March 26, 2024 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 584

On Russia's War Perspectives – Putin Has No Fear Of A Massive Nuclear War

March 26, 2024 | By Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 584

With the Russian presidential "elections" finally over, the experts and policymakers are trying to figure out what Russian President Vladimir Putin's next plans may be – both on Ukraine and on the West in general. The 87 percent support – though it looks obviously fa­ke – was produced, as many believe, for some reason aside from simply pleasing the aging dictator: It signals Putin's omnipotence and public support that legitimizes any moves he might like to make in the coming years. Therefore, some analysts ­believe that any options now look possible – like the Russian attack on neighbo­ring countries. In Romania and Poland the authorities have begun funding the construction of new bomb shelters and lines of defense.[1]

(Source: Twitter)

An Intensification Of Russian Attacks In Ukraine More Likely Than Aggression Against Poland Or Baltic Nations

To my mind, even as President Putin is not a very rational person and has increasing signs of mental disorders,[2] Russia will not begin any new war quite soon. Most Western observers argue that it will take Pu­tin's military from six to ten years to restore its fighting capacity[3] (and I will add that even if it goes back to early 2022 levels, it would still be insufficient for invading any of the NATO countries). When I see even bolder predictions, like ones admit­ting that Russia may attack in five to eight years or sooner,[4] I feel even greater doubt.

But no one should believe that the people in the Kremlin think they have achieved their goals by taking Avdiivka[5] or making any other small advances into Uk­rainian territory. President Putin has just started to unveil his next term's agenda, and what we hear from Moscow cannot produce optimism. Putin himself announ­ced a wide campaign of eradicating "traitors" wherever they might be reached,[6] so one may expect a hunt on the emigrant dissidents and on those Russians who are fighting on Ukraine's side. His Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, presented plans for beefing up two fresh armies, up to 14 divisions and 16 brigades – which means that up to 200,000 new servicemen may join the Russian military.[7] In recent days, many news and leaks from Moscow suggest that the preparations for a new mobilization of around 300,000 reservists are under way,[8] with the au­thorities acting with the same steps as in 2022 – and there are talks that Khar­kiv was already chosen as a new target.[9] In the past days, Russia resumed its brutal attacks on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure facilities while Kyiv's Western allies advised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to refrain from drone attacks on Russian oil refineries.[10]

Therefore, I would rather expect an intensification of Russian attacks in Ukraine than aggression by Moscow against Poland or the Baltic nations.

"Ukraine Is Not Russia"

In retrospect, the war in Uk­raine looks like part of a long story that started in the early 2000s when Putin made his very first steps in "re-assembling," in some sense symbolically, the former Soviet Union. Ukraine has continuously rejected almost any form of integration with Russia. It had not even ratified the treaty on establishing the Commonwealth of the Independent States it signed in late 1991.[11] It has refused to participate in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, declined any options of cooperation with Russia within the Customs Union, and in 1997 became a leading force behind the GUAM block[12] – an organization embracing the nations that have not joined the Russia-inspired integrationist projects. After 2004, it became almost obvious that the country turned to Europe and firmly decided that "Ukraine is not Russia," as one of its leaders titled his famous book.[13]

Since that time, the Kremlin took a collision course that manifested itself many times, finally leading to full-scale aggression in 2022. Putin had spent almost 20 years strengthening his anti-Ukrainian rhetoric, convincing his subjects that the in­dependent Ukraine is a "historical mistake," and preparing for the war of aggression against Kyiv. Even while in late 2021 he chose the Russia-NATO quarrels to legi­timize Russia's assault, it was caused by his wish to reintegrate Ukraine (in some sense for the reasons mentioned by Zbigniew Brzezinski, who once wrote that "without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eura­sian empire,"[14] and in a way to prevent Ukraine's development as a free and democratic European society, as otherwise Russians would follow the same path toward democracy, since Putin claims that both nations "are one people – a single whole").[15] These 20 years transformed both Putin's own worldview and that of the Russian people to a degree that made the war with Ukraine possible and desirable.

I would argue that nothing like this can be said concerning any other states that border Russia. Of course, the Russian imperial obsession is calling for revenge by conquering Poland,[16] or the Baltic states, or the Finland, but there are at least two obstacles that I believe will prevent such attacks from happening – even if this cannot be called a firm guarantee against a full-scale war between Russia and NATO.

