Is Putin Bluffing?

 by Michael C. Dorf

Just about everybody who heard Vladimir Putin say "I'm not bluffing" when he threatened nuclear war last week probably thought, as I did: (a) Well that's terrifying; and then (b) but the fact that he says he's not bluffing hardly demonstrates that he's not bluffing, because admitting that one is bluffing would undercut the point of bluffing.

Needless to say, whether Putin was bluffing is an existential question. Here I'll offer a few thoughts--recognizing that I have no special expertise in this matter but also recognizing that the people who do have expertise may not be very good at this sort of thing either, as it calls for game theory, military intelligence, and most importantly, a psychological assessment of a man who has been isolated from direct interaction with anyone who might provide useful information.

Let's begin with the threat. Putin made his nuclear threat in the same speech in which he called for the mobilization of hundreds of thousands more Russians to be drafted into the armed forces for the purpose of defending "Russian territory." Simultaneously, the Russians conducted sham referenda in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia, which--to no one's surprise--were said to result in overwhelming balloting in favor of becoming part of the Russian Federation. Now--again to no one's surprise--Putin is illegally annexing those regions, making them "Russian territory." That designation, in turn, means that Ukrainian counter-offensive efforts to retake the illegally annexed territory will be described by Putin as an attack on Russia itself. And because Ukrainian forces are already using weapons supplied by the US and other NATO countries, Putin will claim that the West is indeed attacking Russian territory.

The analysis of the foregoing paragraph suggests that unless Putin was bluffing after all, we are already on a path to nuclear war. But that's at least a bit odd. Why threaten to use nukes unless your adversary backs down if you're not going to give your adversary a chance to back down? Presumably even a non-bluffing Putin would prefer not to use nukes and thus avoid the extinction of human and much animal life on the planet. We can't just assume Putin was bluffing, but neither should we attribute to him an extortionate threat that doesn't include an off-ramp by which the West can capitulate (not that I'm arguing for capitulation).

That leaves us with two main possibilities:

(1) Putin does not intend to use nukes to defend territory in the illegally annexed regions; he only would resort to nuclear warfare if Ukraine with Western backing attacks territory that is universally acknowledged to be part of Russia. The problem with this hypothesis is that it makes the sham referenda and annexations irrelevant. Why bother with actions that the world won't recognize as legitimate anyway if you're not going to use them as a pretext to justify your coercive threats?

One possible answer is that the sham referenda and annexations were primarily aimed at Putin's domestic audience. Conducting them more or less simultaneously with his (poorly executed) draft, he can cite defense of the motherland, including chunks of Ukraine, as justification to the portion of the Russian public who neither fully oppose his ruinous tyranny nor fully believe the news that the state media feed them. Other theories I have seen include the notion that the referenda and annexations are intended to distract attention from battlefield losses and/or that Russians now have a pretext for conscripting Ukrainians in the annexed regions into the Russian armed forces.

I suppose one or more of those purposes could be behind the annexations, which would certainly be less bad than the null hypothesis that nuclear war is already baked in due to the role of Western-supplied weapons in the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive.

(2) Perhaps there is some sort of coercive threat intended after all, something like don't supply any more weapons because now you know that Russia will regard their inevitable use in the annexed territories as an attack on Russia. There's a certain logic to that threat, but if that's what Putin intended, he needn't have gone to the trouble of holding the sham referenda and annexations that the West was going to regard as completely illegitimate anyway. He could have simply said: if you supply more weapons, I'll go nuclear.

So neither of my alternative explanations makes a whole lot of sense, but then neither does the hypothesis that Putin made a threat that commits him to going nuclear, perhaps as early as today. That leaves the possibility that Putin was completely bluffing after all. While I'd like to think that's so, the evil and folly Putin displayed by launching and pursuing this war lead me to doubt my and everybody else's ability to gauge the man's true intentions.