In addition to Vladimir Putin’s geographical ambitions, a renewed Russian Empire must be feared by the world. That is what it means to be an empire.
Putin is not getting the response he wants.
He’s been trying to spread fear through his nuclear threats, both those against the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and his and his associates’ talk about nuclear weapons. But the West is not cowering in fear.
There is no physical indication that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons. Preparations will be observed by governments and other folks who are watching. Russia’s actions at the Zaporizhzhia plant seem to be designed to avoid the worst outcomes so that they can steal the plant for the Russian electrical grid.
The tactical purpose of the fear-mongering is to convince Ukraine and its supporters to back off. That hasn’t worked.
Frustration at the lack of fear shows in an interview with Dmitri Trenin. Trenin was the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center until February. He is now a member of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. The interview is titled “Bring Back The Fear.” I’ve used a machine translation of the article.
After a confused discussion of how Europeans and Americans are disrespecting Russia’s redlines, a threat is withdrawn and renewed. Trenin says that nuclear use by Russia depends on an existential threat, not “some projectile will fly into Russian territory.” But then he comments that Europe and the US have downgraded their expectations of nuclear use to tactical, within a theater of war. He reminds us that “it is quite possible that the strike will follow not in a specific theater of operations, but at a certain distance from it.”
“I think the feeling of fear has disappeared. Generally speaking, the world is based on fear, nothing else.” If that feeling of fear were still present, he says, Europeans would have quivered when Zaporozhzhia was shelled. His last paragraph mourns the loss of Cold War equality between the US and the USSR and presumably the fear that flowed from that.
It’s likely that Putin shares this frustration. His repetitions of nuclear warnings, however, dilute their effect. The surprisingly poor performance of the Russian military lessens fears that could spring from that. Putin’s elaborate performances are overstaged and further undermine what he would like to be an appearance of seriousness.
Meanwhile, in the US and Europe, we have a cacophony on the subject of possible nuclear weapons use. After Putin’s speech declaring that parts of Ukraine were now part of Russia on September 30, Biden said
America and its allies are not going — let me emphasize this — are not going to be intimidated. Are not going to be intimidated by Putin and his reckless words and threats. He’s not going to scare us, and he doesn’t.
Meanwhile, click-baiting publications list all the ways nuclear weapons might be used and how an all-out nuclear war might start, even as the probability remains low. Others recite scary nuclear incidents from the past. All this nukeporn keeps our thinking in the Cold War and gives Putin the fear he is looking for. Today’s situation is very different, and not one that was gamed out back then.
Timothy Snyder makes a more profound argument about Putin’s use of nuclear threats.
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner