By John Erath
September 21 is the “International Day of Peace,” as declared by the UN in 1981. It is therefore something beyond ironic that it was chosen by Vladimir Putin as the appropriate moment to announce a “partial mobilization” of 300,000 reservists to provide additional cannon fodder for Russian operations in Ukraine. Putin cloaked this announcement in predictable nationalist rhetoric and appeals to patriotism that boil down to an argument that Russia must invade its neighbor in order to protect its own territory.
Were Putin’s statement limited to conscription, it would be easy to dismiss as a sign of Russia’s increasing desperation over a war going badly, but he brought in the specter of nuclear weapons.
After throwing around an unsubstantiated accusation that Ukraine has sought nuclear capability and blaming Kyiv for the fighting around Zaporizhzhia, Putin returned to the favorite Soviet rhetorical tactic of blaming one’s adversaries for that of which one is guilty. He vaguely cited “…the statements of some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO states about the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction against Russia.” After claiming that Ukraine was ready to make peace but was prevented from doing so by its western supporters, Putin could be laying the foundation for an escalatory nuclear policy to be blamed on the west, a policy with a terrifying logic should it be followed. If the west were responsible, then the way to win the war would be to use whatever means available to stop the west from aiding Ukraine, even nuclear weapons.
If this were all Putin had to say about a possible use of nuclear weapons, his speech would represent a dangerous escalation, but he went farther. Putin drew a clear line by stating “…when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.”
Taken together with the announcement that Russia will hold sham referenda to provide a pretext for annexation of large areas of Ukraine, the implication is that Putin is articulating a legal justification to use nuclear weapons should Ukraine try to reassert control over its own territory. These parts of Ukraine will be declared Russian territory in short order, with the understanding that they would then be “defended” by Russia’s nuclear arsenal. The strategy seems to be to stop Ukraine from regaining more of its land and set the stage for a conclusion of the war to Russian advantage. In such a scenario, Ukraine would be forced to give up Crimea and Donbas as part of a peace deal, enabled by nuclear blackmail.
On the “Day of Peace,” Putin has increased the possibility of nuclear war.