Will Putin nuke Ukraine? Masha Gessen, Yevgenia Albats debate at NYU event

Yevgenia Albats spoke with New Yorker writer Masha Gessen about the possibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin using nuclear weapons during the invasion of Ukraine.


Yevgenia Albats and journalist Masha Gessen at an event hosted at NYU’s politics department on Feb. 2. (Courtesy of Hillary Gerber)

Allison Argueta Claros, Staff Writer

What are the chances that Vladimir Putin will use nuclear weapons against Ukraine? Masha Gessen, a reporter and author who has covered Russia for the New Yorker for nearly a decade, sought to answer the question during a debate with Yevgenia Albats, a Russian journalist, at NYU’s Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia.

Albats, the editor-in-chief of the New Times, a banned independent Russian magazine, had to flee her home country last August after being prosecuted for her coverage of the war with Ukraine. She has since taken up a position as the distinguished journalist in residence at the Jordan Center, where she often takes part in debates with other prominent journalists.

Putin’s messaging on nuclear weapons has been mixed — in October 2022, eight months after the war began, he said there was no need for nuclear weapons in Ukraine. A month earlier, he accused Western nations of engaging in nuclear blackmail by threatening retaliatory strikes against Russia, and warned that the tactic could “turn and point towards them.” Some analysts see Russia’s threats as empty propaganda, but Gessen believes this argument underestimates their severity, according to a thesis they put forward in a New Yorker article published last November. 

“I’m not arguing that Putin is going to use nuclear weapons,” Gessen said. “What I’m saying is that it’s not impossible, and that most of the arguments that we have relied on to say that this is completely impossible are flawed. Not necessarily wrong, but flawed.”

In addition to her work at the New Times, Albats hosted “Absolute Albats,” a talk-show on Echo Moskvy, the only liberal radio station left in Russia. The show was taken off the air a week after the war in Ukraine started. A few months later, in August, she moved to the United States after Russian authorities fined her for allegedly spreading misinformation and labeled her a “foreign agent,” causing her to fear she would be arrested if she remained in the country.

While Gessen said they do not believe Putin would never use nuclear weapons, they did agree that he may hold back on nuclear action for fear of retaliation. They said that because Ukraine’s allies have the capability to destroy Russia’s Black Sea Fleet — which comprises the Russian Navy’s ships in the Sea of Azov, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea — in the case of a nuclear attack, Russia’s military potential is significantly weakened.

The two speakers disagreed about Putin’s incentives for starting the war and potentially using nuclear weapons. Albats argued that Putin’s decision to begin the war was driven in part by the impending Russian elections, and that his desire to remain in power would make it unlikely for him to use nuclear weapons.

“He’s looking for re-election in 2024,” Albats said. “Because he’s an autocrat, he needs to see support.”

Gessen pointed to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, a part of Ukraine, as a contributor to the ideology that led to the current hyper-nationalist war effort, which Putin has framed as a reconquering of land rightfully belonging to Russia.

According to Gessen though, Putin may not have a choice. High-ranking Kremlin officials have criticized Putin’s handling of the Ukrainian conflict. Gessen noted that, if Russia were to use nuclear weapons, Putin and his associates would become “international pariahs” and would potentially be tried for war crimes should they lose.

“If he’s facing the possibility of military defeat — if he’s facing the possibility of not being able to do this re-election — what happens?” Gessen said. “That is facing death in his mind … What other options does he have?”

Contact Allison Argueta Claros at [email protected].