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Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech on September 21, 2022. (Photo: Kremlin Press Office)

'Nuclear Deterrence Is Always a Bluff. Until It Isn't': Putin Threat Sparks Alarm

"This is how the world inches our way closer to the line where using nuclear weapons will be crossed," warned the head of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Jake Johnson

Global non-proliferation campaigners said Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin's latest threat to use nuclear weapons—and insistence that he isn't bluffing—represents a dangerous escalation of the Ukraine war and provides further evidence that the status quo of nuclear posturing and brinkmanship risks calamity.

In a televised address—a full transcript of which can be read here—Putin warned that if his nation's "territorial integrity" is threatened as Moscow continues its assault on Ukraine and attempts to seize large swaths of the nation's land, "we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia."

"We need to show strong global unity against nuclear use and nuclear threats."

Accusing the West of "nuclear blackmail" and threats, Putin said that he "would like to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction, and for some components more modern than those of the NATO countries," a clear reference to Russia's vast nuclear arsenal.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), responded with alarm to Putin's remarks, which the Nobel Prize-winning group characterized as his most aggressive to date.

"As long as nuclear weapons exist, the fate of the world rests on men like President Putin [choosing] not to use them," ICAN tweeted. "Russia's threats to use nuclear weapons have heightened tensions, reduced the threshold for use, and greatly increased the risk of nuclear conflict and global catastrophe."

"A single nuclear detonation would likely kill hundreds of thousands of civilians and injure many more; radioactive fallout could contaminate large areas across multiple countries. Widespread panic would trigger mass movements of people and severe economic disruption," the group added. "The international community must strongly condemn nuclear threats, work to reduce the risks of nuclear weapons being used, and reverse the trend towards normalization of use."

Watch Putin's speech:

Beatrice Fihn, ICAN's executive director, said Putin's nuclear comments are "very worrying" and shouldn't be downplayed as mere rhetoric.

"You'll probably see some analysts saying, 'Cool down, don't worry, it is a bluff,'" Fihn wrote. "In one way, sure, nuclear threats and nuclear deterrence is always a bluff. Until it isn't. And none of us know when he'll go from bluffing to doing it."

"This is how the world inches our way closer to the line where using nuclear weapons will be crossed," Fihn continued. "We need to show strong global unity against nuclear use and nuclear threats. All countries, international organizations, and people around the world need to condemn, stigmatize and delegitimize the threats, use, and possession of these nuclear weapons."

"It is essential that NATO does not take the bait and fuel his false narrative by explicitly threatening nuclear retaliation."

Putin's remarks came as he announced that Russia's military will be calling up reserves to bolster its attack on Ukraine amid a major counteroffensive by Kyiv that—with the help of a massive influx of weapons from the U.S. and other western powers—has forced Moscow to pull its forces back from parts of northeastern Ukraine.

Following Putin's announcement, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a televised address that 300,000 Russian reservists would be called up to serve in the "partial mobilization."

"We're at war with the collective West," Shoigu declared.

Putin and Shoigu's remarks came as four Moscow-controlled regions of eastern and southern Ukraine are set to hold votes this week on whether to become parts of Russia.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba denounced the planned votes as "an act of desperation for Russia, but it is not going to help them."

Analysts warned that Putin's "territorial integrity" comments Wednesday indicate that the Russian president will consider any attempts by Kyiv to retake Ukrainian regions as an assault on Russia itself, setting the stage for possible nuclear escalation.

"Unlike the generic nuclear threat issued at the start of his attack on Ukraine in February, this threat is explicitly linked to the military situation in Ukraine," said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project.

Kristensen noted that Putin's new stance appears to go beyond Russia's official nuclear doctrine, which authorizes the use of atomic weapons in response to a nuclear attack or a conventional attack that "threatens the very existence of the state."

"This sounds like another round of chest-thumping, but it is clearly the most explicit nuclear threat Putin has made so far," Kristensen argued. "As before, it is essential that NATO does not take the bait and fuel his false narrative by explicitly threatening nuclear retaliation."

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