On February 24, as he launched the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of nuclear war. He warned that any outside interference would lead to consequences “never seen in history,” a clear reference to the use of atomic weapons. The prospect of an outright nuclear war with Russia may indeed have convinced NATO member states that their direct involvement in the conflict was too dangerous to countenance. But the war did not follow Putin’s script. Russia’s surprising early struggles on the battlefield, along with Ukraine’s dogged resistance, persuaded many NATO members to send military equipment and supplies to aid the defenders.
Putin again invoked nuclear war in April. After his forces retreated from the outskirts of Kyiv and Kharkiv, he declared that Russia would employ nuclear weapons “if necessary” to achieve its aims. With such rhetoric, Putin may have been trying to prevent NATO from boosting its support for Ukraine to levels that would achieve an outright defeat of the Russian invasion. If so, Putin succeeded, and a rough stalemate between the belligerents ensued. Putin’s nuclear saber rattling quieted during the summer as both sides sought to gain an advantage on the battlefield. In early autumn, having failed to change the military balance in his favor, Putin returned to nuclear threats, declaring that “to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.”