What makes Boris Johnson so sure Vladimir Putin is bluffing over his nuclear threats to UK? I fear they’re real, writes STEPHEN GLOVER
More than two months have passed since Vladimir Putin shocked the world by sending Russian troops into Ukraine. Thanks to the extraordinary bravery of journalists on the spot, we’ve seen, and read about, a lot of death and destruction since then.
Fatigue inevitably begins to creep in after a while. There’s talk of the war grinding on for months — ministers have even contemplated that it could last five years. Our minds are almost bound to seek diversion and relief elsewhere.
And yet, even as we are tempted to relax, the outlook has never been so bleak — not only for Ukraine but for the West. Events are unfolding that would have seemed utterly incredible three months ago.
Late on Monday evening, Sergei Lavrov — Vladimir Putin’s untrustworthy Foreign Minister — issued a spine-chilling threat. He said that if Nato continues to provide military aid to Ukraine, there will be a ‘considerable’ risk of nuclear conflict.
Vladimir Putin has vowed to use nuclear weapons against any country that dares to ‘interfere’ with Russia’s war in Ukraine in his latest chilling threat to the West
Boris Johnson was asked on TalkTV whether he shared analysts’ concerns about nuclear war. He replied breezily: ‘No, I don’t’
Lavrov is Putin’s mouthpiece. Putin himself yesterday vowed to use missiles, presumably nuclear, in a ‘lightning-fast’ response against any country that dares ‘meddle in ongoing events and create unacceptable strategic threats for Russia’.
Although Lavrov’s remarks were widely reported, they don’t seem to have been taken seriously by Western governments. The following day, Boris Johnson was asked on TalkTV whether he shared analysts’ concerns about nuclear war. He replied breezily: ‘No, I don’t.’
This is a surprising response. The veteran foreign minister of the world’s second most powerful nuclear state threatens the West with nuclear retaliation of an unspecified nature. How does Boris react? With disbelief.
Was Lavrov thinking of tactical nuclear weapons that could be deployed in Ukraine, whose effects would be terrible but relatively localised? Or had he in mind strategic nuclear weapons, which could destroy London, Berlin or Paris? Probably the former, but we can’t be sure.
Either way, the Prime Minister thinks Lavrov — and doubtless Putin — are bluffing. He and other Western statesmen apparently believe the Russians are invoking nuclear war to scare Nato, so that it doesn’t supply Ukraine with more deadly military hardware.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was due to double-down last night by calling for Nato to send warplanes to help the Ukrainians. Even the hitherto windy German government has agreed to send tanks to help Kyiv. Nato is now arming Ukraine to the teeth.
This is my question. How can Mr Johnson and his advisers be so certain that Moscow is bluffing? Let me turn that question the other way around. If there were only a 5 per cent chance that the nuclear threat is genuine, shouldn’t we be in a state of high anxiety?
The fact is that it is extremely rare for a major power, even an autocratic one such as Russia, to speak in the bellicose terms employed by Sergei Lavrov. That is why it is rash to dismiss his comments as posturing.
During the 1956 Suez Crisis, Soviet number two Nikolai Bulganin made a reference in an open letter to ‘rocket weapons’, which he implied might be used against Britain and France, which had jointly invaded Egypt.
The threat was less menacing than those just issued by Lavrov and Putin. Moreover, in 1956 the Soviet Union’s destructive nuclear capability was a fraction of Russia’s today. Nonetheless, the British government didn’t airily dismiss Bulganin’s letter, which was one cause of our capitulation a few days later.
I don’t suppose Boris Johnson or most senior officials know about the 1956 incident. As the Cold War ended more than 30 years ago, I doubt that many of them are clued up about nuclear deterrence. They may not have grasped how exceptional public warnings of nuclear retaliation are.
How did we arrive at the position, so soon after the invasion of Ukraine, where Russia can issue such alarming threats, and Mr Johnson sweep them aside without any sign of disquiet?
As we have seen evidence of Russian war crimes and barbarity almost nightly on our television screens, so reluctance to provide Ukraine with deadly weaponry has gradually dissolved in the West.
The Prime Minister was, of course, in the vanguard of those pressing for more military aid for Kyiv, which was in some ways to his credit. That is why Britain has been the favourite country of the brilliantly persuasive President Volodymyr Zelensky, and Boris his favourite leader.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, left. Sergei Lavrov — Vladimir Putin’s untrustworthy Foreign Minister — said that if Nato continues to provide military aid to Ukraine, there will be a ‘considerable’ risk of nuclear conflict
Yet despite the PM’s robust approach, the British Government still hoped in the early weeks of the war that there might be a ladder down which Putin could climb, or a so-called ‘off-ramp’. No longer.
What has happened is that, as the Russians have demonstrated their merciless tactics in cities such as Mariupol, so increasingly outraged Nato governments have set aside their former reservations.
The changed policy of Britain and other Western countries was summarised by Mr Johnson in an answer to a question in the Commons on April 19. Because he was in the process of apologising innumerable times about Partygate, very few people noticed.
This is what he said: ‘I am afraid there is now no easy way to find a diplomatic or negotiated solution. It will be difficult to construct an off-ramp for Vladimir Putin. We are now in a logic where we must simply do everything we can collectively to ensure that Vladimir Putin fails, and fails comprehensively, in Ukraine.’
In other words, the Government believes there is no realistic possibility of a negotiated settlement, nor will it make any attempt to find one. There will be a fight to the death between Russia and Ukraine, and Britain will do whatever it can to ensure that Ukraine wins.
Russia today tested its deadly new hypersonic 208-ton 15,880 ‘Satan-2’ intercontinental ballistic missile. Taking time off from the war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin threatened that it would ensure Russia’s security and make ‘those fierce people who are trying to threaten it’ think twice
There is another way of putting this. Ukraine’s war aims have become virtually indistinguishable from British war aims, which puts this country in potential peril. We are committed to Russia’s defeat, though officially — so the Prime Minister told the Commons on April 19 — not to Putin’s removal.
As Nato piles more heavy weaponry into Ukraine to help President Zelensky’s forces, Putin may grow increasingly frustrated — and therefore increasingly dangerous. It is in these unstable conditions that the Russians could deploy tactical nuclear weapons.
Once that threshold has been crossed, there is no knowing what might happen. The philosophy of deterrence, which prevented nuclear war between the West and the Soviet Union, would have been jettisoned.
I am not advocating deserting President Zelensky and immediately stopping the shipment of all weapons, so that Russia is left to choose which bits of Ukraine to seize.
But we should recognise that the present policy of ramping up the conflict by pouring heavy weapons into Ukraine, and explicitly orchestrating the defeat of Russia, could lead to disaster.
Before the invasion, I suggested that Nato’s aggressive expansion eastwards over the past two decades — and specifically its offer to Ukraine in 2008 to join the organisation at some future date — had set it on a collision course with Russia.
That is now water under the bridge. But if Nato insists on bringing about the defeat of Russia on the most humiliating terms, it risks making a second error that could be calamitous for the West.
If only Boris Johnson were giving as much thought to preventing a third world war as he is to arming Ukraine. In threatening nuclear retaliation, Putin and Lavrov almost certainly mean what they say.
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