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This article was first published 1 year ago  » News » Will Wagner 'Coup' Trigger Putin's Nukes?

Will Wagner 'Coup' Trigger Putin's Nukes?

By Colonel ANIL A ATHALE (retd)
June 27, 2023 11:08 IST
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The coup attempt has weakened Putin's position and in desperation he may well sanction the use of nukes, points out Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

IMAGE: Fighters of the Wagner private mercenary group atop an armoured vehicle in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, June 24, 2023. Photograph: Reuters

The attempted coup by Yevgeny Progozhin, the boss of the Wagner mercenary group, on June 23/24, 2023 has taken the Ukraine crisis to a dangerous level.

The possible use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia has becomes a real possibility.

If that happens, the repercussions of the first-ever use of nuclear weapons since the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings in August 1945 by the Americans can change the world profoundly.

We will then enter a phase where use of nukes will be legitimised and serve as an example in any future conflict.


The West and Ukraine may see the weakening of President Putin's position as an opportunity to inflict a battlefield defeat on Russia.

That would be a grave mistake, for a cardinal principle of the nuclear era is that a nuclear power can never be defeated as it will have no choice but to use nukes.

This failure of deterrence is unacceptable.

All theories of nuclear war have postulated these scenarios and the consensus is that in a nuclear realm it is the weaker power that has the greatest incentive to use nukes.

Ukraine or the West have no answer to Russia's tactical nukes, and it could be a game changer.

Use of nukes by Russia will force Ukraine to sue for peace on Russian terms or else face unprecedented destruction.

The West could in theory give nukes to Ukraine. But that will trigger a Russian strategic response against the West and lead to Armageddon and destruction of the world as we know it.

None should forget that in the field of strategic nuclear weapons Russia is equal to the US.

IMAGE: Ukrainian soldiers fire a BM-21 Grad multiple launch rocket system at Russian troops in the Zaporizhzhia region, June 25, 2023. Photograph: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty/Serhii Nuzhnenko via Reuters

Military coups during wars are not an exception. The one attempted by German generals against Adolf Hitler comes to mind.

The '20 July Plot' as it came to be known was qualitatively different than the present coup attempt by the Wagner group.

The German generals who plotted against Hitler were against continuing a losing war.

Historically, one can compare the actions of the Wagner group to the failed revolt by French paratroopers against Charles de Gaulle in 1958.

The coup leaders were against de Gaulle's policy of withdrawing from Algeria.

The coup was put down easily as de Gaulle enjoyed popular support for his Algeria policy.

Here, the popular support appears to be with the Wagner group.

It seems that the Wagner group is dissatisfied with Putin's half measures.

The sub-text may well be that the Wagner group was pushing for use of tactical nukes and Putin refused this escalation.

The coup attempt has indeed weakened Putin's position and in desperation he may well sanction the use of nukes.

In any case, Putin's likely successor could be even more hawkish.

IMAGE: Fighters of the Wagner mercenary group leave the headquarters of the Russian southern military district to return to base. Photograph: Reuters

The truth of this war is that while Russia was certainly the aggressor, it was Ukraine that first provoked Russia by threatening to join NATO.

This is seen by most Russians as a direct threat to their country.

The war has indeed reached a decisive stage and the only way out seems to be the acceptance of 'Finlandisation' by Ukraine.

This alludes to the security guarantees Russia gave Finland after World War II on the promise of neutrality.

With the possibility of the use of nukes by Russia, Ukraine has the choice of accepting 'neutrality' or destruction.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is a military historian whose earlier columns can be read here.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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Colonel ANIL A ATHALE (retd)