The Ideological Reasons For Putin's Policy

Putin succeeded in convincing both himself and his subjects that Ukraine is a part of "historical Russia," which keeps some crucial elements of the Russian identity and constitutes a natural part of the Russian world.[17] I would once again men­tion that Putin talks not so much about Russians that are "oppressed" by the Uk­rainian authorities (this rhetoric almost disappeared after 2015) but about the Uk­rainians who are trying to disagree with the "fact" that they are the same Russians.

This type of thinking definitely cannot be applied to the Poles, or to Estoni­ans and Lithuanians, and no other arguments possess the same strength. Maybe, Putin will spend another couple decades masterminding a new geopo­litical doctrine, but as of today I cannot see how he would justify a Russian invasion into those countries, which he is unable to depict as inhabited by "the Russi­ans." I would remind the reader that it would have been extremely easy for the Kremlin to take Kazakh­s­tan under its control back in January 2022 – but no one tried to do it. So, Russia's attack on Europe seems to me irrational not only because of the military, but also due to deep ideological reasons that may lie in the foundation of Putin's policy.

But, because of the fading support to Ukraine coming from its Western allies, Putin is still confident he may finalize his "local" war with a victory, whatever this may mean (either the full incorpora­tion of Ukraine into Russia, or just drawing a new border along the Dnieper, or just retaining the currently occupied territories) since any of these results will allow him to depict himself as the defender of the Russian lands. As 2023 was a lost year for Ukraine, he most probably will try to make as much advances as possible in 2024, profiting from a desperate lack of ammunition in Ukraine and the need for many soldiers to be replaced with fresh regiments co­ming from nowhere. I would argue that such tactics may become a key to Russia's success.

Russian Leadership Talking More Actively About A Russia-NATO War On Ukrainian Soil

However, here we arrive at a discussion of the chance that Russia finds itself at war with NATO. This would happen if NATO forces were sent to Ukraine and fought with Russian forces. How realistic does this scenario look?

I cannot say anything more on this matter except citing French President Emmanuel Macron, who recently admitted that it might be necessary to send French troops to Ukraine if the Russians reach Odessa or Kyiv.[18] France's Chief of the General Staff Gen Thierry Burkhard reiterated that the West should be prepared for a war in Europe that will include the traditional trenched warfare alongside with the modern fighting with the use of drones and high-precision weapons managed from remote command headquarters.[19] The Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski also voiced his thoughts about the possibility that Poland's troops might enter the conflict,[20] not providing any details about what the pretext for such an ac­tion may be. Such developments, if they happen, may be extremely dangerous for the global security architecture – first of all because in Putin's eyes they would be a start of the Russia-NATO war, in which Moscow would be able to use its nuclear arms as well.

To my mind, Putin is well-prepared for an engagement with NATO forces, but not on their own territory. As I said earlier, it seems that it would be rather difficult to persuade the Russians that an invasion of Poland or Finland is now in their interests – but more and more people believe that the "special military operation" in Ukraine should reach its goals.[21]

If one follows Kremlin's rhetoric, it looks clear that the Russian leadership is talking more actively about the upcoming Russia-NATO war on Ukraine's soil.[22] Mr. Dmitry Peskov, Putin's infamous press secretary, had said last week that "we realize Russia is at war,"[23] as all the beloved "special military operation" trick wording was forgotten. I would argue that Russia now sees the entire Ukrainian territory as its possession (former President Dmitry Medvedev recently wrote that Moscow will now be pleased only with the capitulation of the Kyiv regime and the complete incorporati­on of modern-day Ukraine into the Russian Federation)[24] because the West seemingly has no intention of forcing the Ukrainians to strike a peace deal.

If Russia succeeds in a new round of mobilization, its advance becomes imminent, and the Western direct involvement will be considered almost as an attack on Russian territory. Putin, I would insist, has no fear of a massive nuclear war since his close friends (most probably Mikhail Kovalchuk, who is himself a physicist and since 2005 has been Director of the Russian National Research Centre "Kurchatov Institute") presented him with a series of research findings against the so-called theory of a "nuclear winter,"[25] which was shaped in the 1970s by both U.S. and Soviet academics, who tried to convince their governments that nuclear war cannot be won, as it inevitably destroys the entire human environment causing a reduction in the share of solar radiation reaching the Earth's surface. Russian scholars told Putin that the theory was discounted immediately after the Cold War ended and reportedly argued that the use of nuclear warheads causing explosions equaling less than 200 to 300 megatons[26] will not provoke such terrible outcomes,[27] since the eruption of the Krakatoa volcano in 1883, which has been estimated at around the same magnitude did not significantly change the global climate.[28] Taking into account that these days the most powerful warheads in both Russia and the U.S. do not exceed two megatons each, it means that hundreds of nuclear exchanges could be made without causing the final destruction of the Earth – and so one should seriously consider Putin's words about Russia "having a certain advantage in several cutting-edge weapons [and] in this context, there should be no doubt for anyone that any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences should it directly attack our country."[29]

