Putin, in Pre-Election Messaging, Plays Down Threat of Nuclear War

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia tried to play down fears of nuclear war in an interview released on Wednesday and denied having considered using weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine, aiming to bolster his domestic image as a guarantor of stability before the Russian presidential election this weekend.

In a lengthy interview released by Russian state television, Mr. Putin struck a softer tone than in his state-of-the-nation address last month, when he said that the West risked nuclear conflict with Russia if it intervened more directly in Ukraine. In the interview, Mr. Putin described the United States as seeking to avoid such a conflict, even as he warned that Russia was prepared to use nuclear weapons if its “sovereignty and independence” were threatened.

“I don’t think that everything is rushing head-on here,” Mr. Putin said when asked whether Washington and Moscow were headed for a showdown. He added that even though the United States was modernizing its nuclear force, “this doesn’t mean, in my view, that they are ready to start this nuclear war tomorrow.”

“If they want it — what can we do? We’re ready,” Mr. Putin said.

The comments appeared aimed in large part at the Russian electorate, coming two days before polls open in the presidential election, which runs from Friday to Sunday. While Mr. Putin is all but assured to win a fifth term, the Kremlin is keen to drive up turnout to present the vote as a stamp of approval for the president and his full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, critics of Mr. Putin have increasingly taken aim at what he has long presented as perhaps his biggest domestic selling point: the notion that he brought security and stability after Russia’s chaotic 1990s. Russians appear particularly nervous about the prospect of nuclear conflict; 55 percent of respondents told an independent pollster in January that they feared a new world war.

But in his dealings with the West, Mr. Putin sees the threat of Russia’s enormous nuclear arsenal as one of his most effective instruments. He has repeatedly made reference to that arsenal when trying to deter Western nations from more actively supporting Ukraine, most recently in his Feb. 29 annual address, when he portrayed the deployment of forces from NATO countries to Ukraine as a step that would lead to nuclear war and the “destruction of civilization.”

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