Putin's December 2021 Ultimatum
A nuclear escalation was cited by some Western leaders, including US President Joe Biden, as a scenario they want to avoid by restricting their involvement in the Ukrainian conflict. They also warned Moscow against deploying nuclear weapons in Ukraine, stating that this would be considered a major provocation. The Russian military doctrine allows the use of such weapons of ultimate resort either in retaliation for an attack against Russia or its allies with weapons of mass destruction, or during a conventional conflict that puts the Russian statehood at significant risk.
"The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility," United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters 14 April 2022. Guterres sounded the alarm over Russia raising the alert level for its nuclear forces after invading Ukraine, describing it as a "bone-chilling development."
NATO's entry into the conflict over Ukraine could turn into the beginning of a third world war, says European Council President Charles Michel. "We are doing our best not to aggravate the conflict," he argued. "Russia is a nuclear power, and we are well aware that if this conflict turns into a [conflict] between NATO and Russia, then we will come to a third world war."
Professor Steve Fetter from Maryland University, a nuclear disarmament expert and former White House adviser, said in February 2023 that the "risks of catastrophe are higher today than last year, perhaps than ever before, largely due to the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the threats that Putin has issued." Fetter was especially worried that Russia's suspension of New START — the only agreement between Washington and Moscow — could pose the biggest threat to nuclear disarmament the world has seen in decades. "It is disturbing to see not yet a collapse, but the possibility of a collapse, in US-Russian arms control efforts, which has been a continuous process over the last 50 years," he says.
In December 2021 Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin unleashed the most profound nuclear crisis since the Cuban Missile crisis six decades ago. He made an explicit nuclear threat on 25 February 2022 : “Whoever tries to interfere with us, and even more so, to create threats for our country, for our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history. We are ready for any development. All decisions in that regard have been made.”
It is a bit difficult to figuring out Russian aimpoints. Doctrinally, if Putin thinks Ukraine is part of Russia, then NATO forces going into Ukraine would be a nuclear redline. And Putin might regard his impending demise as an attempt to "destroy Russia as a state." But once VVP decides to go nuclear, what is the aimpoint? Presumably, the intent is to "escalate to de-escalate", so probably it would be a demonstration. Probably not in NATO. Aimpoint in Ukraine would pose fallout and collateral damage concerns. So probably VVP nukes NATO warships in the Black Sea. No collateral, little fallout, enough NATO KIA to show he is serious, but not so horrific as to require lobbing the big one into the men's room in the Kremlin.
Putin created the tensest point in US-Russia relations since the Cold War ended three decades ago. In December 2021 Russia presented a sweeping set of demands including for a ban on further NATO expansion and an end to the alliance's activity in central and eastern European countries that joined it after 1997. Russia’s proposal for ending the current crisis stipulates that the United States “not deploy land-based intermediate- and short-range missiles in areas allowing them to reach [Russian territory].” The urgency with which Moscow sought to have its proposals addressed — not a “menu of options” to choose from but a “package” — was even more stunning.
Russia not only delivered an ultimatum to the United States and NATO; it delivered an ultimatum to itself. Russia cannot afford to fail in this confrontation. To fail would show that Russia is weak, irresolute and incompetent. By setting out the demands so starkly, Putin was burning his bridges: There was thus no way back, short of unacceptable political humiliation (which is not Putin’s style).
Putin appeared to be acting as if Russia was in a position to rewrite the end of the Cold War. In her book “Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest,” Angela Stent writes that the Russian leader wants the West “to treat Russia as if it were the Soviet Union” and to “renegotiate the end of the Cold War.” Russia doesn't want any NATO troops, weapons or exercises in Ukraine in the same way that JFK didn't want Soviet missiles in Cuba.
In October 2018, Putin, speaking at the plenary session of the Valdai Discussion Club, uttered a phrase about the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. “We have a nuclear missile warning system. When we are convinced that the attack is on Russian territory, we then strike back. Of course, this is a worldwide catastrophe, but we cannot be the initiators of the catastrophe. The aggressor must know that retribution is inevitable. Well, we, as martyrs, will go to heaven, and they will simply die, because they won’t even have time to repent,” he said then.
On 21 February 2022, Putin, during a meeting of the Russian Security Council, said that "We know that there have already been statements that Ukraine intends to create its own nuclear weapons. This is not mere bravado. Ukraine has a Soviet technological backlog. The situation in the world with the appearance of WMD in Ukraine will change dramatically.”
Putin, meeting with Members of the Valdai Discussion Club, remarked Oct 22, 2021 “what if tomorrow there are missiles near Kharkov — what should we do then? We do not go there with our missiles — but missiles are being brought to our doorstep. Of course, we have a problem here.... Has anyone even reacted to our statement that we will not deploy this kind of missile in the European part if we produce them, if they tell us that no one will do so from the United States or Europe? No. They never responded. But we are adults, we are all adults here. What should we do in this situation?” The distance between Kharkiv and Moscow is 650 kilometers (400 miles).
In December 1996, Nato allies declared they had “no intention, no plan and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members” — the so-called “three no’s”. The Russians’ Plan B was probably not to invade Ukraine or bomb Estonia but to position their latest tactical and strategic weaponry in places that present to the United States and NATO the same existential threat and ultra-short warning times of attack that the U.S.-led encirclement of Russia presented to Moscow.
“If NATO opts for the policy of deterrence, we will respond with a policy of counter-deterrence,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said. “If it turns to intimidation, we will respond with counter-intimidation. If it looks for vulnerabilities in Russia’s defense system, we will look for NATO’s vulnerabilities. It’s not our choice, but we don’t have other options if we don’t overturn this current very dangerous course of events.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said 13 January 2022 that Moscow couldn’t exclude dispatching “military infrastructure” to Venezuela or Cuba if tensions with Washington continued to rise. “I don’t want to confirm anything, I will not rule out anything… Depends on the actions of our American colleagues,” Ryabkov told privately owned Russian-language television network RTVi. Russian President Vladimir Putin “has repeatedly spoken out, including on this topic, about what could be the measures taken by the Russian navy if things go completely in the direction of provoking Russia and further increasing military pressure on us,” said Rybakov.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov compared the situation to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when the world stood on the brink of nuclear war, consistent with the uncompromising line Russia signaled. Poland's foreign minister said in Vienna that Europe was closer to war than any time in the last 30 years and the U.S. envoy said the West should not give in to blackmail.
The sources of Putin's ultimatum were easy to understand, representing long-standing grievances against the post-Cold War situation of Russia. From Russia’s perspective, NATO’s claims that it is a purely defensive alliance ring hollow after its attacks on Yugoslavia and Libya.
The timing of the ultimatum was less apparent. Putin’s demands for “security guarantees” from the United States and NATO caught many by surprise. Russia is a declining Great Power, with trends ranging from unfavorable demographics to global decarbonization all pointing to a future of diminished influence. Some observers had interpreted the American exit from Afghanistan as signaling the Biden administration's weakness. Germany faced the transition from Angela Merkel to a fragile tri-partite left coalition, while Britain was afflicted with post-Brexit woes and the shambolic Johnson premiership. Russia had seeminly formed and understanding with China to confront America with a challenge on two fronts, Taiwan and Ukraine. If not now, when?
Putin virtually invited Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping to support the Russian “ultimatum” vis-à-vis the United States and NATO. China was displeased with Washington “dragging” Europe into its China containment agenda. Putin on 15 December 2021 held a videocall with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Putin told Xi that "a new model of cooperation has been formed between our countries" that includes a "determination to turn our common border into a belt of eternal peace and good-neighbourliness". China's relationships with multiple Western allies had cratered in recent years over a host of issues.
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