Russia’s Nuclear Threats Are All Putin Has Left

Russia faces existential danger—from its own president.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin giving a speech on September 21, 2022 (Ilya Pitalev / Sputnik / AFP / Getty)

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Yesterday, I discussed the shambolic attempt under way in Russia to conscript hundreds of thousands of men. Today, one of Vladimir Putin’s minions again threatened the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. What do these threats mean?

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

‘The Most Fearsome Weapon’

One of Russian President Vladmir Putin’s cronies renewed Putin’s nuclear threats against NATO today. Dmitry Medvedev, in a post on Telegram, said that the West would not intervene even if “Russia is forced to use the most fearsome weapon against the Ukrainian regime,” because the “demagogues across the ocean and in Europe are not going to die in a nuclear apocalypse.”

Medvedev is sometimes dismissively called “Little Dima” in Russia due to both his short stature and his utter subservience to Putin. Despite being a former Russian president himself, he may not have all that much power in Moscow, but no responsible American administration can simply wave away such statements. How worried should we be?

Although Putin may be willing to take greater risks as the military situation in Ukraine deteriorates, he likely knows now that the cumulative effect of his multiple blunders in Ukraine has been to jeopardize the stability of his regime and the Russian Federation itself. Russia is a pariah state; the entire nation and its leading figures, right down to Putin’s rumored girlfriend, are under sanctions. Young men, supposedly Russia’s great macho warriors, are jamming the roads to Finland and Georgia trying to flee the country. Putin’s own commanders are asking for permission to retreat, and even some of Putin’s most gleeful warmongers in the Russian media, including the ghoulish Margarita Simonyan, seem freaked out by the accelerating disasters that have changed Russia’s image from a major power to a cornered weakling in only seven months.

Medvedev correctly described Russian nuclear doctrine as allowing a resort to nuclear arms if the existence of the Russian state and its territorial integrity are under existential threat. The dark paradox here is that Russian doctrine says nothing about what to do if such a threat emanates from its own president.

Nonetheless, I still believe that Russian use of a nuclear weapon is unlikely. This is only an informed guess, because my expertise on Russia does not extend to the interior of Putin’s skull. But Putin has almost certainly contemplated the high probability that using a nuclear weapon could bring about the end of his rule faster than any of the bungled decisions he’s already made. This is not because global nuclear war would break out—although any use of a nuclear weapon runs that risk—but because a nuclear attack on Ukraine could provoke a collapse of the Russian regime itself.

Assume, for example, that Putin decides to shock the world by exploding a relatively small nuclear weapon, perhaps against Ukrainian forces close to the Russian border, claiming that he needs to halt a catastrophic Ukrainian offensive into Russia. Putin is a product of the Soviet system; his thinking has always shown a heavy reliance on old Soviet catechisms about the West, and he would likely expect such an act to produce panic, the fracturing of NATO, unrest in the United States and Britain, and a Ukrainian capitulation under pressure from Washington and Brussels.

That could happen, I suppose, but the lessons of the past century, from the destruction of the Nazis to the defeat of the Soviet Union to the resistance in Ukraine, suggest that it is a bad bet. More likely, the entire world would coalesce against Putin, including China and others who have so far quietly tolerated this brutal escapade. Direct Western military action (something I have until now advised against) would become far more thinkable, especially if an international coalition—one that would almost certainly find support beyond NATO—came together to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine. (By the way, journalists should stop asking U.S. officials what, exactly, President Joe Biden would do if Putin uses nuclear weapons. No one will answer that, and no one should. Much of deterrence relies on uncertainty.)

Putin may think he could weather such a storm, but chaos would also erupt in Russia: One of the reasons Putin’s been able to prosecute this war is that he promised it would be quick and painless. Risking nuclear war after trying to drag hundreds of thousands of men into the military, while radiation blows across Europe after a nuclear attack on Ukraine, would likely be the breaking point for Russian society and a fair number of its elites. As the writer Peter Pomerantsev said recently: “The war in Ukraine was meant to be a movie, not a personal sacrifice … If there’s one thing Russians fear more than Putin, it’s nuclear war—and now he’s the one bringing it closer.”

Putin knows from history how fast an invulnerable position in the Kremlin can become exceedingly vulnerable. (For one thing, Putin is well aware that Stalin’s most feared lieutenant, the secret-police boss Lavrentiy Beria, fell from power in a matter of weeks and died in a basement, pleading for his life.) Other Kremlin figures likely know these risks, too. But if all is lost, and Russia is coming unglued both physically and psychologically because of this mad scheme in Ukraine, Putin might think that a nuclear bomb is his only option. Whether anyone would stop Putin from giving this order, or whether the Russian high command would carry it out, is anyone’s guess.


Today’s News
  1. The attorney Chris Kise, who was hired for $3 million to represent Donald Trump in the investigation into his handling of classified documents, has reportedly been sidelined from the case after less than a month.
  2. European countries are investigating possible sabotage after suspicious leaks were found in two gas pipelines running from Russia to Germany. Russia has denied any responsibility.
  3. Hurricane Ian made landfall in Cuba at about 4:30 a.m. ET, with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph. The storm is expected to reach the Sarasota, Florida, area on Wednesday as more counties impose mandatory evacuations.


Evening Read
An illustration of a smart thermostat with two red horns and little red eyes
(Katie Martin / The Atlantic)

Your Smart Thermostat Isn’t Here to Help You

By Ian Bogost

Everything’s so smart now. Smartphones, smart speakers, smart lamps, smart plugs, smart doorbells, smart locks, smart thermostats. Smart things are smart not because they have smarts, but because they connect to the internet. Online connectivity allows them to be controlled, either locally or from afar—and in ways both visible and invisible.

The sales pitch for smart devices typically focuses on convenience. Rather than needing to fumble with a physical switch, you can turn a smart bulb on and off from bed (or from Bed Bath & Beyond), for example. A smartphone allows you to do work or doomscroll while you watch television and ignore your children. A smart thermostat allows you to tweak your home’s temperature from wherever. But why?

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
A still from "Decision to Leave"
A still from Decision to Leave (CJ ENM / Moho Films)

Read. Lucy by the Sea, by Elizabeth Strout, which takes place during the first year of the pandemic. It functions as both a time capsule and as a “beautiful” exploration of absence and grief, Lily Meyer writes.

Watch. Currently streaming on MUBI and in theaters October 14, the South Korean mystery Decision to Leave earned the filmmaker Park Chan-Wook the Best Director award at Cannes, and might also be the “best-looking movie of the year,” our critic says.

Stay tuned for the other titles on our list of the 20 most-anticipated films of the season.

Play our daily crossword.


I’m not sure if this will lighten the mood—we live in some grim times—but the story about Beria, that I mentioned above, reminded me of a joke from the old Soviet Union: “Why is the Lubyanka [KGB headquarters] the tallest building in Moscow? Because even from the basement, you can see clearly all the way to Siberia.” Suffering can lead to very dark humor, and the old Soviet Union had some of the best political jokes of the Cold War. (I love the American sense of humor, but it’s a different flavor.) It might not seem like much, but to joke about the KGB in a police state was an act of quiet resistance—and it was funny too. This one is a classic:

Q: “Why do KGB agents travel in threes?”

A: “One can read, one can write, and the third one keeps an eye on the two intellectuals.”

— Tom

Kate Lindsay contributed to this newsletter.