Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin stands during a TV address to the nation on December 31, 2014 in MoscowALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

The stakes appear to have been raised in Russia's Syria gamble, as President Vladimir Putin casually let it drop that Russia will "hopefully" not have to use nuclear weapons against Islamic State (Isis). The key word here, however, is "appear".

It's important to remember that military involvement in Syria, and the harsh statements that regularly accompany it, serve a dual purpose for the Russian government.

On the international front, Russia is busy expanding its comparatively limited sphere of influence and seizing whatever opportunity it can to one up the West. Prolonged confusion over how best to deal with Isis specifically and the Syrian civil war in general gave the Russian government a golden opportunity to seem proactive and decisive next to the likes of Barack Obama and David Cameron.

Sure, Russia threw its lot in with dictator Bashar al-Assad but to Russian officials, those are merely details. What's important is that Russia is acting as though it knows what it's doing, while the West, all the way until the horrific, Isis-orchestrated Paris attacks, has demonstrated much more self-doubt.

Syria is Russia's chance to be treated like a superpower again. Dropping the word "nukes" into a conversation about the Syrian conflict is just one more way of trying on that fancy old Soviet mantle, from the days when the US and the USSR seemed to divide the world between them.

This rhetoric doesn't make Russia's real path in Syria any less uncertain going forward, but it does up perceived prestige points, especially if we consider the rise of the right in Europe and the popularity of someone like Donald Trump in the US.

At a time when demagogues with extreme positions are dominating the headlines, Russia laying the nuclear option on the table can actually appeal to a certain demographic far beyond Russian borders. Trump is saying "ban all Muslims", while Putin is slyly suggesting to basically nuke parts of Syria; but next to Trump, Putin appears to be more clever and refined (and always allowing himself a way to save face, by merely hinting at the nuclear option).

And in an environment of increased fear, decisive-seeming statements and decisions hold particular power. Already, Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and another 2016 US presidential hopeful, has praised Putin's decision to get involved in Syria.

Of course, Putin's words were meant primarily for his domestic audience, which must be placated with constant reminders of Russia's might and greatness. The Russian ruble has devalued, pensions are in jeopardy, grocery prices have shot up, as has the poverty rate, and scattered economic protests have already begun. A great, if short-term strategy for dealing with that is simply redirecting everyone's attention to enemies abroad.

Putin is essentially saying: "Sure, my fellow citizens, things might be tough right now, but just look at all of the butt we are kicking in Syria! Real patriots won't mind tightening their belts for a little while longer, as Russia blazes a trail to glory!" This may seem simplistic, but one should never underestimate the average Russian's desire to feel proud of their country. That desire was overlooked in the 1990s, paving the way for a politician like Putin to assume power.

It's also important to remember that Russia has never nuked another country before. There is no difficult legacy there – and hence no room for self-reflection. This is why both Russian politicians and journalists can afford to be flippant about nuclear weapons.

It helps, of course, that Isis is the perfect, irredeemable villain here. And that Russia is no stranger to terror, and on a human level, images of beheadings in Syria and massacres in Paris resonate profoundly in this country.

Many remember images of Russian soldiers beheaded in Chechnya. All were outraged when a plane full of Russian holidaymakers was recently downed over the Sinai, with Isis claiming responsibility. Feelings of international isolation in Russia have been, however briefly, replaced by the need to reach out to foreign powers, to stand together against the extremist threat.

Once again, the fact that the Russian government is choosing to do so via supporting Assad is not a concern for most Russian citizens. And anyway, plenty of Russians will argue that there are doubts in the West as to Assad's role going forward too.

None of this means that the Kremlin has foolproof plans for the future. Everything from the row over Nato member Turkey's downing of a Russian jet to the growing Islamist threat in Russia's own North Caucasus region shows the current state of things at home and abroad is actually unpredictable.

In such an environment, talking up one's own nukes – ie weapons of last resort no matter how awesome and manly Russian television makes them out to be – is actually a tacit admission of doubt and uncertainty.


Natalia Antonova is an American journalist and writer who splits her time between Kiev and Moscow.