SERGEY Markov is a former adviser to Vladimir Putin and straight out of central casting. As BBC radio listeners munched their cereal and packed the kids’ schoolbags yesterday morning, he threatened them with nuclear war.

Wasting no time on niceties, he suggested Putin could launch nuclear attacks on British cities. Presenter Justin Webb calmly asked if he was seriously suggesting Putin would start a general nuclear war that would “kill everyone”.

“Uh, not everyone,” responded Markov, as if this were an important point of clarification, “but [that] can kill a lot of people in Western countries.” Wisely, Webb did not rise to the bait.

Anti-Western reaction

The weirdness continued: the war in Ukraine was the fault of Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Russia wanted peace. The West was using Ukrainian forces as their “slaves”. Russia itself had no war against Ukraine. “Well you do, because you invaded them, didn’t you,” observed Webb. “No! No! It’s liberation of Ukraine!” shouted Markov, seemingly having lost self-control. “It’s exactly as we liberated Ukraine from Nazi regime!”

As he exploded into a furious anti-Western rant, this exercise in alternative reality mercifully ended.

It should be said that, surreal though this exchange was, Markov was just embellishing the veiled warnings made by the Russian president himself. Putin was hardly any more subtle when he said on Wednesday that “those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction”. Russia presumably hopes such warnings will unsettle Western audiences enough to turn them against supporting Ukraine in the war.

But is it really having that effect? It doesn’t feel that way; first and foremost it is exposing Russia’s desperation, with a beleaguered Moscow resorting to threats of the ultimate atrocity to scare off its Western foes. Would Putin really use a nuclear weapon, on a Nato country?

It seems highly unlikely – not because he would shed tears for the dead, but because it’s so unlikely his regime would survive the ensuing war. His insistence that this is no bluff rather underlines the fact that he is very much in the bluffing game. There is a world of difference between his public pronouncements, aimed at influencing Western public opinion and shoring up domestic support, and his real intentions.

After six months of failure, however, and humiliated by Russian troop withdrawals, he is escalating the conflict instead of overtly seeking a way out. Fears that Putin could use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine itself remain a very real concern and he is bent on pushing Russian reservists into the line of fire.

Western reaction

So how should the West react? Certainly by remaining united. Stratospheric energy prices caused by Putin’s war are forcing European nations to put further massive payments on the credit card to protect their citizens from freezing and starving this winter, and the longer this goes on, the more of a challenge it could pose to political and popular support for the war.

Research in 10 countries by the think tank the European Council on Foreign Relations in early summer showed that while Europeans blame Russia for the war and want Ukraine to win, they are split over long-term goals. Around a third want peace (for the war to end) while just over a fifth want justice (to defeat Russia). In most countries, the “peace” camp is larger than the “justice” camp. While political leaders are mostly united, Russia must hope to exploit this divide in public opinion, heightening the public’s economic concerns and fears of nuclear escalation.

But what would peace look like? Any concession to Russia – recognising its claim to occupied Ukrainian territory for example – would surely be judged by posterity not only as a devastating betrayal of Ukraine and democratic values, but a fatal strategic error. For Europe to accept Putin’s annexation of territory would be seen by a gleeful Kremlin as a victory.

It might end this war (though how Ukraine could be forced to accept it is not clear), but it would likely be a temporary respite. Any kind of victory will only embolden Putin and other dictators to rampage through neighbouring countries, grabbing land and murdering civilians. Ukraine’s President Zelensky argues that the West should have imposed tough sanctions on Russia after it annexed Crimea; that might well have dissuaded Putin from invading Ukraine. It's a good argument and can be projected forwards as well as backwards. If he isn’t thwarted, how many more lives will be lost in future invasions?

In response to Putin’s latest threats, Nato and its allies sound strongly united. From the EU to the US, Western powers have condemned Russia, pointing out Putin’s “weakness”, his “dangerous” rhetoric and reaffirming their commitment to Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine is messy and complex but we cannot allow Putin to achieve his aims

Meanwhile the mobilisation of reservists inside Russia could put strain on support for Putin and his “special operation” domestically. The Kremlin insists that only those with military experience will be called up, not students or others, but the mobilisation decree itself is vague, raising the possibility that many more people could be pushed unwillingly in front of Ukrainian guns.

That could fray domestic support but for now Putin pushes ahead. Sham referendums will be held on joining Russia in four Ukrainian regions, even though Putin does not control significant parts of those areas. Using our crystal ball, we can exclusively reveal that all those votes will result in a “yes”. Putin seems set then to declare those areas part of Russia and warn that any attacks on them will be regarded as direct attacks on Russia, raising the stakes and opening the possibility of using more devastating weaponry on Ukraine. The mobilisation of a nuclear warhead cannot be ruled out.

It is hard to imagine from the safety of our homes what that degree of threat must feel like, or what life is like near the front lines of this appalling war. But the pictures in recent days of police officers exhuming civilian bodies have been a reminder of the horrors of Putin’s war. These people died violently and Ukrainian officials report that some show signs of being tortured. This is what resisting Putin is about: preventing a slide into cruelty and bloody oppression. Yes, we are paying a collective price for this war, but surely if there is something worth resisting, it’s that.