July 31, 2023 - 12:00pm

A glance across Monday morning’s UK papers might give a somewhat unclear impression of how the war in Ukraine is going. The Financial Times suggests that Vladimir Putin is cranking up his military effort, while Metro’s front page booms out, in vivid block caps, “Putin peace bombshell”. Meanwhile, the Telegraph details Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s intentions to further bring the war to Russia, following a drone attack on a well-heeled Moscow neighbourhood.

The noises coming from the Kremlin are hardly any more straightforward. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president and now Deputy Secretary of the Security Council, said on Sunday that, should the Ukrainian counteroffensive be successful, Russia “would have to use nuclear weapons”. 

Medvedev tends to look to the country’s nuclear arsenal when he feels threatened. In April of last year, he warned of Russian nuclear expansion in the Baltic region in the event of Finland and Sweden joining Nato; in March, he threatened nuclear strikes against Germany if it were to implement the ICC arrest warrant issued against Putin. Just this month, Medvedev took to social media to insist that Russia could end the war “by adopting measures similar to what the Americans did in 1945 when they deployed nuclear weapons”. 

As such, given his history of empty nuclear threats, Medvedev’s comments are apparently unsurprising. However, what is perhaps more unexpected is the anxiety they reveal from a senior Russian official regarding Ukraine’s ongoing counterattack. Discussing the circumstances under which Russia would implement its nuclear doctrine, Medvedev imagined doing so if the Ukrainian offensive “succeeded and they seized part of our land”, a significant admission from a Kremlin insider that such an eventuality could possibly occur. 

He is not the only one betraying signs of nervousness. On 23 July, Putin condemned Ukraine’s counteroffensive as having “failed”, and last week he claimed that “all counteroffensive attempts were stopped and the enemy was pushed back with high casualties”. However, he also admitted at the same time that “in recent days… hostilities have intensified, and significantly too”. Speaking on Sunday after the Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg, Putin stressed that he does not reject the idea of peace talks, but said that the Ukrainian army is currently “implementing a large-scale strategic offensive”. 

Events on the ground suggest that the Russian leadership has reason to be concerned. On Thursday, Ukrainian forces liberated the village of Staromaiorske in the occupied Donetsk region, with Zelenskyy reporting “very good results” at the front. Russian military blogger WarGonzo expressed anxiety about the capture of the village, given its key strategic position as an outpost on the Russian frontline. 

Meanwhile, the Institute for the Study of War noted that, on 26 July, Ukrainian forces launched a significant counteroffensive operation in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast involving an “intense frontal assault” towards the village of Robotyne, breaking through Russian defensive positions north east of the settlement. Ukrainian forces also claim to be making progress around Bakhmut. 

Last week, Pentagon officials anonymously told the New York Times that the “main thrust” of the counteroffensive has now begun in earnest, and that this is a favourable moment for the success of Ukraine’s army, given Russian command changes after the dismissal of Major General Ivan Popov and recent Ukrainian operations against Russian defensive positions.  

And all this is before one considers the apprehension generated by Ukraine’s offensive operations on Russian territory. Ukrainian-aligned forces have been continuing their use of drone warfare, as shown by yesterday’s attack on the Moscow business district, while a police station in Russia’s western Bryansk region was hit overnight. Zelenskyy demonstrated greater bellicosity than usual last night, boasting that “war is returning to the territory of Russia” and “this is an inevitable, natural and absolutely fair process”.

A threat to hit the nuclear button is nothing new from Dmitry Medvedev. Yet what is unusual is the level of anxiety it reveals from Russia’s leadership. The British headlines may be contradictory on the health of Putin’s war effort, but signs of unease in the Kremlin are becoming increasingly clear.