Putin’s Nuclear Blackmail Hits US Resolve and Chinese Wall

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 174

US President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping meet on the sidelines of the 2022 G20 Summit (Source: Saul Loeb/AFP)

The missile that landed in Eastern Polish farmland on November 15, killing two people and injuring three, caused a sharp international crisis, which was treated by Warsaw with due care and the utmost responsibility. Had the stray projectile been a Russian sea-launched Kalibr or an air-launched Kh-555, it would have constituted the first hostile strike on North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) territory. Thus, every possible source of data was incorporated into the swift investigation, which established that it was in fact a misguided S-300 surface-to-air missile launched by Ukrainian forces for intercepting the massive Russian missile attack on civilian infrastructure (Meduza, November 17). The Russian Defense Ministry added to the spike in tensions by characterizing the incident as a “deliberate provocation.” But the crisis was nevertheless defused, with NATO allies agreeing to hold Moscow ultimately responsible for the tragic accident caused by Russia’s brutal air assault (Kommersant, November 16). The Kremlin could have issued a sigh of relief, but the instantly coordinated and impeccably precise NATO response has sent a strong warning against any attempts to escalate the war.

This warning has apparently registered in some form with Moscow, and Dmitry Peskov, the long-serving spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, assured that no one in Russia was talking about nuclear weapons (RIA Novosti, November 17). While patently untrue, this statement fits into the pattern of a reduction in Russia’s bombastic nuclear rhetoric, which has become increasingly pronounced in the past few weeks (Russiancouncil.ru, November 7). William J. Burns, director of the Central Intelligence Agency and one of the most experienced US negotiators, impressed upon Sergei Naryshkin, director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, at their recent face-to-face meeting in Ankara, Turkey, the risks inherent to irresponsibly bragging about nuclear strikes (Kommersant, November 14). Naryshkin, who was publicly humiliated by Putin at the televised meeting of the Russian Security Council on the eve of Russia’s invasion, may not be the most reliable interlocutor, but US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stayed on message in his communications with Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council, and Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s foreign policy aid (Current Time, November 7).

The retreat from Kherson, decried bitterly by the noisy community of Russian “patriotic” bloggers, could have prompted Moscow to stage some nuclear demonstrations, but none have occurred (Svobodnaya pressa, November 14). The situation around Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant has remained relatively calm (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 7). The International Atomic Energy Agency called for Russia to withdraw troops from this plant and, most importantly, published a report that confirmed the absence of any preparations in Ukraine for a “dirty bomb” detonation, a fake threat that the Kremlin had tried to amplify (The Insider, November 3; RIA Novosti, November 18). Many Russian mainstream media platforms eagerly circulated Western news items on a possible test of the Poseidon nuclear-propelled underwater drone in the Barents Sea, but the nuclear submarine K-329 Belgorod (Oscar II class), modernized to carry this drone, apparently returned to the base a fortnight ago without accomplishing the high-profile task (Topwar.ru, November 10).

This uncharacteristic self-restraint is caused not only by multiple warnings from the US about the heavy consequences of nuclear brinksmanship but also by the increasingly pronounced negative attitude in China toward the Kremlin’s options for escalating the war against Ukraine across the nuclear threshold. Moscow had expected that Beijing would accentuate reservations in the Global South against the Western stance in support of Ukraine at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, but Russia’s key strategic partner opted for a more flexible position (Novayagazeta.eu, November 18). The final declaration noted that some states differed from the majority opinion condemning Russian aggression but stated unequivocally that the threat of resorting to nuclear weapons was unacceptable (Kommersant, November 16).

The central event at the Bali summit was the three-hour-long meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and while the two official readouts on the content of discussion differed in some important details, the common rejection of nuclear escalation was clear (Svoboda, November 15). Xi aspires to assert China’s status as a power equal to the United States and seeks to protect its reputation as a responsible stakeholder in the world order against the risk of being associated too closely with troublesome Russia (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 15).

Characteristically, the Russian Foreign Ministry refused to criticize the recent series of missile tests by North Korea, suggesting instead that Washington and its allies “are testing Pyongyang’s patience” (RIA Novosti, November 18). This anti-American solidarity is underpinned by North Korea’s export of ammunition, which is urgently needed by Russian artillery, but it amounts to an implicit support from Moscow to a probable nuclear test by the rogue regime of Kim Jong-un, which is certain to aggravate the protracted security crisis in East Asia (Kommersant, November 18; Izvestiya, October 25).

Another element of intrigue in Russian nuclear diplomacy is centered on Iran, which has become a major supplier of, among others, Shahed-136 drones, which have been used by Russian forces as a force multiplier for missile strikes on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure (Tsargrad.tv, November 7). It is unclear what Russia is providing in return for this clandestine export, but Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are concerned about Iranian bragging about hypersonic missiles, which increased after Patrushev’s most recent visit to Tehran (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 13). Moscow remains formally opposed to the weaponization of Iran’s nuclear program, but the breakdown of multiparty talks on reshaping the United Nations–approved deal cancelled by the US in 2018 suits Russian interests just fine (Kommersant, November 11).

Russia is positioning itself as the champion of taking down the Western-dominated world order, and the nuclear non-proliferation regime constitutes an important pillar of this always evolving order. A single strike with a non-strategic nuclear warhead may not make that much difference on the thinly populated battlefields in Donbas (though the impact should not be underestimated), but it is certain to severely shake global governance. The re-energized and determined West is deploying every possible means of deterrence for preventing a breach of the nuclear taboo. But it is essential to also mobilize this support in the Global South, which may remain ambivalent about the parameters of the war but is certainly opposed to a nuclear escalation. China may not want to see Russia defeated, but Beijing’s every word about the unacceptability of nuclear threats adds to the wall that blocks Putin’s blackmail.