Putin’s Desperate Attempt to Control the Narrative Amid Military Failures

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on February 21 that he is suspending most of the last remaining nuclear arms treaty between Russia and America. 

New START, in place since 2010 and set to expire in 2026, allows for inspections of nuclear weapon sites and limits the number of warheads that can be deployed on delivery systems.

While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made it clear that America is always willing to negotiate over nuclear security, the Kremlin may use its move as a bargaining chip in talks involving the war in Ukraine or as a reminder of Russian nuclear capabilities.

Maintaining Russia’s Global Standing

Putin’s announcement, which most likely has been planned long in advance, comes shortly after President Joe Biden‘s trip to Ukraine, demonstrating Washington’s continued support for Ukrainian efforts to repel the Russian invasion.

Thousands of Russian troops have been killed or wounded weekly for the past few months, and Russia has nothing to show for it. Now humiliated, Moscow must rely on its nuclear arsenal to maintain its global standing.

Much like North Korea, Moscow currently relies on nuclear threats and messaging instead of touting its conventional superiority. Putin knows this but still must project power to maintain Russia’s regional sphere of influence. Nuclear weapons will help him do this, as the firepower of Moscow’s nuclear arsenal still equals that of every other nation.

Ukrainian soldiers stand by a burnt Russian tank on the outskirts of Kyiv, on 31 March, 2022, amid Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP

Controlling the Narrative

Putin needed to reassert attention in an attempt to control the narrative.

Months of negative headlines about troop performance, failure to gain ground, and massive loss of life have embarrassed the Russian government. 

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Fearing backlash at home or among the oligarchs, Putin had to establish his grip on power by challenging the international community with nuclear weapons. This forces America to treat Russia as a nuclear equal, and not a lesser conventional military power.

Internally, this is another reminder to the Russian people that they are allegedly under attack by NATO, a false narrative fabricated by the Kremlin to create an enemy where no enemy existed. 

Bargaining Chip

If negotiations take place, New START is likely to be a bargaining chip for the Kremlin. 

Nuclear weapons are a terrifying component of any arsenal, and it is in the interests of America to have regulations in place to safeguard warheads and maintain trust. 

The reinstatement of inspections is yet another negotiating point with America for a nation that likely knows that it cannot accomplish its military objectives.

Military trucks loaded with warheads capable of carrying a nuclear charge during a parade on Red Square in Moscow
Military trucks loaded with warheads capable of carrying a nuclear charge during a parade on Red Square in Moscow. Photo: AFP

Nuclear Status Quo

Any change in the nuclear status quo can cause tensions to rise. For now, America must remain calm and keep pushing for talks. Cooler heads have always prevailed when nuclear weapons are being discussed and will hopefully prevail once more.

However, this is a bold and unprovoked move by Russia, no doubt a signal that the war in Ukraine has reached a new era of American involvement. Russia is not winning, and Putin is using anything he can as a bargaining chip to better an ever-worsening position.

Although this time, it could lead to the deregulation of nuclear arms between the US and Russia for the first time in decades during tensions not seen during the Cold War.

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Headshot Christopher GettelChristopher Gettel is an 8-year US Army veteran who served with the National Guard and 82nd Airborne Division. He has been deployed to Iraq twice, including participation in the liberation of Mosul.

Gettel recently finished a graduate certificate in Nuclear Deterrence from Harvard University’s Extension School and is now pursuing a master’s degree in International Security at George Mason University with the goal of completing a Ph.D. afterward.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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