Is Russia’s Nuclear About-Face More or Less Credible Than Its Earlier Threats?

After months of saber-rattling, Putin and his government have been disavowing the use of tactical nukes in Ukraine.

The world appeared to take a step back from nuclear catastrophe in recent days as Russian leaders walked back months of threats to use tactical nukes in their Ukraine invasion.

The first crack in the rhetorical facade came on Oct. 27, when Vladimir Putin said at his Valdai conference that "it doesn't make sense for us to do it”—“it” being the first combat use of a nuclear bomb since 1945. That was followed over the next week by similar statements and quotes from other Russian officials.

China’s Xi Jinping, for one, appeared to welcome the turn, declaring on Friday with visiting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that their governments “jointly oppose the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.”

The about-face comes as Russia’s battered forces, including thousands of ill-trained emergency conscripts, appear to be retreating to the east and digging in for the winter, and as Putin himself faces new scrutiny from prominent Russians and the public at large.

It also comes after several weeks of extraordinary warnings from Western defense and intelligence leaders that Russia may have been seeking an excuse to use nuclear weapons by falsely alleging that Ukraine was preparing to use a “dirty bomb” of its own. 

U.S., Ukrainian, and other European officials were quick to denounce the claim.  

“Obviously, it's a false allegation. That's not true. The Ukrainians have nothing like that in mind. They have no intention to do that,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Oct. 26. 

The following day, as Putin spoke at Valdai, his defense minister was also apparently already walking back the threats in private discussions with Western counterparts. That’s according to Andrei Kelin, Russia’s ambassador to the UK, who in an Oct. 27 interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour said Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had told his counterparts: “We are not going to use nuclear weapons…Russia is not going to use nukes. It is out of the question.”

Then on Wednesday, the Russian defense ministry issued a statement: “In implementing its policy on nuclear deterrence Russia is strictly and consistently guided by the tenet that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” 

Ambassador Kelin echoed the point in a Thursday interview with Sky News. “The nuclear war cannot be won and it should never be fought. And we stick strongly to this statement," he said.  “The world has every assurance that Russia is not going to use [a] tactical nuclear weapon in [the] Ukrainian conflict."

That same day, the International Atomic Energy Agency debunked Russia’s claims about a Ukrainian dirty bomb.

The situation on the ground 

Russia’s nuclear rhetorical retreat comes as its conventional forces and conscripts dig into what one Western official on Thursday said were defensive positions for the long winter ahead and as Russia appears to be on the verge of giving up the key city of Kheron.

It is “increasingly apparent that Russia has moved to a more definitively defensive position along most of the front lines” and “in depth,” said the Western official, who briefed a small group of reporters in Washington on the condition of anonymity. Russia’s mobilized reservists and conscripts are still arriving in Ukraine but they are a “pretty low-quality force, likely little-suited to complex offense operations, and also short of munitions.” The official’s government believes that Russians are still planning for a military withdrawal from the west side of Dnieper River by Kherson.

“Most echelons of command have withdrawn now across the river to the east, leaving pretty demoralized and often, in some cases, leaderless groups to face Ukrainians on the other side,” said the official. 

Additionally to the north, Ukrainians are eyeing key border regions that would cut off important supply routes from Russia. “It will be significant for Russia if that area falls to Ukrainian operations,” said the official. 

What’s clear is that Russia is not preparing for major ground maneuvers, autumn leaves are falling from trees, taking with them natural camouflage, and the ground is soon to start freezing. But, the official cautioned, Moscow could use all of that to play a strategic advantage. “It effectively buys them time, it means they are able to hold on to the territory” that they claim to have annexed. 

What comes next on the battlefield, few top officials will venture to give a confident assessment. But the longer Russia falters, the more the blame may slowly make its way to Putin himself, which is a worry. 

“Our assessment is: he reacts when he sees attacks on him,” the official said. For now, Putin is still presenting his sanitized view of the war, but his perception of opinion may drive his decisions. Recently, key Putin allies including Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who leads the Wagner mercenary organization, have openly criticized his generals. Alexander Lapin, the last of the original five generals running Russia’s operation, appears to be on his way out. Now Sergey Surovikin, a veteran of Russia’s Afghanistan and Chechnya wars and accused of human rights violations in Syria, has taken the reins

‘It looks like he’s now properly taking charge” of the operational plan, said the official–whatever that plan may be. The Russian force digging in for the winter are vastly inferior to the one that began the war in February. The official explained that in a typical NATO army, the expected ratio of junior officers to soldiers is 1 to 13 soldiers. “In some of these mobilized formations the ratio is 1 to 100s,” he said. 

“If you look at the attrition that the Russian forces faced over the months since February, it’s extraordinarily significant,” he said. “Front-line and elite units” were “extremely depleted in that time.” 

The poor quality of mobilized reservists and conscripts behind them has alarmed Western officials. 

“The actual ability to translate that mobilization into trained effective forces–in some cases we’ve seen forces sent to the front lines within 10 to 15 days, in many cases without equipment or weapons.” 

One speculation has been that Russia’s latest nuclear threat was really a pretext for positioning itself for diplomatic talks to end the war. The Western official said there may be signs that Russia is floating that option publicly, but no real preparation.  

In his Oct. 26 briefing, the NSC’s Kirby said, “President Zelenskyy has said himself that they're focused on their counteroffensive operations, that they are not in a position where they want to negotiate. Our job, our role here is to make sure that we continue to support Ukraine in the field so that if and when it comes to the table, President Zelenskyy is also able to succeed in his negotiations. He gets to determine—he gets to determine when that is. He gets to determine what success looks like. And he gets to determine what or what he is not willing to negotiate with the Russians. But we're just not there yet.”