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Russia's former president said nuclear threats are not a bluff, and that NATO won't step in if Russia nukes Ukraine

Business Insider logo Business Insider 9/27/2022 mjankowicz@businessinsider.com (Mia Jankowicz)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press © Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press
  • A top Russian official repeated Russia's nuclear threats, saying it "isn't a bluff."
  • Dmitry Medvedev said NATO countries wouldn't step in if Russia fired a nuke on Ukraine.
  • One expert told Insider it likely is a bluff — but it should be taken seriously anyway. 

Russia's former president repeated the country's threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and mocked NATO by saying it would not come to Ukraine's aid if Russia struck. 

Dmitry Medvedev, who is now Russia's Security Council chief, took aim at US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Liz Truss, and the wider NATO alliance on Telegram early Tuesday.

He said those leaders "constantly threaten us with 'terrifying consequences' if Russia uses nuclear weapons," and accused Truss of being "completely ready to immediately begin an exchange of nuclear strikes with our country."

Medvedev said Russia's laws around the use of nuclear weapons mean it can retaliate with them if it is hit with nukes, or if it is attacked with conventional weapons that threaten "the very existence of our state."

Russia will also "do anything" to prevent the nuclear weapons emerging in the country's "hostile neighbors" such as Ukraine, Medvedev said. 

"If the threat to Russia exceeds the established danger limit, we will have to respond," he said. "Without asking anyone's permission, without long consultations. And it's definitely not a bluff."

And if Russia did strike Ukraine with a nuclear weapon, NATO member states will put their own security ahead of protecting "a dying Ukraine that no one needs," Medvedev said. 

An isolated Russia

Security expert Professor Michael Clarke told Insider he believes Putin using a nuclear weapon "would bring him down immediately."

"The whole world would turn against him," he said, arguing that he believed NATO would hit back, albeit with conventional weapons. China would likely drop its muted support for Russia also, he predicted. 

Clarke, associate director of the Strategy and Security Institute at the UK's University of Exeter, said: "I think there would be an immediate upping of the campaign, and I suspect that would actually bring Western forces into Ukraine." 

Medvedev's remarks come as Russia moves to annex large parts of occupied Ukraine through sham referendums.

Should President Vladimir Putin announce annexations — expected this Friday, per the UK's Ministry of Defence — any attempt to re-take those areas may be interpreted in Moscow as an attack on Russia itself.

Reminding the world about Russia's nuclear arsenal is nothing new among Putin and his allies. He alluded to it in February, and in March Medvedev re-asserted Russia's stated right to use nukes.

 

But a recent spate of statements like these is "trying to ramp up the threat" and scare the West away from further support of Ukraine because Putin is "in a corner," Clarke argued.

Putin's recent announcement calling up reservists has been viewed internationally as a desperate act spurred by Ukraine's successful counter-attack.

Putin has recently been snubbed even by semi-allies such as Turkey, India and China.

Clarke said Putin was "humiliated."

Is Putin bluffing?

After Putin's latest statement, the White House warned Russia would face "catastrophic consequences" if it used tactical nuclear weapons.

In an interview aired on Sunday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he didn't think Putin was bluffing

Clarke said he believes Russia's threats are indeed a bluff — but that the West must still take them seriously.

"Even when people are bluffing, they find themselves running out of room to maneuver and then get locked into doing what they thought they wouldn't have to do," he said. 

He added: "Whenever you start to play games with nuclear strategy, the danger of a mistake or sheer miscalculation can never be ruled out. So yes, the West has got to take it seriously."

The defense minister of Russia neighbor Latvia also told Insider he believes Putin is likely bluffing in the hopes of getting West to reduce its support for Ukraine.

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