Putin’s nuclear threats are alarming but let’s not lose our heads

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, whose analysis of the Russia-Ukraine conflict has been invaluable, argues the move “will not generate significant usable Russian combat power for months”.

“Russian reserves are poorly trained to begin with and receive no refresher training once their conscription period is completed,” the institute points out. “Russian mandatory military service is only one year, which gives conscripts little time to learn how to be soldiers, to begin with.”

This means the partial mobilisation “will not deprive Ukraine of the opportunity to liberate more of its occupied territory into and through the winter”.

As for Putin’s use of the n-word, this is far from the first time he has flaunted Russia’s possession of a vast nuclear arsenal. The Institute for the Study of War, again, is relatively sanguine, arguing: “Putin’s speech should not be read as an explicit threat that Russia would use nuclear weapons against Ukraine if Ukraine continues counter-offensives against occupied territories after annexation.”

There’s an array of obvious, logical reasons why Putin should not deploy nuclear weapons in the conflict: the fact they would not make a decisive difference in the war, the high possibility of retaliation from other nuclear-armed states, the likelihood it would lose him support from key players such as China and India.

The past week already made clear China and India were deeply anxious about the war, even before the latest escalation.

Last week Putin admitted Chinese leader Xi Jinping had “questions” and “concerns” about the conflict; this week Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has notably avoided criticising Putin, told the Russian leader the “era of war” was over.

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But Dibb, now an emeritus fellow at the Australian National University, warns against predicting Putin’s future behaviour based on rational calculations. “I don’t dismiss this man being tempted to use nuclear weapons,” he warns, in case anyone was feeling too relaxed.

The war in Ukraine has already dragged on far longer than most expected when it began. Now Putin is desperate, determined and doubling down, challenging Ukraine and its western allies not to flinch and not to lose resolve.

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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