Putin’s Nuclear Warning Suggests Russia Won’t Back Down from Crimea

March 16, 2015 Updated: March 16, 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was mysteriously absent for about 10 days, apparently was ready to exercise the country’s nuclear option last year over tensions in Ukraine, which suggests that Moscow will not give up on its plans.

“We were ready to do it. I talked with colleagues and told them that this (Crimea) is our historic territory, Russian people live there, they are in danger, we cannot leave them,” Putin was quoted as saying by state-run Rossiya One. Putin said he was forced to put Russia’s nuclear arms on alert.

“It wasn’t us who committed a coup, it was the nationalists and people with extreme beliefs,” he said, adding: “I don’t think this was actually anyone’s wish — to turn it into a world conflict.”

Putin’s statements, aired in a Rossiya One documentary, suggest Russia won’t easily back down from Crimea–despite sanctions and warnings from the U.S. and other Western countries.

Vladimir Yevseyev, who is the head Center for Social and Political Research think tank, said that Putin made the statements to imply that Russia will be ready to use nuclear weapons to defend Crimea, a Ukrainian region taken over by Russian-backed rebel forces last year.

“Putin is saying that under certain conditions, Russia will be ready to use nuclear weapons to defend Crimea,” Yevseyev told The Moscow Times. “The question of its sovereignty is shut. It’s non-negotiable.”

Yevseyev said that U.S. support of Ukraine in the form of arms and training will only bolster Moscow’s willingness to step up the conflict should the need arise.

“Putin is basically letting it be known that Crimea and Ukraine are far more important to Russia than they are to the West, which would never consider going nuclear over Ukraine,” he added.

But other analysts say that Putin’s comments are merely bluster and show that Russia is actually weak.

“He is basically saying that he is scared and feels insecure,” prominent media analyst Vasily Gatov told The Moscow Times. 

And the Rossiya-One documentary suggests that regarding the conflict in Crimea, Putin calls the shots.

Russia’s advantage in the Crimea crisis, Putin said in the film, was that he was in charge “personally”— guaranteeing that his subordinates gave the matter their utmost attention, he said.

Putin’s order to send troops into Crimea to neutralize Ukrainian forces apparently caught even his top lieutenants off guard. He said his defense minister ordered some soldiers in the first wave already en route to return, apparently because he believed the president had changed his mind.

“I had to ask him: ‘Who allowed you to do that?’ said Putin. The minister, Sergei Shoigu, quickly countermanded his own order, Putin said.

Putin said it had been his personal decision to dispatch Russian forces to extract Yanukovych and bring him to safety in Russia; to deploy anti-ship missile batteries along Crimea’s coast to deter any hostile action by the U.S. Navy; and even to bring Russia’s nuclear arsenal to a state of alert if need be.

It also doesn’t appear that Putin’s 10-day absence had to do with his statements about Crimea.

AFP and Bloomberg reporters noted that Putin’s face looked “puffy” and he was visibly “sweating” during his public appearance, suggesting that he may have been ill.

“It would be boring without gossip,” Putin said as he was questioned by reporters over his disappearance. He didn’t elaborate on where he was or what he was doing.

He was meeting with President Almazbek Atambayev of Kyrgyzstan on Monday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.