On October 25, at U.S.-sponsored talks with Japan and South Korea, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman announced that the U.S. commitment to defending Japan and South Korea is “ironclad.” She explained: “(W)e will use the full range of U.S. defense capabilities to defend our allies, including nuclear, conventional and missile defense capabilities.” The American official’s statement goes beyond what Western media unanimously touted as ‘Putin’s nuclear threat’, when the Russian President said after referencing Western threats to use nuclear weapons against Russia: “(I)n the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us.”
Putin’s statement is much softer that Sherman’s in two respects. First, whereas Sherman specifically mentions using “nuclear…capabilities, while Putin did not mention the word nuclear, though statement clearly implied a nuclear response. Second, Putin’s ‘threat’ was made in relation to a threat to Russian territory (now including five Ukrainian regions: Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporozhe, and Kherson, but Sherman’s threatened nuclear weapons use to protect allies. Moreover, Sherman’s assertion could be construed as applicable to an attack on Russia to defend what is clearly a U.S. partner–Ukraine. Moreover still, the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review states that “the United States would only consider the employment of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners. Extreme circumstances could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” (https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2022/10/27/when-the-us-threatens-to-use-nuclear-weapons/).
The title here has been placed within quotation marks for a reason, because Russian President Vladimir Putin made no nuclear threat unless one considers that a threat to respond to nuclear threats or to respond to a hypothetical nuclear attack amounts to a threat to use nuclear weapons. The West has attempted to spread the impression that Putin made an unprovoked nuclear threat, the same way it has asserted that Russia undertook an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth, sort of. Yes a repeated lie can become a virtual truth, and in our virtual times the virtual reality is having a profound impact of actual reality and not in any positive way. Quite to the contrary.
The quote that is said to have constituted Putin making a threat to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine and/or its NATO allies came in Putin’s September 21 announcement regarding his decision to begin a partial mobilization of reservists. In his TV speech, Putin did not mention nuclear weapons per se, and alluded to ‘different types of weapons’ in Russia’s possession that could counter the nuclear weapons that Western leaders have explicitly threatened to use. Putin said on September 21:
“They (the Ukrainians) have even resorted to the nuclear blackmail. I am referring not only to the Western-encouraged shelling of the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant, which poses a threat of a nuclear disaster, but also to the statements made by some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO countries on the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction – nuclear weapons – against Russia.
“I would like to remind those who make such statements regarding Russia that our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO countries have. In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.
“The citizens of Russia can rest assured that the territorial integrity of our Motherland, our independence and freedom will be defended – I repeat – by all the systems available to us. Those who are using nuclear blackmail against us should know that the wind rose can turn around.”
Some might say that no Western leaders prior to ‘Putin’s threat’ had made threats or indicated that they are prepared to use nuclear weapons against Russia. This, of course, is false. The quasi-Iron Lady, new British Prime Minister Liz Truss, said in the context of discussing the Russo-NATO Ukrainian war during her campaign to succeed Boris Johnson that she was ready to ‘press the button’ if required (www.youtube.com/watch?v=CM8evVhzHPI&ab_channel=DailyMail). A US Senator, Republican Roger Wicker, emphasized that the US “does not rule out first-use nuclear action” against Russia and urged US President Joe Biden “not to take anything off the table” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dq00bvvC24I&t=192s&ab_channel=U.S.SenatorRogerWicker). This was said in December 2021—before Putin’s move into Ukraine in February 22. Days before Putin’s move, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy threatened to renuclearize Ukraine by abandoning Ukraine’s participation in the Budapest Memorandum which denuclearized post-Soviet Ukraine in exchange for Russia’s recognition of Kiev’s sovereignty over Crimea and Russian-Western guarantees of Ukrainian sovereignty and non-interference in its internal affairs. As I noted in another piece, this could have been another factor in a long line of Western and Ukrainian provocations that pushed Putin to act as he did (https://gordonhahn.com/2022/10/04/the-complex-and-unclear-origins-of-the-russo-nato-ukrainian-war/).
More recently, days after ‘Putin’s nuclear threat’, Zelenskiy appeared to appeal to NATO to bring to fruition Wicker’s portentous proposal and carry out a first strike against Moscow: “”What should NATO do? Exclude the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons. But, importantly, I once again appeal to the international community, as it was before February 24: preventive strikes, so that they know what will happen to them, if they use them, and not the other way around, to wait for Russia’s nuclear strikes, to then say: “Ah, that’s what you do? Well, get it from us!” (https://ukranews.com/en/news/886513-zelenskyy-calls-on-nato-to-launch-preventive-nuclear-strike-on-russia). Finally, we have Ukrainian armed forces repeatedly firing at Russian troops occupying the Zaporozhe Nuclear Power Plant complex and the Ukrainian staff that works there, risking a new Chernobyl at Europe’s largest nuclear energy plant.
I will leave it to the reader to determine which side is engaged in dangerous nuclear brinksmanship.
I will only add that the nuclear shadow now hanging over Europe’s and the world’s head is precisely why NATO should not have expanded beyond reunified Germany as the West promised Moscow, why the West should not have been seeding instability in Kiev for over a decade, why the West should not have been promising Kiev NATO membership in the future, why the Obama administration should not have recognized the snipers’ massacre, false flag-induced Maidan overthrown of Viktor Yanukovych and thrown away the February 20th agreement intended to end the Maidan crisis and signed by European states and backed by Putin, why Putin should not have seized Crimea, why Kiev should not have declared war on the Donbass, why the Washington should have pressed Kiev to carry out its Minsk 2 obligations, why thr US and NATO should not have been training, arming, encouraging Ukraine to attempt to seize back Crimea and Donbass by force, why Putin should not have escalated the low-scale Donbass conflict, why the West should have agreed on a new security architecture with Russia and abandon plans to expand to Ukraine and Georgia, and why the West should now be using all its power and influence to get Moscow and Kiev to sit at the negotiating table rather than arming Kiev and antagonizing Moscow with ill-conceived sanctions, insulting rhetoric, and nuclear talk. To be sure, some Russian officials have also made nuclear threats and done so out of any context of retaliation against hypothetical Western nuclear attack or threats to undertake such an attack. It is worth noting, however, it was Westerners who talked this way first—Wicker and Zelenskiy before the February 24th Russian offensive. Such talk should be avoided, and this is probably why Putin did not use the word ‘nuclear’ in his threat to use all means at Russia’s disposal if necessary.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, gordonhahn.com and gordonhahn.academia.edu
Dr. Hahn is the author of the new book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He has authored five previous, well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021); Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.