Russia’s nuclear threat: Is Vladimir Putin bluffing or is he really a ‘terrorist with nuclear weapons?’

While Vladimir Putin warns that he is ready to use any military means necessary in the war with Ukraine, experts must take seriously the possibility of a Russian use of nuclear weapons.

In a televised address this week, the Russian leader ordered the country’s first military mobilization since World War II and warned that if the West proceeded with what he called “nuclear blackmail,” Moscow would respond with its full military arsenal.

“When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we use all available means to protect our people – this is not a bluff,” Putin said.

Retired US Army Major John Spencer told ABC News Daily he believed Vladimir Putin was ready to use nuclear weapons.

“Personally, I think that’s a credible threat,” he said.

A middle-aged man with a serious expression.
Retired US Army Major John Spencer has said Vladimir Putin is threatening the world with using his nuclear weapons because of the world’s help in helping Ukrainians keep their freedom.(Delivered: John Spencer)

“[Russia] has the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world, behind only the United States.”

“He’s a terrorist with nuclear weapons, I really can’t put it any other way.”

But Mr Spencer, who holds the chair in urban warfare at the Modern War Institute, said using such weapons would ultimately be counterproductive for Russia.

“If a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon is used in Ukraine – even if it is a tactical one – it will not lead to Russia achieving its strategic goals of overtaking Ukraine,” he said.

“It’s only going to change the war because other nations have to respond based on what’s being used.”

Mr Spencer added that the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would change the rules by which the war is conducted, increasing the likelihood of Western retaliation.

“If Russia uses weapons of mass destruction, in my opinion that will be the end of the Putin regime and the end of the Russian Federation as it exists today,” he said.

Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer is also skeptical that nuclear weapons would further Russia’s goals.

Speaking to RN Breakfast, Dr. Rimhauer that using them would contradict Vladimir Putin’s entire rationale for the invasion.

“Putin said Ukrainians are basically like Russians taken over by bad guys,” he said.

“Nuking and razing cities that they historically see as the heartland of Russia doesn’t make much sense.”

“I don’t think the use of nuclear weapons is imminent right now, and that’s more or less the response from Washington that they take it seriously, but they don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon.”

How many troops could Russia mobilize?

By announcing a partial military mobilization, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that up to 300,000 Russian reservists could be sent to Ukraine.

But John Spencer said the Russian reservists were poorly trained and would take a long time to mobilize.

“Russia has no reserve forces,” he said.

“He’s basically saying that people who have served in the military at some point are forced back into the military and trained for two weeks and then sent to the front lines in Ukraine.”

“The first round will probably be more like 10,000 to 20,000 troops – not 300,000 – because [Putin] just doesn’t have the infrastructure for it.”

A burning vehicle after being shelled in Russian-controlled Donetsk
Donetsk is an area in eastern Ukraine currently controlled by Russian-backed separatists.(AP: Alexey Alexandrov)

Mr Spencer said the move was a desperate attempt by the Kremlin to replenish an army that has suffered significant casualties in recent weeks.

“By some estimates they lost over 80,000 soldiers,” he said.

“Ukraine is destroying its military, so he wants to take these men who served in the military at one point and then get them to fill in the gaps… to hold the Donbass [region].”

The referendum strategy

As Russia sought to mobilize more troops, John Spencer pointed to another strategy he says the Kremlin is using in eastern Ukraine: referendums.

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