European Policymakers Are Starting To Realize That They Should Increase Their Assistance To Ukraine

So, the Western nations are now challenged with several new developments. On the one hand, they are unprepared to wage a war with Russia even to defend the­ir own territories. The stories about the weakness of the European armed forces and the poor stance of the European military industry are mushrooming and going public, pleasing Putin and his aides quite a lot.

The U.S. government is preoccupied with the upcoming elections and does not want to tease the Kremlin, suggesting that Ukraine had better refrain from attacking Russian territory. The Russians are well awa­re of all this and, to my mind, are now waiting for the results of the American elections and will use this time for deeper incursions in Ukraine, not in the Baltics.

On the other hand, European policymakers are starting to realize that they should increase their assistance to Ukraine (the European Union seems ready to revise its legislati­on in a way that would permit the support of military programs from the EU budget)[30] as much as possible – and this is the most probable (but not the most farsighted) reason some European politicians are taking on direct military involvement in the Ukrainian crisis. The readiness to help, to my mind, should not cause the intensification of the conflict that will put the world on the brink of nuclear disaster.


So, what can be suggested as the new strategy for the Western bloc? First, there is an acute need for increasing European military production. Europe has economi­zed on cutting its military spending since 1992 by – depending on the country – at least $1.6 trillion and as much as $8.6 trillion,[31] and this time appears to be over. European governments should allocate between two and three percent of GDP for military programs by 2025, as this will not harm the European economy but may contribute a lot to Europe's security.

Second, a firm agreement should be made between the Western allies and Ukraine about localizing all Ukrainian military efforts inside the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine and discontinuing any attacks on the Russian territory, both by land and by air.  If such an agreement is made, the West should supply Ukraine with the most advan­ced weapons it has for intensifying the resistance to the Russians. I suppose that a new wave of mobilization, would it happen, will deliver another significant blow to both the Russian economy and the Russians' morale, so it is crucial to annihilate as much Russian mi­litary personnel and equipment as possible without allowing them to infiltrate further into Ukrainian territory.

Third, rhetoric about sending European troops to Ukraine should be stopped and such troops should never ap­pear there because this now appears to be the best way to engage Putin in a nuclear war with the West that he believes he might win.

I would finish by saying that there is no doubt that 2024 will become a crucial year for the Russo-Ukraine war, and neither Ukraine nor the Western world in general can afford for it to continue even into 2025, much less for a longer time.

*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is the MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor, and Founder and Director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies.


[1], September 13, 2023;, March 13, 2024.

[2], March 17, 2024.

[3], November 17, 2023.

[4], January 19, 2024;, January 23, 2024.

[5], February 17, 2024.

[6], March 19, 2024.

[7], March 20, 2024.

[8], March 22, 2024.

[9], March 22, 2024;, March 22, 2024.

[10], March 22, 2024;, March 22, 2024.

[11], October 13, 2023.

[12], accessed March 26, 2024.

[13], accessed March 26, 2024.

[14] Brzezinski, Zbigniew. The Grand Chessboard. American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Impera-tives, New York: Basic Books, 1997, p. 46.

[15], July 12, 2021.

[16], February 26, 2021.

[17], June 17, 2022.

[18], March 1, 2024.

[19], March 22, 2024.

[20], March 9, 2024.

[21], February 24, 2024.

[22], February 27, 2024.

[23], March 22, 2024.

[24], March 14, 2024.

[25], December 23, 1983.

[26] A megaton is a unit used to measure the explosive yield of nuclear weapons. A single megaton is equivalent to the explosive power of 1,000,000 tons of TNT.

[27], January 23, 1990.


[29], February 24, 2022.

[30], March 22, 2024.

[31], February 15, 2024.

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