The latest on Ukraine: Putin’s threat of nuclear escalation “could be a reality”

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The latest on Ukraine: Putin’s threat of nuclear escalation “could be a reality”

September 26, 2022 -

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. (Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. (Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. (Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Tropical Storm Ian is expected to become Hurricane Ian today and is moving toward Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared a state of emergency for the entire state. After the devastation left by Hurricane Fiona in the Caribbean and Atlantic Canada, it is wise to be prepared today for the crisis that may come tomorrow.

Case in point: as Russian President Vladimir Putin presses forward on annexing occupied regions of Ukraine, experts are warning that the threat of nuclear weapons is rising if Putin feels “cornered.” Putin confirmed this threat himself when he stated in a national address that he would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons to protect what he claims to be Russian territory, which in his view will soon include areas that are part of the conflict.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned in an interview yesterday that this threat “could be a reality.” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday that the US will “respond decisively” if Putin moves to use such weapons.

Putin is likely to be feeling more “cornered” today than ever before. Russian police have arrested hundreds of people protesting Putin’s “partial mobilization” order conscripting three hundred thousand reservists into active duty. Many are fleeing the country, suspecting that this is just the first wave of call-ups. In addition, the Associated Press reports that “the tide of international opinion appears to be decisively shifting against Russia.”

Why, in the face of such opposition at home and abroad, is Putin continuing on this path? Is his threat of nuclear weapons real or is it a bluff? The answer is relevant not just for world peace but for our culture and for our souls.

Two illuminating articles

Dr. Marlene Laruelle is an international affairs professor at George Washington University and author of the book Russian Nationalism: Imaginaries, Doctrines, and Political Battlefields. In a recent New York Times guest essay, she explains the crisis in Russia in terms I’ve not seen elsewhere.

We have been hearing about Russians protesting the war from the beginning. But Dr. Laruelle says there is a “party of war” made up of the security agencies, the Defense Ministry, and outspoken media and political figures that has been “mounting a sustained critique of the Kremlin’s handling of the war” for a very different reason. In short, “they want a much more aggressive war effort.” Recent military reversals have played into their hands.

In her view, their loud and growing insistence that Putin increase the war effort is behind his announced mobilization, forced annexation, and threat of nuclear escalation. If he loses their support, his regime, which is founded on his tsarist metanarrative of rebuilding “Mother Russia,” may founder as well.

With regard to this metanarrative, we should consider a warning from Dr. Stephen Kotkin, a history scholar at Princeton and Stanford and author of a recent Foreign Affairs article, “The Cold War Never Ended.” Dr. Kotkin writes: “Many Russians view their country as a providential power, with a distinct civilization and a special mission in the world, but Russia’s capabilities do not match its aspirations, and so its rulers resort, time and again, to a hyperconcentration of power in the state in a coercive effort to close the yawning gap with the West.

“But the drive for a strong state does not work, invariably devolving into personalist rule. The combination of weakness and grandeur, in turn, drives the autocrat to exacerbate the very problem that facilitated his appearance.”

In Dr. Kotkin’s view, this “Cold War” metanarrative will persist “until Russian rulers make the strategic choice to abandon the impossible quest to become a great-power equal of the West and choose instead to live alongside it and focus on Russia’s internal development.” However, if Dr. Laruelle is right, abandoning such a quest could cost Putin his position and even more.

The importance of perspective

I had seen Putin’s previous references to nuclear weapons as a bluff intended to remind the world that Russia is in fact a nuclear power. In light of these articles, however, such confidence may be misplaced. If Putin truly believes that his regime and his future are at stake, it’s hard to be sure he would not do whatever he believes it takes to protect them.

Laruelle and Kotkin illustrate the crucial importance of perspective: seeking to understand not just actions but motives and working to discern the worldview we do not see that forges the world we do.

This quest for discernment is vital not just for geopolitics but for Christian engagement with our lost culture. If we don’t understand why lost people do what lost people do, we will not effectively persuade them to follow Christ. They will dismiss us as judgmental and even dangerous to their secularized society.

Two transforming words

The good news is that Jesus knows our hearts (John 2:25) and thoughts (Matthew 9:4). His Spirit is working right now to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). He will “guide you into all the truth” (v. 13) to the glory of Jesus (v. 14).

So, know this: God will lead you to change hearts and history if you are willing to be led.

No one is beyond the reach of Christian intercession, witness, and compassion. You can engage others with confidence, knowing that the Spirit is preparing today the people he wants you to influence tomorrow. And you can pray with confidence, knowing that Jesus is interceding for you (Romans 8:34) as the Spirit intercedes within you (Romans 8:26) right now.

Let’s join them. Ask the Spirit to lead you as you pray for:

  • Vladimir Putin to repent of his nuclear threat and murderous aggression in Ukraine.
  • Christian leaders in Russia to be salt and light with their leaders and in their culture.
  • God’s wisdom for world leaders as they confront the threat of nuclear escalation.
  • Protection for Ukraine’s leaders, soldiers, and people.
  • God to redeem this crisis by bringing spiritual awakening to Russia and Ukraine.

Samuel’s prayer was the key to his transformative life: “Speak, Lᴏʀᴅ. I am your servant and I am listening” (1 Samuel 3:10 NCV). From his example, I am learning to pray two transforming words in every circumstance, opportunity, and challenge: Speak, Lord. And I am learning that God does in fact speak to our minds, our hearts, and our circumstances if we are willing to listen.

Would you say these two words to God from your heart right now?

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