Could Russia’s sudden Ukraine retreat mean a tactical nuclear weapons strike is coming?

After days of a withering Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Russian defense ministry announced that it was withdrawing its forces from two areas in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region. In a video statement, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky quipped, “The Russian army in these days is demonstrating the best that it can do — showing its back.” Ukrainians celebrated, and rightly so. While Russian spokesmen said that Russian forces were “repositioning” ahead of a new offensive, reporters on the ground cast doubt on such pronouncements both because they mirror Russian statements as it abandoned its drive toward Kyiv and also because Russian forces left in such great haste that they left numerous arms and equipment behind.

Western officials are understandably happy. “This [Ukrainian progress] shows the bravery, skills, and determination of Ukrainian forces, and it shows that our support is making a difference every day on the battlefield,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at a September 9 press conference. Reflecting on his recent trip to Ukraine, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken observed at the same press conference, “Even as President Putin threw as much as he could against Ukraine earlier this summer, Ukraine absorbed the blow and now is pushing back.”

While it is right to celebrate the Russian rout, the war may be entering a far more dangerous phase.

Consider: If Russian President Vladimir Putin tired of attrition and decided to use tactical nuclear weapons, how would Russian behavior—a rapid withdrawal and even leaving key equipment behind—be different? The answer: It would not be.