Dmitry Medvedev is afraid. He’s afraid because his boss, Vladimir Putin, is also afraid.
Former Russian president Medvedev, now deputy chairman of Russia’s security council – which autocrat Putin chairs – is a useful mouthpiece for Putin. A proxy who’s just far enough removed from Putin to say things even Putin should not say, but close enough that we can sense Putin silently mouthing the words coming from Medvedev’s mouth.
So when Medvedev threatens for the umpteenth time to nuke Ukraine, we may as well attribute those words to Putin. And when we smell Medvedev’s fear – the feeling soaking every syllable of his apocalyptic utterances – we can whiff if wafting off Putin, too.
Medvedev is afraid. Two months into Ukraine’s long-anticipated counteroffensive, Ukrainian brigades have advanced only a few miles along three or four critical axes across Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in southern and eastern Ukraine. And they’ve paid in blood for every yard.
But there’s a reason the Ukrainians are moving slowly. Kyiv’s fast-improving artillery corps, exquisitely supplied by NATO countries, is destroying three or four Russian howitzers for every one Ukrainian howitzer the Russians destroy. And, in stark defiance of history’s preference for defending armies, the attacking Ukrainian army is killing as many Russians as the Russians are killing Ukrainians.
Kyiv’s forces are moving slowly because they’re letting their artillery lead the way. And the big guns are working methodically, grinding up one Russian echelon at a time.
Medvedev is afraid because Putin is afraid. And Putin is afraid because, 18 months into Russia’s wider attack on Ukraine, his army of more than a million people still can’t beat the Ukrainian army, which is half that size and has fewer of everything.
It’s Putin’s fear that feeds his worst impulse: to threaten, through Medvedev, the nuclear annihilation of human civilization. The virtual destruction of the only sentient species we know to exist anywhere in the vast cosmos. Make no mistake, when Medvedev says Russia might use nuclear weapons – as he did again on July 30 – he’s saying that Putin is saying that ending everything is a better outcome, for Russia, than losing a regional war of choice.
“Imagine if the … offensive, which is backed by Nato, was a success and they tore off a part of our land,” Medvedev seethed on his official social media accounts. “Then we would be forced to use a nuclear weapon according to the rules of a decree from the president of Russia.”
“There would simply be no other option,” Medvedev said. “So our enemies should pray for our warriors. They are making sure that a global nuclear fire is not ignited.”
He’s bluffing. Because he and his boss are afraid and because the bluff is all they have left as Russia’s disastrous wider war grinds into its 18th month, with no sign that Ukraine or its allies are giving up. If he weren’t bluffing, we’d know. We’d know because we – well, a vanishing few of us, maybe – would already be living in an irradiated post-apocalyptic wasteland.
In the spring of 2022, Ukrainian brigades defeated Russia’s assault on Kyiv and forced the Russian survivors back to the fringes of eastern and southern Ukraine. Six months later, eager Ukrainian brigades exploited gaps in Russian lines and pushed back the Russians even farther. And eight months after that, the Ukrainians kicked off their current counteroffensive.
And all the while, Ukrainian rockets, drones, saboteurs and assassins have killed Russian officials, shot down Russian warplanes, sunk Russian warships and blown up military sites in Russian air space, in Russian waters and on Russian soil.
Putin didn’t trigger a nuke then. He won’t trigger a nuke now. Because even as wicked, craven and cruel as Putin is, he’s not insane. And he doesn’t want to die in the retaliatory nuclear strike that surely would follow any atomic attack on Ukraine.
And even if there’s an edge of insanity in Putin’s deepening desperation, the United States and its NATO allies shouldn’t bow to nuclear threats. If Putin could merely say, through Medvedev, the word “nuclear” and get his way, he would say “nuclear” all the time – and march his army across Eastern Europe, its troops shielded by their leaders’ atomic threats.
Medvedev is afraid. Because Putin is afraid. That fear makes them reckless with their words. But it doesn’t make them suicidal.
And if I’m wrong, it won’t matter. If I’m wrong, then Putin was ready to end the world after any defeat. And if that defeat didn’t come in Ukraine, it would eventually come somewhere else. Which means Armageddon has been inevitable since 1999.