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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


Vladimir Putin had a smirk on his face, his speaking notes in a folder tucked under his hand, everyone standing and applauding and the band playing as he strode out onto the stage last Thursday. His captive audience was the MPs and senators of Russia's Federal Assembly. One could sense he enjoyed the spectacle.

The part of the two–hour annual address that seized the attention of western audiences was his claim that Russia's nuclear forces were 'on full combat alert' and that he was ready to use them. He reeled off the names of Russia's hypersonic missiles, both in operation and testing. There's nothing new in this, of course, but its a good moment to assess the likelihood of a severe escalation in the Russo–Ukrainian war that could involve its expansion – not least because of recent revelations about the extent of current NATO members' involvement in the war.

Macron, Scholz and the contest for European leadership

It is natural to see Putin's nuclear threats as a response to French president Emmanuel Macron's comment a few days earlier that he could 'not rule out' western states putting boots on the ground in Ukraine. Macron, speaking after a meeting of primarily European heads of state last Monday (26 February), said there was 'no consensus' on the matter. That quickly became apparent as several leaders contradicted him, while Lithuania endorsed the idea of western deployments.

One might breezily dismiss Macron's comment as a simple faux pas. NATO members would be remiss not to discuss a range of eventualities, but certain things are tacitly understood to be not for mentioning in public. I have written a previous blog about Macron being off–message. The French president, the great proponent of Europe's 'strategic autonomy', risks developing a habit of commenting out of step with France's allies. It is ironic that the meeting last week intended to show a common front.

A better interpretation, mind, is to recognise that it reveals deepening divisions within Europe about policy on Ukraine. The patent failure to meet Ukraine's needs for ammunition is bringing these differences between EU member states into the open.

The real faux pas came from Germany's chancellor Olaf Scholz, who was responding to Macron's remark and to criticism of Germany's failure to deliver Taurus long–range missile systems to Ukraine. Last Monday, Scholz said that the Taurus systems could not be operated by Ukrainian soldiers alone and would require German soldiers alongside them which was not an option for him.

Then came the clanger. Scholz explained, 'What is being done in the way of target control and accompanying target control on the part of the British and the French can't be done by Germany.' In other words, he implied that there were British and French military personnel on the ground inside Ukraine. The UK government reproofed Scholz for 'abuse of intelligence' without quite denying the claim. The British Ministry of Defence referred those with questions to the armed forces of Ukraine.

Nuclear rhetoric

The possibility of NATO deployments to Ukraine is obviously divisive and the policy line until now has been that it will not happen. A recent New York Times story revealing how deeply involved American and British intelligence agencies are in supporting Ukraine was slightly embarrassing (though not entirely new: see reports last year in Newsweek and The Washington Post). The suggestion of NATO states having serving military personnel on the ground, and admissions the alliance has discussed deploying troops, even if as a matter of brainstorming scenarios, is more significant.

So Putin responded in his annual address. Russia's strategic nuclear forces are 'on full combat alert', he said. Noting the discussion of NATO deployments to Ukraine, Putin mentioned the fate of armies that had deployed to 'our territory' before; he meant the failed invasions of Napoleon and Hitler, and by 'our territory' he presumably meant those parts of Ukraine that Russia claims to have annexed in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. He went further. 'Today, any potential aggressor will face far graver consequences,' he added. Most commentators interpreted that as a threat of nuclear war.

There has been plenty of loose talk about nukes. A year ago, I wrote about Medvedev's nuclear sabre–rattling. He has returned to the theme again and again since. Last summer he pondered a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive: 'Then we would have to use nuclear weapons by virtue of the stipulations of the Russian presidential decree,' he wrote on Telegram, 'There simply wouldn't be any other solution.' Medvedev returned to intimations of nuclear weapons use this January. He also said this week that 'Ukraine is definitely Russia', thereby denying its right to independence and – lest anyone doubt the implication – implying Russia could use nuclear weapons to prevent it from acting independently of Moscow.

But Putin had another card up his sleeve. The day after his address to the Federal Assembly, Russia dragged Germany deeper into hot water. The editor–in–chief of Russia's RT (a state media group) broadcast a leaked intercept of a meeting in which German air force officers discuss the sending of Taurus systems to Ukraine. In the meeting, apparently held over Cisco WebEx on an unencrypted line, the officers reportedly mention British soldiers operating in Ukraine, reiterating Scholz's claim. They also talked about sending their own missile systems that could be used to strike the Crimean bridge, which Putin considers Russian territory. (The audio is in German, hence I am relying on the press reporting; the original is here; there is no immediate reason to doubt its authenticity.)

The leaked German audio only adds fuel to the fire. I don't think anyone is suggesting any significant NATO presence is already on the ground, but Ukraine increasingly feels like a tinderbox. And Putin is happy to show that his agents have penetrated Germany's military circles; we don't know what cards he has yet to reveal.

Steadfast drills

It surprised me that the 'doomsday clock' did not inch closer to midnight when it was set recently. The board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists noted that the use of nuclear weapons by Russia 'remains a serious possibility'. While I don't wish to scaremonger, the likelihood of a continent–wide war involving NATO member states, and the likelihood of nuclear war, have surely only become greater.

As the atomic scientists noted, nuclear states are spending vast sums to modernise their arsenals and the risk of mistake or miscalculation is 'ever–present'. They went on to note the collapse of the nuclear arms control system:

In February 2023, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced his decision to 'suspend' the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). In March, he announced the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus. In June, Sergei Karaganov, an [adviser] to Putin, urged Moscow to consider launching limited nuclear strikes on [western] Europe as a way to bring the war in Ukraine to a [favourable] conclusion. In October, Russia's Duma voted to withdraw Russia's ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, as the US Senate continued to refuse even to debate ratification.

How prepared are we for a big war? NATO is currently conducting its largest military exercise since the cold war. Involving 90,000 troops from all member states and lasting for four months, the Steadfast Defender exercise is a big deal. And with greater public disclosures about British and American involvement in Ukraine, which only feeds Russia's claims it is already at war with NATO, we should all be prepared for escalation. And it's far from easy to be confident that we are prepared. It is in Russia's interest to drive a wedge between NATO allies and, regrettably, in an alliance that has grown to encompass 31 members (soon 32) there are gaps to drive the wedge into.

Putin has signalled his readiness on stage last week as he read from his notes in a slim folder. What we must know is that he can pick up another folder, on another day, and set in motion his country's plans for nuclear war. As the hackneyed adage has it: We must prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

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Image credit: From, used under creative commons licence 4.0.

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