaller victory.

Morale is likely to drop too, especially after partial mobilisation was announced.

And, as former ambassador noted, it wasn’t a shortage of manpower which led to Russia’s recent losses but “bad policy in the first place, and bad execution of that policy, essentially a bad military strategy that is unable to achieve goals.”

He also pointed out that Putin has been in power for 22 years, and so will need “to hold the elite together around a designated successor”, by keeping the country united.

Meanwhile, as she watched Russian state TV, journalist Julia Davis noted that “there were sighs and eyerolls” from commentators over Putin’s address.

5. So – what can we conclude?

Putin clearly still believes he was driven to invade Ukraine by the West, as the West wants the disintegration of Russia.

As Moscow correspondent Diana Magnay wrote for Sky News: “Russia sent troops into Ukraine, but as far as Putin is concerned, the message he wants to give his people is ‘we were forced to do this – it’s not really Ukraine’s fault either, it’s just the West using Ukraine to attack us’.”

Putin did not mention anything about the growing accusations that Russia has been committing war crimes against Ukraine, despite the discovery of a mass grave near the liberated city of Izyum.

Defence secretary Ben Wallace also claimed that Putin’s address, rather than intimidating the West, revealed that Moscow knew it was losing.

He tweeted on Wednesday: “President Putin’s breaking of his own promises not to mobilise parts of his population and the illegal annexation of parts of Ukraine are an admission that his invasion is failing.

“He and his defence minister have sent tens of thousands of their own citizens to their deaths, ill equipped and badly led.

“No amount of threats and propaganda can hide the fact that Ukraine is winning this war, the international community are united and Russia is becoming a global pariah.”

The BBC’s Russia editor Steve Rosenberg added that Putin’s speech contained “no hint of regret over his decision” to invade Ukraine despite the huge hit to the country’s international standing.

Instead, the president still blames all of Russia’s problems on the West, claiming it wants “the disintegration” of the country.

Putin claimed: “The goal of the west is to weaken, divide and destroy our country.

“They directly said that in 1991 when they managed to split the USSR, and now the time has come for the Russian Federation itself to disintegrate into many warring regions.”

He also blamed the West for his refusal to come to a peaceful negotiation with Ukraine.

“The West has given direct instructions to Kyiv to break all agreements with Russia reached during the negotiations.”


What's Hot