“Flower of Death – The Bursting of a Heavy Shell – Not as It Looks, but as It Feels and Sounds and Smells,” ca. 1919 © Claggett Wilson | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Alice H. Rossin
Since President Vladimir Putin addressed the Russian nation on September 21, the war in Ukraine has entered a new phase. Putin announced the immediate “partial mobilization” of citizens (apparently, in response to recent setbacks on the Ukrainian front). “Those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction,” Putin also warned. He aimed to highlight the seriousness of his intentions with the words “It’s not a bluff.”
Putin’s nuclear threats provoked immediate reaction among leaders of Western countries, including Ukraine. The world community is concerned about Russian tactical nuclear weapons intended for use on a battlefield. This type of weapon is created to destroy targets in specific areas, and normally do not cause widespread radioactive fallout.
“Look, maybe yesterday it was a bluff. Now, it could be a reality,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on CBS’s Face the Nation on September 25. “I don’t believe in total nuclear war,” another spokesman for Zelenskyy, Oleksiy Arestovych, told a Russian journalist, “I believe in the one-time use of nuclear weapons to intimidate.” At the same time, Arestovych stressed that even after a nuclear strike, the Ukrainian army would continue “fighting harder.”
The U.S. warned that any use of nuclear weapons by Russia against Ukraine would lead to “catastrophic consequences,” and European leaders—French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz among them—agreed that the employment of atomic bombs was “unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, to many people in Russia the nuclear threat seems so far remote. “People in Russia don’t take the threat of nuclear warfare seriously,” a journalist from Saint Petersburg, Svyatoslav Afonkin, said on a phone call with Public Seminar. “There are no instructions in case of nuclear strikes. I don’t see this topic in Russian information space, so it seems that Putin is really bluffing.”
Official efforts in preparing for the strike have also been half-hearted. “Recently,” said Afonkin, “a deputy from Moscow sent an inquiry to the city Mayor’s office and asked to provide him with the addresses of shelters. The authorities refused to disclose this information because it was classified.”
One of the reasons why the possible nuclear war is not a primary concern for many Russians is the ongoing mobilization chaos. There are fears that Putin will try to activate far more than initially announced 300,000 people with prior military experience. The mobilization has already led to mass protests all around the country and given rise to violent attacks on military recruitment offices and other government buildings.
“My friends and colleagues don’t really discuss the nuclear threat,” Tatiana, a school teacher from Moscow, told Public Seminar in an online chat. “People are in a hurry to prepare things and documents for departure abroad, rush to the border and worry about whether they will be mobilized or not. Someone’s loved ones are already forced to go fight.”
Still, Tatiana did say that recently some of her friends had prepared backpacks with things necessary for survival in an extreme environment. “When I heard about this, for the first time I really thought about doing something similar,” she explained.
Meanwhile, some Russian-language media recently posted instructions on preparation for a possible nuclear strike. For instance, on September 23, Siberian publication Sibnet.ru published an article with the headline “How Nuclear Explosion Kills: Is it Possible to Survive?” On September 22, Vot Tak, a Russian-language online news site based in Poland, released a report estimating possible consequences of nuclear strikes for Europe and summarizing Russia’s nuclear potential.
Information about fallout shelters is also circulating in Russian-language channels and private chats on Telegram. Around three months ago, an instruction on how to survive a nuclear catastrophe, prepared by Russian- and English-language news outlet Meduza headquartered in Latvia, went viral. “We do hope that you will never need this Meduza manual,” the editorial team emphasized.
At the same time, some Russians who fled the country after the war began, are preparing for the worst. “I bought iodine pills,” said Kirill Levin, a digital manager who relocated from Saint Petersburg to Istanbul in March, “because I know that after the Chernobyl catastrophe background radiation increased in many European cities. Turkey is close to Ukraine, so the radioactive clouds can easily reach us. It’s time for Russians and for the European leaders to take Putin’s words seriously.”
Abbas Gallyamov, a political analyst and the former speechwriter for Vladimir Putin during the Russian president’s time as prime minister, also believes there is a real possibility of a nuclear strike. “The main purpose of mobilization is not the attempt to turn the tide of the war. Putin does not believe in this, I assume. His main goal is to show that he is ready for escalation. His legitimacy is only built on power, so Putin does everything not to look like a loser,” Gallyamov said during a phone call with Public Seminar. Hence there are real risks of a nuclear conflict, “In the situation where Putin chooses between losing or starting a nuclear war,” he continued, the Russian President “might choose the nuclear war.”
Anastasia Shteinert is a political reporter and MA Candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research.