At the start of the war in Ukraine, I was given a recording made by the Ukrainian intelligence services. It was described as an intercepted call from an officer at Russia’s nuclear missile base in Siberia to a relative in Kyiv. The line crackles and a man speaks in Russian: ‘I don’t know what I should do… His [Vladimir Putin’s] finger is hovering over the button. Maybe the commander–in-chief knows he’s got no way out.’ The Russian says his base has been given three hours to put its nuclear weapons ‘into a state of readiness’. And – a terrifying further step – he has been told of orders from President Putin to enter the co-ordinates to target Kyiv and two other Ukrainian cities. With a tremor in his voice, he says: ‘He might just do it.’
At the time, a retired Ukrainian general told me the recording had not been released for fear of causing panic. The Russians might have been trying to achieve exactly that, he said: perhaps they had ordered a missile officer to make the call, knowing the Ukrainians would be listening. Of course, it is also possible the tape was faked by our Ukrainian allies. But there’s the third possibility: that the recording was genuine and Putin really is willing to nuke Ukraine.
We are once more talking about Russian nuclear weapons because on Wednesday Putin appeared to threaten Nato with them in an almost desperate speech to the nation. He has become increasingly unpredictable since the Kremlin’s latest, and most dramatic, reversal on the battlefield in Ukraine. In the face of a surprise Ukrainian counteroffensive near the city of Kharkiv, Russian soldiers abandoned their expensive armoured vehicles and ran. In the memorable words of one Ukrainian commander, they ‘fled like Olympic sprinters’. This was a rout, not a retreat.