China & Russia Open ‘Nuclear Cards’; As Putin Threatens Mayhem, China To Refrain From Atomic Blackmail

Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted at the possibility of using nuclear weapons if the West helps Ukraine to achieve victory over Russia, according to the Institute for the Study of War. Meanwhile, Moscow’s key ally China has told the US that it would not resort to nuclear threats over Taiwan. 

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During a press conference in Hanoi following visits to North Korea and Vietnam on June 20, Putin expressed concerns over developments in nuclear capabilities by unnamed adversaries, suggesting that Russia might reconsider its nuclear strategy. 

ISW’s Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment on June 20 linked Putin’s remarks to recent comments by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg regarding increased nuclear readiness in response to perceived threats from Russia and China.  

“Putin’s statement was likely partly in response to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s June 17 remarks that NATO members are discussing increased nuclear readiness in the face of growing threats from Russia and China,” said ISW. 

While Stoltenberg did not propose lowering nuclear thresholds, Putin’s reference to potential changes in Russia’s doctrine suggests a strategic response to NATO’s discussions.

Putin’s rhetoric, as analyzed by ISW, frames Russia’s military actions in Ukraine as crucial to its sovereignty, implying that a decisive defeat would jeopardize Russia’s existence as a nation-state.

This narrative, experts argue, aims to deter Western support for Ukraine by raising the specter of nuclear escalation in the event of a strategic setback on the battlefield. 

“Russia is better off fighting until the end,” Putin asserted, characterizing any potential defeat in Ukraine as an existential threat to Russia’s thousand-year history.

ISW interpreted this as part of a broader Kremlin strategy to dissuade Ukraine’s allies from fully committing to Ukraine’s defense objectives, which align with Western interests. 

However, ISW downplayed the likelihood of actual nuclear escalation, viewing Putin’s statements as a form of nuclear blackmail rather than a genuine shift towards nuclear warfare. 

The think tank suggested that Putin’s nuclear rhetoric is intended to undermine international cohesion behind Ukraine rather than signal an immediate intent to deploy nuclear weapons. 

Yet, the implications of Putin’s veiled nuclear threats are significant, potentially altering the dynamics of the conflict in Ukraine and complicating diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully. 

Xi and Putin
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping

China Affirms No Intent To Go Nuclear 

While Russia has threatened to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine to dissuade Western support for the country, China has conveyed to the United States that it would not resort to atomic threats over Taiwan. 

According to reports, the US and China engaged in semi-official talks on nuclear arms in March, marking the first such dialogue in five years. During these discussions, Chinese representatives assured their American counterparts that they would not consider atomic threats regarding Taiwan. 

The talks, known as Track Two dialogues, involve former officials and academics who can articulate their government’s stance, although they are not directly involved in official policymaking.

The US delegation, comprising former officials and scholars, engaged with their Chinese counterparts in a two-day meeting held at a Shanghai hotel conference room. The Chinese delegation included scholars and analysts, including former officers of the People’s Liberation Army.

The reassurances from China came after US concerns were raised regarding potential Chinese nuclear use or threats in a conflict over Taiwan, an island that Beijing considers its territory, a claim disputed by Taipei.

David Santoro, who organized the US side of the Track Two talks, reported details to Reuters for the first time, noting that the Chinese delegates expressed confidence in their ability to prevail in a conventional conflict over Taiwan without resorting to nuclear weapons.

A significant topic of discussion for the US side was China’s adherence to its long-standing policies of no-first-use and minimal deterrence dating back to its first nuclear bomb in the early 1960s. Minimal deterrence involves maintaining a sufficient nuclear arsenal to deter potential adversaries.

While some Chinese military analysts speculate that the no-first-use policy could have conditional exceptions, particularly involving Taiwan’s allies, Beijing officially maintains its stance of no-first-use and minimal nuclear capabilities. 

Santoro added that Chinese delegates affirmed that Beijing continues to uphold these policies and has no intention of seeking nuclear parity or superiority with the US.

In summarizing Beijing’s position, Santoro conveyed that Chinese representatives emphasized continuity in their nuclear policies, stating, “‘Nothing has changed, business as usual, you guys are exaggerating.'” 

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