On Tuesday, U.S. President Joseph Biden told reporters that he seriously fears that Vladimir Putin is likely to make a decision to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Previously, U.S. officials and media sources in the U.S. leadership used to be much more optimistic on this issue. Inside Russia, too, the possible use of nuclear weapons is currently being discussed. In his article political scientist and historian Sergei Karaganov, a member of the Security Council Research Council and one of the founders of the Valdai Forum, where Putin regularly talks to foreign journalists and experts, suggested that a preventive nuclear strike be launched against a European country. «It is increasingly clear that the clash with the West will not end if we win a partial or even a crushing victory in Ukraine. By breaking the West’s will to aggression, we will not only save ourselves and finally free the world from five centuries of Western yoke, but we will save all of humanity. To put it crudely, it is necessary for the West to simply ‘fuck off’ and stop hindering Russia and the world in moving forward,» he wrote. Karaganov`s article is titled «A Hard but Necessary Decision,» and this is exactly the kind of solution the author considers a nuclear strike to be. The article’s vocabulary and structure are clearly aimed at one recipient: Vladimir Putin. Karaganov resorts to obscene language which was previously uncharacteristic of him («the West needs to fuck off»). He comes up with plenty of arguments to justify Russia’s actions if a strike were to happen: «No one judges the victors, but the saviors are thanked.» He also insists that the U.S. will not defend Europe so as to avoid suffering from a nuclear strike.
Karaganov is traditionally associated with Security Council hawks, such as Nikolai Patrushev. In previous publications, contrary to the above-mentioned one, Karaganov warned against the use of nuclear weapons and their thoughtless expansion, pointing out that the mere fact of their existence would save the planet from war. This was quite in line with the position of those hawks. Now the situation has changed: Russia’s prospects in the war against Ukraine are dim, while the counterattack by Ukraine’s Armed Forces may well succeed. It’s against this background that Putin deployed nuclear weapons in Belarus, and after the publication of Karaganov’s article, he discussed their use again. If one recalls the beloved mantra of Kremlin’s propaganda «Russia never loses» and the Russian leadership’s conviction that the country is «on the march of development» while the West is dying, the use of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) as the last insurance against losing looks like a credible threat. At the same time, for the overwhelming majority of Russians this step would be completely unacceptable. According to polls conducted by the Levada Center, 68 percent of Russians oppose the use of nuclear weapons by Russia, with an even higher proportion of opponents (71 percent) among Putin’s base electorate (people over 55). The reaction of the international community can well be predicted, too. Therefore, the group advocating radical exreme escalation has to «inoculate» Putin in order to condition him the right way thereby making the president’s decision easier/forcing his hand. Karaganov’s article may be regarded as an example of one such inoculation. Against the backdrop of proposals to strike Europe, a strike against Ukraine would look like a compromise solution. With the Russian president swinging on emotional swings because of the situation on the front, the hypothetical situation of him making this decision cannot be completely ruled out.
Putin on the rise
However, right now Vladimir Putin is clearly on the upswing of optimism. He happily reports to journalists about the losses of the Ukrainian army. «All in all, as of tonight there were 245 tanks and 678 armored vehicles of various types. Of course, there are Leopards, there are also French wheeled armored vehicles, American armored vehicles, everything is there. They are merrily burning», said the Russian president at a meeting with the graduates of military educational institutions. His assessments are based on the official data released by the Defense Ministry, which he obviously trusts: similar figures are reported at Security Council meetings. In recent weeks, Vladimir Putin has been making a lot of public appearances, some of which included commentaries on the war. It is difficult to judge how much of the data provided by the Defense Ministry corresponds to reality, but some of Putin’s reports look utterly implausible. For example, with outmost seriousness the Russian president claims that the losses of the Ukrainian army are ten times higher than the losses of the Russian army. In the event of any successes of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (which are slowly but steadily recapturing territory), Putin’s sentiments and attitudes might make a U-turn. The president has set the bar of expectations high for the pro-war elites and a certain part of Russian society. If reality shatters this picture, Putin is likely to make chaotic and even disastrous decisions to somehow cover up the bitterness of defeat and try to win back what he once gained and lost at the front.
Prigozhin vs Putin
While Vladimir Putin talks about the record losses of the Ukrainian army in equipment and personnel, the founder of the private millitary company «Wagner» Yevgeny Prigozhin, spreads totally different information. «There are serious losses at the front. The number of fighters in the units is decreasing, if previously a company carried out a task with more than a hundred people, now it is 50 or 60,» he said. He named several settlements that the Ukrainian military managed to recapture: «Huge chunks of territory have been given away.» Prigozhin did not mince his words: «If the enemy reaches Molochnyi Liman, then most of the territories that were captured during the so-called Special Military Operation will be reclaimed by the enemy. One day Russia will wake up only to discover that Crimea has already been handed over to the Ukrainians, too.» And if earlier he challenged and rebuked the data of the Defense Ministry, now he directly refutes the president’s words.
Thereby, the founder of «Wagner» violates one of the main taboos of the Russian power system: it is forbidden to argue with and contradict Vladimir Putin. Moreover, this is not the first time Prigozhin has broken this taboo. Last week he announced that his soldiers «Will not follow the path of shame and disgrace» and will not sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense. The founder of «Wagner» commented on Putin’s words that the idea to transfer all PMC mercenaries to contract with the official agency was his. There were ritual words from the lips of Prigozhin that the head of state and the deputies may still figure it out, but he unequivocally pointed out his disagreement with the position of the president.
In this context, the words about some «happy grandfather, who may turn out to be an asshole» and the failed «denazification» and «demilitarization» are beginning to look and be perceived quite differently. At first, Prigozhin’s attacks against the Defense Ministry were quite mild, too, devoid of personal attacks and inuendos against the minister and the top generals, but within a few months things had degenerated into foul language directed against the Ministry and its employees. Now this foul language from Prigozhin’s mouth has become a commonplace of sorts. As far as Putin is concerned, Prigozhin still observes the formal rituals, saying that the president is being deceived and fed total disinformation. But he immediately caveats: «It’s one thing that they [the courtiers] are used to deceiving the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, what’s worse, they mislead the Russian people.» The commander-in-chief is gradually losing its centrality and imprtance in Prigozhin’s rhetoric.
Prigozhin’s arguments and disputes with Putin is further proof that Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebelliousness is not a Kremlin project designed to favorably overshadow a calmer and more moderate president on the eve of the 2024 elections.