At the start of the war in Ukraine, I was given a recording made by the Ukrainian intelligence services. It was described as an intercepted call from an officer at Russia’s nuclear missile base in Siberia to a relative in Kyiv. The line crackles and a man speaks in Russian: "I don’t know what I should do… His [Vladimir Putin’s] finger is hovering over the button. Maybe the commander-in-chief knows he’s got no way out." The Russian says his base has been given three hours to put its nuclear weapons "into a state of readiness."...

At the start of the war in Ukraine, I was given a recording made by the Ukrainian intelligence services. It was described as an intercepted call from an officer at Russia’s nuclear missile base in Siberia to a relative in Kyiv. The line crackles and a man speaks in Russian: “I don’t know what I should do… His [Vladimir Putin’s] finger is hovering over the button. Maybe the commander-in-chief knows he’s got no way out.” The Russian says his base has been given three hours to put its nuclear weapons “into a state of readiness.” And — a terrifying further step — he has been told of orders from President Putin to enter the co-ordinates to target Kyiv and two other Ukrainian cities. With a tremor in his voice, he says: “He might just do it.”

At the time, a retired Ukrainian general told me the recording had not been released for fear of causing panic. The Russians might have been trying to achieve exactly that, he said: perhaps they had ordered a missile officer to make the call, knowing the Ukrainians would be listening. Of course, it is also possible the tape was faked by our Ukrainian allies. But there’s the third possibility: that the recording was genuine and Putin really is willing to nuke Ukraine.

We are once more talking about Russian nuclear weapons because on Wednesday Putin appeared to threaten NATO with them in an almost desperate speech to the nation. He has become increasingly unpredictable since the Kremlin’s latest, and most dramatic, reversal on the battlefield in Ukraine. In the face of a surprise Ukrainian counteroffensive near the city of Kharkiv, Russian soldiers abandoned their expensive armored vehicles and ran. In the memorable words of one Ukrainian commander, they “fled like Olympic sprinters.” This was a rout, not a retreat.

What has happened to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine is explained in a remarkable memoir published on VKontakte, Russia’s Facebook, by Pavel Filatyev, a Russian professional soldier (not a conscript). Despite joining an “elite” unit — the 56th Guards Air Assault Regiment — Filatyev found there were no beds in his barracks, and often no power or water. A pack of wild dogs roamed through the buildings. He wrote in his diary that there was not enough food: just stale bread and “soup” that was raw potatoes in water. He had to buy his own winter uniform after being given summer clothes and boots in the wrong size. His rifle was rusty and jammed after a few shots.

On paper, his unit had 500 soldiers, but it was really just 300. While, officially, some 200,000 troops invaded Ukraine, he believes the real number was more like 100,000. Filatyev was sent into battle without a flak jacket — no doubt it had been stolen and sold. He was driven to the front in a truck that was carrying mortar bombs but had no brakes. He calls the army a “mafia” and says officers continually lied to the top brass to hide the true state of their units. “All this [equipment] is 100 years old, a lot is not working properly, but in their reports everything was probably fine… the Russian army is a madhouse and everything is for show.”

Filatyev’s account comes as no surprise to Yuri Shvets, a former KGB officer. He tells me one story about four Russian tanks arriving in a Ukrainian village. Two ran out of fuel, so the crews hopped on to the other two and they went to look for a gas station. Meanwhile, villagers put Ukrainian flags on the stalled tanks. Having failed to find fuel, the returning soldiers — perhaps forgetting where they had parked — shelled those tanks, destroying them. Then the remaining two tanks ground to a halt. The soldiers tried to leave on foot but were caught by the villagers and handed to the Ukrainian army.

Shvets talks of a Russian “collapse” in Ukraine. “It looks like the whole regime, including the Russian armed forces, including the FSB [the main intelligence service], was just one big Potemkin village. Putin made the biggest mistake in starting this damn war because it ruined the village. People are amazed to see that what they believed was Russia was all fake. It was virtual reality. And the reality is different. It is a disaster.” Shvets believes that defeat in Ukraine, the army trudging home on foot, could be the end of Russia. “The army keeps this vast land together… Putin put himself in a corner from which he has no escape. He has killed his country.”

This is because, as Shvets says, just like the old Soviet Union, Russia is a colonial empire. The provinces subsidize the capital, not the other way around. Oil, gas, wheat, timber, diamonds — Moscow takes it all. There is no economic reason for much of this far-flung empire to remain loyal. Many places have been part of Russia only since World War Two, and in large parts of the empire they don’t even speak Russian as a first language. The Russian Federation is said to have some 190 separate ethnic groups. There are Circassians, Chechens, Ingush, Ossetians, Dagestanis, Mongols, Tartars. Many of these peoples have declared independence in the past. If there was an uprising now, the army would be in no shape to stop it.

Michael Cecire, a senior policy advisor at the Helsinki Commission in Washington DC, believes the end of Russia’s empire would be an “unadulterated good.” The Commission was set up by the US government to monitor the treaties for détente with the Soviet Union, which to some extent still govern relations with Russia. For too long, Cecire says, the West had been “unwittingly complicit” in Russia’s subjugation of its empire. Hopes for a Russia that respected its neighbors’ borders, and for liberal democracy in Russia itself, all depended on “decolonization.”

He emphasized that the US and other western countries should not try to force Russia’s break up, in fact they could be little more than spectators as the peoples of the Federation decided their own fate. But we should not frighten ourselves by imagining that a disintegrating Russia would inevitably come with the “surefire horrors” of ethnic conflict: “The Balkan wars but with nuclear weapons.” He did not want to downplay the dangers if Russia split apart, he said, but an “apocalyptic nightmare” was not preordained. Instead, just as the Soviet Union faded into history, there could be “a relatively orderly and even cordial divorce.”

Putin might not see it this way. Would he order a nuclear strike on Ukraine to prevent defeat there, and, ultimately, Russia tearing itself apart? He is certainly doubling down in Ukraine. His speech this week promised a partial mobilization, throwing another 300,000 into the meat grinder of his failing war. The Kremlin has arranged for the so-called “People’s Republics” it controls in eastern Ukraine to start voting this week to become part of Russia proper. So an attack on them would be an attack on the Motherland — and for Putin, Ukraine’s counter offensive is NATO’s war, too.

He accused NATO of trying to “blackmail” Russia with nuclear weapons. But Russia also had the “means of destruction… If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff.” Earlier, Andrey Gurulyov, a thuggish member of the Duma, who was once a senior general, had said that Russia could turn Britain “into a Martian desert in three minutes flat.”

For the time being, NATO governments are worrying more about Russian tactical nuclear weapons — the smaller bombs that might be used to destroy a village or a regiment — and less about missiles fired from Siberia to London. US officials say there is no evidence, yet, of such small nuclear weapons being moved into Ukraine. But that could change. Then it might be a question of whether Putin thinks destiny has chosen him to save Mother Russia. One long-standing Kremlin observer tells me Putin is a man “driven by a dark sense of mission,” his hands already bathed in blood. But Shvets says Putin has made a career out of bluffing — building his Potemkin village — and is bluffing now.

In interviews, Putin likes to tell a story from his childhood when he chased a rat into a corner on the landing of his apartment block in Leningrad. The rat turned on the young Putin, teeth bared. “There, on that stair landing, I got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word ‘cornered.”’ The lesson for NATO and Ukraine is clear: a cornered rat is unpredictable — and dangerous.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.