It’s the same old story from Putin. Ilya Shablinsky on the latest round of nuclear blackmail from Russia

12 October 2023

by Ilya Shablinsky 


I don’t know how you can bear an hour of such drivel, sitting in that hall. This may well not apply to a vetted audience like this, of course. For what is probably the tenth time now, Putin repeated what he believes should serve as the ideological justification for the war he started. It ends up sounding more heavy-handed, abstract, and longer each time. But then, speechwriters are given the freedom to tinker around and fill the dictator’s rhetoric with elaborate constructions.  They completely saturate it: “The world is moving towards the synergy of large spaces… The West is destroying the open and inclusive architecture of co-operation… The pillar of civilisation… Multipolarity and multi-vector nature…”

It’s the same old story, and it’s actually beside the point.

It still had one effect: the increasingly distinct feeling that everything he said was utterly meaningless and spurious when compared to the bleak and bloody reality.

But it wasn’t so much the verbiage that was of interest, rather Putin’s state of mind. He has long since relaxed into it all, quite happy with himself and the situation at the front. He has adjusted to the new strategy, to wage a long defensive (for now) war of attrition and to wait – for the return of Trump in the US and for general fatigue in Europe.

He was preening, as usual. He was practically gleaming.

As you will gather, he is now ready to negotiate, and the terms are quite clear: for him, recognition of the captured and mutilated territory of Ukraine (approximately 18% of the country) is fair game. This is essentially what all the talk of the “synergy of large spaces” comes down to.

This is the whole crux of the matter. It exists. It’s quite real. Although it wasn’t in the speech, of course.

The dictator’s arguments are well known, and, in some respects, they include new ones. Those, too, are quite real. The destroyed centre of Kharkov, which, together with Odessa (another ‘Russian’ city according to the dictator), have had to withstand the worst missile attacks. Ports and hotels, shipyards, and silos – all destroyed. Yet another mass murder in the tiny Ukrainian village of Groza, near Kharkov. Millions of refugees.  

The dictator smugly enumerated his achievements, referencing the prospect of Ukraine joining the European Union. Infrastructure destroyed, factories blown up, streams of people fleeing war. Out of 41 million inhabitants (of pre-war Ukraine), just 19 million now remain. That’s according to Putin’s calculations.

You should have seen his face when he said this. You should have seen his satisfied half-smirk. He has nothing against Ukraine joining the EU. Let them admit Ukraine if that’s what they want. He was issuing a warning. You have to remember that smirk of his.

A similar expression flashed on his face again, when he suddenly remembered his former comrade Prigozhin. Putin now has the job of solving a specific problem over and again: to downplay the role of his former comrade in every way possible by presenting him in a bad light. This time, he suggested that the explosion of the Wagner leader’s plane had been caused by a grenade going off on board (fragments of which were supposedly found in the bodies) and that in fact the people who were blown up had drug and alcohol problems.

We should also mention Putin’s latest comments on the nuclear issue. This time round, the content was partly prepared. Relatively recently, Mr Karaganov, a member of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, published an article in which he proposed revising the Russian nuclear strategy and considering one (or two) of Europe’s capitals as potential targets. Just the other day, Ms Simonyan delighted audiences with a proposal to detonate a nuclear charge over Siberia, disabling all electronics. One must assume that in so doing she was trying to suggest that testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere was a positive thing. We have to imagine.

In the same vein, among all the questions posed to Putin after his speech, Karaganov’s sounded like a well-aimed shot from a rocket launcher. It began with his admission that he was feeling almost complete happiness and that he had been waiting for this time to come, as things were fun, interesting, bright, and colourful. That’s a direct quote.

Then the question followed. Should Russia change its nuclear doctrine in the direction of “lowering the nuclear threshold” in order to move further down the escalation path? The point is to bring our so-called partners who are expanding monstrous aggression against us, to their senses. That’s almost a verbatim quote.

I guess that was the main question of this entire not particularly exciting event.

I confess I found it hard to believe that this was coming from a man whom I knew quite well and with whom I had once spoken about American literature. After all, the fact is that these phrases aren’t so obsequious and ridiculous as they are simply insane. It happens, though, that people change. But more often than not, they reveal their hidden nature.

I assume that Putin has decided that it is not a bad idea to remind his main opponent, across the ocean, of his trump card just in case. It is not always convenient for him to do it himself, sometimes he needs a pitch.

Having received the pitch, Putin was happy to describe how hundreds of nuclear warhead carriers (he emphasised – hundreds) are heading towards their coveted goal. He agreed that Russia could withdraw the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. The speaker of the so-called State Duma reacted to this casually thrown phrase as if it were a bone thrown from the table. He picked it up and shouted that everything would be done.

Some clarification is needed here. The Treaty, drafted in 1996, has not yet come into force. It was signed by about 180 states, but its enactment in this case depended on the ratification of the document by the parliaments of 44 countries possessing nuclear reactors. Of these, 38 have ratified the treaty, including Putin’s Russia. Soon, apparently, 37 will remain.

One way or another, this is a symbolic step.

There is another treaty, much more important, one of the most important in the system of international law and in the history of mankind. It was concluded in August 1963 in Moscow and is therefore sometimes called the Moscow Treaty – the Treaty Banning Nuclear Tests in the Atmosphere, Outer Space and Under Water. It was concluded on the initiative of Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy, who had experienced the shock of the Cuban Missile Crisis and had learnt about the effects of atomic and hydrogen superbombs exploding in the atmosphere.

The largest device, with a yield of approximately 58 megatons, is known to have been detonated in October 1961 over Novaya Zemlya. The participants in this trial, among whom was Andrei Sakharov, later described some unforeseen effects. A giant fireball hung in the sky, blinding like the sun. It remained there for several hours, then connected with the island’s glacier through a similar pillar of fire, and did not dim or fall, which brought some generals who were in shelter into a state close to panic. But physicists could not explain to them either the causes of this phenomenon or its prospects. Many physical consequences of nuclear tests are still unexplored.

It is known that all the details of this last atmospheric test were described in detail to Khrushchev. Anyway, Soviet and American leaders, who knew what war was all about, found the strength to conclude an agreement banning tests in the three environments. Russia, as the successor to the USSR, is now a party to this 1963 Moscow Treaty. Withdrawing from it is not just a rejection of the most important positive legacy of the Soviet era, but a crime against the present generation. Does the Russian dictator realise this? Probably not. I think he really does live in his own special world where he has risen above all the rulers of the earth.

In terms of the scale of damage caused to his country, he may well, indeed, surpass them all.

Translated by Lindsay Munford and Ecaterina Hughes

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