In effect, “empty threats” as a term bunches together a lot of totally different power moves on the part of Putin, each appropriate only under a certain set of circumstances. If you mix them up, you totally misread what is happening and most likely make wrong conclusions.
To start with, President Putin is an alumnus of a highly professional special service and spy agency called KGB. This is a line of business where “threats”, if used unwisely, can easily ruin your career or get you killed. When Putin comes with threats, they are very well calculated. Therefore, they are never empty. There’s always something behind them that you can dismiss or accept, but should never ignore.
“He who offends us, won’t live three days”
This was one of Putin’s memes during his early presidency. At the time, most of what happened in the country was outside his control. Oligarchs ran their game over his head, the state functionaries paid little attention to his orders, and the local elites badmouthed the Kremlin at every occasion. This was a concise political declaration from the President: “A challenge to my power may be lethal for you, even if you are not a Chechen.”
The Russian military might, apart from the nuclear capability, is only a shade of what it was during the Soviet era. Even the newly-acquired oil wealth invested in Putin’s re-organization of the army, could not rectify much. Recently, it caused much hilarity in Russia when someone calculated that the combined tonnage of the oligarchs’ yachts has surpassed the one of Russia’s ocean-going Navy. This mixes poorly with the self-assured stance President Putin is taking as the world champion of anti-liberal resistance. Hence, the need for a few power moves.
- Doomsday weapon. The chances that we really have the weapon are impossible to assess. But the certain fact that we possess a nuclear capability to cause the US unacceptable damage gives this ghost weapon much more credibility than if it came from, say, Zimbabwe.
- Future weapon. Announcements that in a few years’ time, Russia will deploy a certain system, unmatched by anyone else.
- Showroom weapon. Kind of weapons that exist as a proof of concept. Also, the ones that we technologically can manufacture, but which will bankrupt us if we launch their serial production.
Soft-spoken messages of strength rarely make an impact in Russian politics. Stalin, who was famously soft-voiced, slow and slurred in his speech, in order to be recognized as a great orator and man of outstanding wisdom, had first to destroy both the “left” and “right” opposition in the Party. The most impactful communicators in our history, like Lenin, Khrushchev and Yeltsin, talked with their fists and palms as much as their mouths. Putin’s stature and voice are nor made for a show of physical might, so he needs to compensate for it by tough talk.
Ukraine is a good example of what once was considered by the West as empty threats and goofy talk on the part of Vladimir Putin. He repeatedly shot warning shots to the US and Germans that he is willing to go pretty far in order to prevent Ukraine from joining the Western fold. The West ignored it every time—until it was too late.
If you are a man of power and don’t throw tantrums from time to time—preferably with torrents of obscenities—this is seen by many as a sign of weakness. The life of a Russian luminary is full of constant stress. Not venting from time to time the ton of frustrations you’re carrying around day after day on those weaker than you is unnatural and suspicious. People start asking themselves: maybe deep down inside, you’re weaker than them.
Below, a photo of the famous Tzar Cannon in the Kremlin. It’s a 5.3 m long barrel with 0.89m caliber . When I worked as a guide at the 1980 Olympics, I described it not much unlike President Putin presents nowadays new items of in Russia’s weapon arsenals: “a piece of art”, “a gem of metalworking”, “nothing comparable anywhere in the world”. However, the cannon was never used in battle—and experts say, for a good reason: the first shot would have exploded the barrel and killed the crew. Was this an “empty threat”? Definitely not. This was an excellent tool in the hands of skilled diplomats, politicians and propagandists.