Video Above: The War in Donbas
Is Vladimir Putin suicidal or willing to have his entire country incinerated by nuclear weapons? Does he have an elaborate underground bunker where he is willing to go with select people while his country burns in peril?
These are the key questions, while many say Putin has largely been a rational actor in many respects, despite being capable of unthinkable brutality, yet many observers clearly suggest that there have been more recent “shifts” or “changes” in his approach or temperament. Others say he has simply gotten bad information. Perhaps it is a combination of both. Will he actually risk catastrophic destruction of his own country?
While Russian-government backed state TV is suggesting yes, according to recent comments from RT cited in an English newspaper report, perhaps this is instead a calculated manipulation.
Consider this. Perhaps Putin is not suicidal, a prospect which seems quite likely given his historic need to consolidate power and be in charge. Therefore, when Margarita Simonyan, editor of state broadcaster RT, says Putin is in fact likely to fire nuclear weapons, one has to consider her comments as part of a decided strategic attempt to keep NATO at bay.
“Either we lose in Ukraine .. or the Third World War starts. I think World War III is more realistic, knowing us, knowing our leader,” Simonyan said, according to the Daily Mail.
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While it is certainly conceivable that Putin has shifted psychologically to a more self-destructive, reckless and even suicidal disposition, or this consistent refrain about nuclear weapons is merely strategic manipulation. While he has been extremely cruel and ruthless over the course of many years, to include accusations of murderous activity and war atrocities, he has always sought to retain power and survive as Russia’s leader. It seems unlikely this mindset, temperament or behavior would change completely.
Video Above: Could a Strong Deterrence Posture Keep Putin From Launching a Nuclear Attack?
Therefore, it seems likely that Putin’s continued “nuclear” threat is part of a calculated effort to deter NATO from getting more directly involved in the defense of Ukraine. If this is the aim, it is working. While the Pentagon is clearly stepping up its support for Ukraine’s defense with heavy equipment and sharpening its rhetoric against Russia, but is still quite understandably being extremely careful to avoid sparking WWII and avoid any direct US-NATO confrontation with Russia.
That certainly makes sense and may indeed be the right approach to be sure, as the consequences of being wrong if Putin is called on his bluff are tough to imagine. At the same time, let’s not forget that Putin is a strategist with a proven ability to remain in power and a clear interest in self-preservation. Even if he could somehow survive a nuclear annihilation of Russia, he certainly knows he will no longer lead or govern a Russian nation in any way that is at all similar, assuming anyone survives.
The resolve and established readiness of the US nuclear triad is also not likely to be lost on Putin. A nuclear attack of any kind could quite likely result in the complete destruction of his government. He is certain to be aware of functional US Minuteman III and nuclear armed aircraft such as the B-52 and B-2. Should air defenses or other circumstances make these difficult to use, Putin is undoubtedly aware of the US Navy’s undersea leg of the triad. Nuclear-armed ballistic missiles are consistently positioned around the globe, quite capable of ensuring total destruction of major Russian cities and high-value areas of the Russian government.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.