Ukraine and the mind games of nuclear deterrence

The process of stopping escalation involves multiple actors on the battlefield and in several capitals

Vladimir Putin has been at it again, rattling the nuclear sabre after a brief hiatus. The Russian president largely fell silent in 2023 once Ukraine’s armed forces became bogged down — no need for sabre-rattling when his guys were winning. 

The current burst of nuclear talk seems linked to two objectives. First is Putin’s need to worry the Republicans in Congress who are holding up American support for Ukraine: the more he makes them nervous, the better. Second is Putin’s answer to those who say Russia came close to using nuclear weapons in October 2022, when it was the Russian armed forces who, with their backs to the Dnipro River, were poised for defeat. Not so, he says: I had no intention of using nuclear weapons. Hmm. That is not what US intelligence told the White House. 

All of this chatter is calculated to shape decisions in Washington and other Nato capitals. It is a form of influence-making called “intrawar deterrence”.

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