Vladimir Putin insisted after a foreign policy speech on Thursday that Russia had only ever “hinted” at the use of nuclear weapons after threats from western leaders. A nuclear strike on Ukraine, the president added, would have “no political or military sense”. Yet Putin stepped up accusations Moscow has been making all week that Ukraine was developing a “dirty” bomb laced with radioactive material. It remains unclear whether, as Kyiv’s allies fear, these unsubstantiated claims could be a pretext for Kremlin escalation. But they are a sign that Moscow’s war on Ukraine is entering a period of acute danger.
Moscow has made false accusations before that Ukraine was preparing to use chemical or biological weapons. Western capitals similarly feared the Kremlin was paving the way for a “false flag” operation in which it might employ such arms itself. Russia’s claims that Kyiv might explode a radioactive device with the aim of blaming it on Russia — which Putin said he ordered his defence minister to communicate to foreign counterparts — have been more insistent. The US, UK and France have rightly condemned the allegations as “transparently false”.
The possibility that Russia is planning a false flag operation cannot be ruled out. Putin has form here. He consolidated support in 1999 by blaming Chechen “terrorists” for deadly Russian apartment bombings that circumstantial evidence suggests were organised by Moscow secret police.
The dirty bomb warnings may also be part of an elaborate charade aimed at intimidating Moscow’s opponents, by amplifying its nuclear threats and suggesting a willingness to carry them out. Hints at the use of nuclear weapons have been part of Russian strategy since day one of its Ukraine invasion. The aim has been to deter Nato countries from intervening directly or supplying Kyiv with decisive weaponry.
There are some signs that, after Ukraine’s recent military advances, Putin may be seeking to halt the conflict and lock in Russia’s territorial gains. He insisted on Thursday that sooner or later, the west would “have to start talks about our common future”. Putin may have concluded that annexing four Ukrainian regions and securing a land bridge to Crimea could be sold — along with military neutrality for Ukraine — to Russians as a “win”.
In this scenario, Putin’s risky, partial mobilisation aims to ensure Russia can hold this territory. Bombing infrastructure to rob Ukrainians of power and water as winter approaches aims to break their resolve. Nuclear sabre-rattling is meant to scare Ukraine and its western allies into backing off.
Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy could never agree to Putin’s “terms”. Neither can Kyiv’s allies permit Putin, as in 2014, to gain from using force. That would simply encourage him to take aggressive behaviour towards other countries and set a dreadful precedent for other nuclear powers.
The only viable — if nerve-jangling — course for Ukraine’s allies then is to continue their current strategy. Step up military aid to Ukraine, probing Russia’s red lines with care, and step up the economic squeeze on Russia. Ukraine needs air defence systems against Russian missiles and drones, and financial and practical support in rebuilding damaged infrastructure and housing.
That does not mean there is no place for negotiation. Diplomacy can operate alongside military pressure without being a signal of capitulation or appeasement. Back channel communications — including military-to-military contacts — are vital, too, amid the current tensions. Sixty years on from the Cuban missile crisis, the lessons learnt then are no less important today.