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STEPHEN GLOVER: I’m not a panic-monger by nature, but I admit Putin’s diatribe has scared me

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When the possibly deranged dictator of a barbaric regime threatens a nuclear attack on the West, it is wise to take him seriously.

That’s what Vladimir Putin said yesterday, announcing the mobilization of 300,000 reservists to support the Russian war in Ukraine.

Threats of nuclear retaliation against the West have been made in the past by Soviet and Russian leaders, but never – not even at the height of the Cold War – has one been as explicit as this one.

Putin stated: ‘We will use all available means to protect Russia and our people – this is not a bluff. . . I will emphasize – with all the means at our disposal. Those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the tables can turn against them.’

Truss insisted rising energy bills are ‘worth a price’ to fight Vladimir Putin (pictured in Moscow today)

Just in case there was any room for doubt, a former close adviser to Putin, Sergei Markov, filled in some details on yesterday’s Radio 4 Today program when he warned that “your cities will be targeted.”

Here’s what Markov said in his chilling diatribe: ‘If Britain will stay like this’ [the] aggressor against Russia. . . If Prime Minister Liz Truss still has a plan to destroy Russia, the people of London should understand the threat [of nuclear weapons].’

On the loose? No doubt. But it would be rash on the part of our political leaders and the general public to dismiss these outpourings as empty threats. I only wish they were.

It is not the first time that the Putin regime has spoken in such terms. In April, Putin’s puppet foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned that if NATO continued to provide military aid to Ukraine, there would be a “significant threat” of nuclear conflict.

On that occasion, Boris Johnson was asked on TalkTV if he shared some analysts’ concerns about the possibility of nuclear war. He replied—perhaps unwisely: “No, I won’t.”

Can anything be done to prevent the danger? The terrible answer is that I don’t think it can. Putin may or may not be crazy. But it is certain that he has given up all appearances that his regime adheres to the standards of decency and fairness in the least degree.

Before the war started, I argued in these pages that Russia had something of a case, as there were undoubtedly ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine who would rather be ruled by Moscow than by Kiev. That argument, while correct at the time, is now ancient history.

Because by invading Ukraine and prosecuting the war in such a brutal way, Putin has established that he is both unbalanced and inhumane. Some war crimes committed by Russian soldiers can be compared to the worst Nazi atrocities.

Putin deliberately murdered thousands of Ukrainian citizens and forcibly deported thousands more to Russia. There is ample evidence of widespread torture and murder.

In a pine forest on the outskirts of Izyum in eastern Ukraine, recently repossessed from Russian hands, 445 graves have just been found, some with more than one body. Many would be civilians, and there are women and children among them. In some cases there is evidence of torture.

This is barbarity on an epic scale. It confirms, I believe, that Putin is going beyond the limits of civilized behavior. Moreover, a despot who can torture and murder innocent civilians may have no moral qualms about the use of nuclear weapons.

Four police officers with black visors, vests and batons are holding a person in Moscow tonight

Four police officers with black visors, vests and batons are holding a person in Moscow tonight

More unrest was expected in western Russian cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg tonight as protesters expressed anger and held up 'no to mobilization' signs

More unrest was expected tonight in western Russian cities such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg as protesters expressed their anger

More unrest was expected in western Russian cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg tonight as protesters expressed anger and held up ‘no to mobilization’ signs

The truth is that we cannot abandon Ukraine. We must continue to supply weapons to its armed forces – Britain is the second largest arms supplier after the United States – as the country is engaged in a battle against an evil aggressor.

But there is more than that. If we had not supported Ukraine, Putin’s forces would have also threatened the Baltic States and Poland, and possibly the rest of Eastern Europe. By helping Ukraine to defend itself, we are defending ourselves.

So there is no simple answer to my question of whether anything can be done to reduce the threat of a Russian nuclear attack. In these circumstances it would be morally unthinkable, and also against our interests, to leave Ukraine.

We must be strong. That means we need to increase our defense spending, as Liz Truss has pledged to do, promising a nearly 50 percent increase by the end of the decade. But this is of course a slow process that does not immediately lead to improvements.

We can also put some faith in the traditional doctrine of nuclear deterrence, which holds up if a potential adversary is essentially rational. I fervently hope, despite the contrary, that Vladimir Putin still is.

Although Russia has far more nuclear weapons than we do (the number of our warheads was hastily reduced by the Blair administration), Britain still has the nuclear firepower to destroy Moscow and many Russian cities.

In addition, our closest ally, the United States, has a nuclear arsenal roughly the same size as Russia’s, and in terms of technical prowess it is probably much better.

These are stark calculations and I regret having to make them. My point is that in a rational world – and after all, the Cold War took place in a rational world – Vladimir Putin would not unleash a nuclear attack against Britain or any other Western country.

But I’m afraid we can’t rule out the possibility, however distant, that he might – which is why we’re in the greatest danger since the end of World War II.

Some experts believe that while Putin is unlikely to use nuclear weapons against a Western country for fear of massive reprisals, he could use so-called nuclear weapons on the battlefield (which are much more limited and thus less lethal in their effects) against Ukrainian troops.

But even that would be a dangerous move, as the use of nuclear weapons could escalate quickly. What would the United States do if Russia used nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine?

Police officers are deployed in central Novosibirsk after calls to protest partial mobilization announced today

Police officers are deployed in central Novosibirsk after calls to protest partial mobilization announced today

Here I hope to be forgiven for noticing that the intellectually somewhat wimpy 79-year-old Joe Biden doesn’t seem like the most reliable or best-informed leader the free world has ever had. All that can be said is that he is preferable to Donald Trump in this crisis.

Our best guess may be that if it becomes clearer to the Russians that their country is losing the war in Ukraine, and thousands of Russian lives are being sacrificed, there will be a coup d’état against Putin before he does something really stupid. However, this is beyond our control. And maybe it won’t happen.

I’m not a panic-monger by nature, but I admit I feel anxious. Rationality may well prevail. However, there are unfortunately many examples in history – Hitler’s doomed invasion of Russia in 1941 is a good one – of despots who have thrown all common sense overboard.

We can only hope that our leaders – unlike Boris Johnson in April – are aware of the grave dangers we face. I’m afraid the British public hasn’t woken up yet.

All our silly arguments about strikes, and even our justified fears about the rising price of energy, could soon seem utterly trivial in the face of an unimaginable – but not impossible – catastrophe.

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