“This is not a bluff.”
The message from Vladimir Putin’s ominous morning speech, which marked the biggest escalation of the Ukraine war since the invasion on 24 February, was clear: Russia is willing to use nuclear weapons if Ukraine continues its offensive operations.
While the longtime Russian leader has previously flirted with the grim prospect of using nuclear weapons, experts say his latest statements went further, raising fears around the world of an unprecedented nuclear disaster.
Addressing the nation on Wednesday, Putin confirmed he was planning to annex four partly occupied regions of southern and eastern Ukraine after this weekend’s Kremlin-orchestrated “referendums”.
He added that he was prepared to use “all means” to defend the “territorial integrity” of the Russian-occupied lands and their people.
“Putin’s statements go beyond the Russian nuclear doctrine, which only suggests Russian first use in a conventional war when the very existence of the state is threatened,” said Andrey Baklitskiy, has senior researcher in the Weapons of Mass Destruction and other Strategic Weapons Program at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.
Ukraine, which has been making rapid military gains over the past few weeks, has stressed that it will continue its efforts to liberate occupied lands, with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, stating on Wednesday that referendums will “act step by step to liberate our country ”.
This means Putin’s resolve will probably be tested in the coming weeks.
Baklitskiy said the concept floated by Putin of “territorial integrity” was “tricky” given that Russia was planning to absorb four Ukrainian regions, where heavy fighting is taking place.
“What would it mean if Ukraine retook the territory Russia considers its own and Putin did not use nuclear weapons in response?” Baklitskiy added.
“Coming from the person who has the sole decision-making power regarding Russian nuclear weapons, this will have to be taken seriously.”
Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian politics, also said Putin’s nuclear threats were unprecedented but questioned whether the Russian leader was willing to go through with his threats, which would de facto mean nuclear war.
“It’s glib to assume anyone claiming they are not bluffing is bluffing, but the credibility of a threat to risk thermonuclear Armageddon if Ukrainian forces continue to move in territories still Ukrainian by law is questionable.”
Instead, Galeotti argued, the apocalyptic threats could have been intended to force the west and Ukraine into accepting Russia’s territorial gains in the war.
Zelenskiy, in an interview with the German newspaper Bild on Wednesday, likewise said he did not believe Putin would use nuclear weapons. “I don’t think the world will allow him to use those weapons,” he said.
The Ukrainian leader, however, did not rule out the possibility of a Russian nuclear strike, saying “we can’t look into Putin’s head”.
For millions of Russians, the most worrying takeaway from Putin’s speech will be that they and their loved ones could soon be fighting and dying for their president’s illusory aims.
Since the start of the war, Putin has sought to shield his population from the realities of the war, with the Kremlin eager to cultivate a sense of normality on the streets of Moscow and other major cities. Many responded to these efforts, with polls consistently showing the average Russian was quickly turning away from the conflict.
But with the decision to announce the first mobilization since the second world war and the call-up of 300,000 mostly young Russians, this unwritten social contract has now been cancelled, and the war will be entering the households of thousands of families across the country.
Nationwide antiwar protests were swiftly announced by the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Wednesday, but with much of the opposition either exiled or behind bars, observers said they did not expect Russians to take to the streets en masse.
“Russia’s repressed society will accept this obediently,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, of the Carnegie Moscow Center thinktank. “They will deal with the issue in their own practical way, avoiding the draft however they can.”
On Wednesday morning, some were frantically looking for a way out of the country.
Direct flights from Moscow to Istanbul, Yerevan, Tashkent and Baku, the capitals of countries that allow Russians visa-free entry, were sold out, while the cheapest flights from Moscow to Dubai cost about 350,000 rubles (£5,000), a fee too steep for most.
Options to leave by land were severely limited this week when four of the five EU countries bordering Russia announced they would no longer allow Russians to enter on tourist visas.
Searches for the phrase “How to break your arm” and “How to avoid the draft” increased on Google and the Russian search engine Yandex on Wednesday, another stark indication of the lengths many were willing to go to in order to avoid the draft. The offering of scraps to dodge the army, already a flourishing industry before the war, will probably become much more common in the coming weeks.
Wednesday also brought bad news for the thousands of soldiers fighting in Ukraine, a force plagued by issues of morality and discipline.
According to a government decree posted on the Kremlin’s website, the contracts of soldiers currently fighting in Ukraine will be automatically extended “until the end of the partial mobilisation” period.
“I can’t keep on fighting for ever. Mentally and physically, I am exhausted,” said one soldier, who has been fighting in Ukraine since April and was planning to quit the army once his contract ran out in November.
For Kolesnikov, Putin’s latest move is a sign of the growing desperation of a leader who is playing the last cards at his disposal to prevent a military collapse that would pose the biggest threat to his regime since he came to power more than 20 years ago.
“This is clearly the emotional and spontaneous decision of a cornered person,” he said.