Nuclear tests in Russia: why is Vladimir Putin flexing his muscles?

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the summit with leaders of post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries in Astana, October 14, 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the summit with the leaders of the post-Soviet countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Astana, October 14, 2022. – Ramil SITDIKOV / SPUTNIK / AFP

Beyond propaganda, many experts believe that for Moscow, the strategy of fear and deterrence remain their ultimate cards to play.

Well-oiled communication strategy, show of force, admission of failure, or all three at the same time? This Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin supervised the training of his Russian strategic deterrent forces, troops responsible for responding to the threat in the event of nuclear war.

Russian television showed the crew of a submarine preparing to launch a missile from the Barents Sea in the Arctic. The exercise also involved Tu-95 long-range aircraft. In parallel, the strong man of the Kremlin was filmed several times, observing and commanding the various maneuvers.

“The Russian armed forces, and in particular those of strategic nuclear deterrence, are ready to face and respond to a nuclear attack carried out by one of our rivals and this, in accordance with the plan of the Russian Federation”, concluded, at the end of the exercise, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Classic Russian propaganda

A staging that is surprising. The day before these exercises, Washington had notified that the United States had been warned of these firings by Moscow, and that they were respecting the commitments made by the Kremlin within the framework of defense agreements. In fact, what is the point of mediating to such an extent what is defined as a simple “routine” exercise?

“It’s one more element in a communication campaign. A few days ago we saw Putin chairing a defense council, in France it’s never filmed, there it’s filmed in the middle of the war. It’s the “opportunity to show the leader holding the helm, taking the problems head on. It’s the opportunity to show that he is the boss, who has these weapons”, explains on our antenna Michel Goya, defense consultant for BFMTV.

Still on our antenna, Thierry Arnaud, international political columnist, also insists on the Russian will to broadcast this sequence and to make it an integral part of its propaganda.

“The exercise is classic, showing that the nuclear arsenal is working, all of this happens once a year. What is not is the showmanship, showing that Russia remains a great nuclear power and military. This is the only card left in Russia’s game to show that it can scare the rest of the world,” he insists.

This timing, according to Lova Rinel, associate researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research, is also a pretext for Vladimir Putin to reassure his population while the management of the Russian army is increasingly questioned. “It shows that there are dysfunctions, but ‘I remain the head of an army that works'”, she says.

Admission of weakness and message sent

Another reading of this new release by Vladimir Putin is also possible. Guest on our antenna at midday, Cédric Mas, military historian and president of the Action Resilience Institute, talks to him about “a false bluff” and a power “more visible to anyone.”

“Showing its power, either it’s because you don’t want to use it, or it’s because it’s no longer visible on the pitch. Today, I tend to lean more towards the second hypothesis. If his armies were able to win, victorious on the ground, which is not at all the case today, he would not need to make this type of gesticulation, “analyzes he.

For several weeks, Russia has also been trying to reverse the narrative of this war, accusing the Ukrainian government of possible aggressions and thus exhausting the resistance of kyiv and its supporters. Last weekend, the Russian authorities had thus warned of the possible use of a “dirty bomb” by kyiv, which is not based on any military reality.

“We are in an information offensive. I remind you that since this summer, we have in pro-Russian propaganda the fact that we Europeans will not survive the winter. For a few weeks, we have been witnessing a precipitation which borders on the panic on the Russian side, precisely to do the maximum so that before winter we withdraw our support for Ukraine. This is a message to the West”, adds Cédric Mas.

By way of conclusion, Lova Rinel assures her, this sequence does not result in “an increase in the nuclear alert.”

“Deterrence is music that repeats itself in times of war and peace, and it’s when it stops that we have to worry. He had no choice but to continue this exercise that we were waiting for “, she concludes.