Following the March 29 round of Russian-Ukrainian peace negotiations, held in Istanbul, a cautious optimism crept into the rhetoric of the Russian delegation. However, this was swiftly followed by harshly negative criticism in the Russian media that negotiations are happening at all. That sharp public rebuke, combined with revelations of Russian war crimes in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha (BBC News—Russian service, April 3), raised new doubts about whether any peaceful resolution to the conflict is possible at the moment. Given this, some Ukrainian experts fear that the risk of a Russian nuclear strike against Ukraine is increasing.
In the wake of the latest talks, in Istanbul, representatives of the Russian Ministry of Defense announced the withdrawal of troops from Kyiv and Chernigovsky as a “goodwill gesture.” However, representatives of the Ukrainian side noted that the Russians were withdrawing because they could not achieve their goals near Kyiv (24tv.ua, March 29). The press secretary of the United States Department of Defense, John Kirby, underlined that the Pentagon viewed the Russian action as a repositioning of forces rather than a retreat, and the threat to Kyiv had not diminished (Twitter.com/DeptofDefense, March 29).
Regarding the possibility of concluding a peaceful settlement with Ukraine, the Russian media mounted a powerful campaign against any such initiative. A large number of propagandists and officials called the talks “traitorous” and “a surrender of national interests” (The Insider, March 29). Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov underscored the importance of finishing what was started—including, to take Kyiv and “destroy the Banderites, Nazis and devils” (Topwar.ru, March 29). Russian “experts” have begun to remind people that Moscow’s goal is a “profound de-Nazification” of the entire Ukrainian population, which is impossible without the power to control this process (RIA Novosti, April 3).
Because of this, the representative of the Russian delegation at the talks, Vladimir Medinskiy, along with State Duma (lower chamber of parliament) deputies were forced to justify the negotiating team’s actions and explain that their members “are not inclined to surrender” (Regnum, March 29). Nonetheless, the aggressive line of propaganda fired back that “the party of capitulation in Russia lacks perspective” (Nrus.info, April 2). Russian media rhetoric became even more belligerent after the mayor of Bucha, Anatoly Fedoruk, revealed evidence of hundreds of dead after Russian forces abandoned the Ukrainian town. He said that the streets of the town were strewn with corpses and showed photographs of the mutilated bodies of civilians, some of them with their hands tied (Krym.com, April 3).
In response, Russian outlets, following the defense ministry’s lead, claimed that the footage from the scene was staged. Prominent Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyev called the war crimes charges leveled at Moscow a provocation conducted by the United Kingdom, with the goal of “the complete destruction of Russia.” From this he concluded that it was time to “stop playing with the Nazis” in negotiations and “not interfere with the [Russian] army operating in all directions” (YouTube, April 3).
Against this background, some Ukrainian military experts have suggested that the risk of Russia employing nuclear or chemical weapons against Ukraine is growing. They noted that the Russian authorities are preparing the population for such a scenario and suggested that Moscow does not believe it will be held accountable for its actions (Defence-ua.com, April 2). The experts’ conclusion should be seen in tandem with examples of the extreme dehumanization of Ukrainians in the Russian media (RT, March 26) and Russia’s increasingly aggressive war propaganda, which render a peaceful resolution to the conflict unlikely.
Meanwhile, sociologists report record growth of popular support for President Vladimir Putin (Levada.ru, March 30), and insiders write that Western sanctions have rallied the Russian elites around their president (Faridaily, March 31). Regardless of the accuracy of such evaluations, they may create in Putin’s mind the illusion that the population and the elite will approve of anything he does. At the same time, to maintain the spirit of mobilization, the Kremlin needs military victories that it cannot achieve by conventional means.
Ukrainian military specialist Anton Mikhnenko noted, in an interview with this author on April 2, that Putin has no political reason to deliver a nuclear strike, since, in such an event, he would lose even the support of China and other non-European countries. However, in a military sense, the Russian elites may consider such an outcome quite conceivable, given that the psychological barrier against the use of tactical nuclear weapons, unlike strategic ones, has already been removed.
“One of the signs indicating that they have decided to launch a nuclear strike could be the deployment of radiological, chemical and biological protection units to the territory of Ukraine, which would ensure the subsequent disinfection of the contaminated territory before the Russian troops go on the offensive,” the Ukrainian analyst believes. However, Mikhnenko admited that such an offensive may not happen if Putin does not plan to seize the entire territory of the country but only hopes to break the resistance of the Ukrainians so that they abandon the regions already captured by Russia (Author’s interview, April 2).
Another Ukrainian expert, Valery Ryabykh, the director of the information and consulting firm Defense Express, suggested that, presently, the likelihood of such a strike is low–medium, but could increase if the West does not demonstrate a readiness to take adequate action in response (Forum Daily, March 31). Belarusian analyst Yuriy Tsarik warns of a similar scenario, noting that such a demonstrative strike might even be carried out on Belarusian territory (Gazetaby.com, March 4).
At the same time, however, Russian opposition politician, former political prisoner and former head of the oil company Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, suggested that the risk of a tactical nuclear strike in Ukrainian territory is diminishing because there are problems between Putin and his army. “Putin must understand that if he orders someone to press the red button and the military does not carry out his order, they would have to kill him in order not to be labeled traitors,” Khodorkovsky reasoned. According to him, US President Joseph Biden’s declaration that, in the event of the use of chemical or nuclear weapons, Putin would receive an “adequate response” may also dampen the resolve of the Russian president, since it creates additional uncertainty for him. On the contrary, statements by some European leaders that they “will not go to war under any circumstances” could boost Putin’s sense of impunity (Author’s interview, April 2). Coordinated signaling by the Western alliance will be pivotal in the coming days and weeks.