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Would Putin really go nuclear?

Putin addressing a reluctant nation on Wednesday. Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Vladimir Putin finally seems to realise how badly his war is going, says Hal Brands in Bloomberg. In a speech on Wednesday, he threatened to use nuclear weapons in defence of Russia’s “territorial integrity” – which in his mind includes Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine. “Would Putin carry through on the threat?” Optimists say he wouldn’t, because it makes little military sense. Small, so-called battlefield nuclear weapons work best on “large masses of troops or tanks”, yet the fighting in Ukraine is fairly dispersed. The use of nukes may also cause America and its allies to “double down in Ukraine”, perhaps even entering the conflict themselves, to avoid Putin setting the “horrendous precedent” that countries “can simply nuke their way out of failed wars”.

“Pessimists aren’t so sure Putin is bluffing.” If he drops the bomb, the West has to choose between risky military escalation, which could lead to “additional nuclear strikes”, and “pathetically weak” alternatives like cyberattacks. And though the nuclear option would be an “existential gamble for Putin”, why wouldn’t he chance it, if he’s heading for a defeat that threatens his hold on power and perhaps even his life? The Russian leader’s predicament is down to his earlier “disastrous miscalculations”. Avoiding nuclear conflict may hinge on Putin showing “more prudence and caution in ending this war than he did in starting it”.