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Fears over Putin’s ‘dangerous’ nuclear rhetoric mount as he faces criticism in Russia from all sides

September 22, 2022, 9:39 PM UTC
Russian President Vladimir Putin declares partial military mobilization in Russia on Sept. 21.
Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Pressure within Russia on President Vladimir Putin is mounting following a draft announcement and prisoner swap this week, even as world leaders condemn his “reckless” and “dangerous” nuclear rhetoric amid a faltering Ukraine war campaign—and some observers fear he’ll lash out in “unpredictable ways.”

After the Russian president announced a partial mobilization on Wednesday to support the “special military operation” in Ukraine, protests erupted in cities across Russia. Meanwhile, Russian nationalists criticized a prisoner swap conducted this week after a successful counteroffensive by Ukraine earlier this month.

While the mobilization was a partial one affecting only active reservists, many feared the draft might abruptly broaden. Protestors risked arrest Wednesday night to demonstrate against it, and more than 1,200 were detained in Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to OVD-Info, an independent Russian human rights group. The organization also said that some of the detained protestors were handed draft papers while in custody.

When asked about that claim, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said only, “This is not against the law.” 

The draft announcement also appeared to spur an exodus of Russian men on Thursday. Prices of international airline tickets surged, as did traffic at border crossings, including with Finland and Georgia, according to Reuters. One Russian man in Istanbul, declining to give his full name, told the news agency he considered the mobilization a “very poor step” that can create “lots of problems to lots of Russians.”

Police officers detain a man in Moscow on September 21 following calls to protest against partial mobilization announced by President Vladimir Putin.
Alexander NEMENOV—AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile hardline nationalists ratcheted up their criticism of the Ukraine campaign after a prisoner swap was announced after the mobilization decree. In the deal, Russia released some of the Ukrainian fighters who defended the Azovstal steel plant in a drawn-out battle in Mariupal. Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence officer, described the timing of release as “worse than a crime, worse than a mistake, it is incredible stupidity.” 

“It was apparently impossible,” he added on his Telegram channel, “to do this at least a couple of days before the presidential decree announcing mobilization.”

Putin’s ‘nuclear signaling’

Putin also hinted at the use of nuclear weapons when announcing the draft. This was done partly to appease his far-right critics, according to Dmitry Adamsky, a Russian expert at the Reichman Institute in Herzliya, Israel.

“Nuclear signaling is directed to the West and Ukraine, but it’s also meant to satisfy radical domestic critiques that are turning into a serious opposition,” Adamsky told the Wall Street Journal. 

Adding to the awkwardness were accusations of nepotism. The Russian-language YouTube channel Popular Politics shared an audio recording allegedly of 32-year-old Nikolay Peskov, son of the Kremlin spokesman, explaining why he wouldn’t be showing up at the conscription office anytime soon, despite being a prime candidate for the draft. 

“Obviously I won’t be there at 10 a.m. You need to understand that I’m Mr. Peskov,” says the speaker.

And among those swapped for the Ukrainian fighters was Viktor Medvedchuk, whose daughter counts Putin as her godfather. For years Medvedchuk was Putin’s main agent of influence in Ukraine, and as the deputy speaker of the nation’s parliament he called for closer ties with Russia. He was exchanged along with pilots and senior military officials. 

Fears of Putin deploying nuclear weapons are mounting amid the growing pressure on him at home. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg this week criticized Putin’s “reckless and dangerous” nuclear rhetoric. Rose Gottemoeller, former deputy general of NATO, recently told BBC Radio’s Today she fears Putin “will strike back now in really unpredictable ways that may even involve weapons of mass destruction.”

Adamsky believes it’s still unlikely that he does so.

“I think the likelihood of Russian nuclear use is still very low,” he told the Journal, “but we have never been so close.”

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