Sabre rattling meaning: term definition, is Putin rattling the sabre over Ukraine - where phrase comes from

Putin’s words certainly seem drastic and worrying, but some experts think he could be playing ‘news management’

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Vladimir Putin is desperately trying to justify a "catastrophic" failure in Ukraine, according to Liz Truss, who accused the Russian president of "sabre rattling" after threatening to use "all the means at our disposal" to protect his country.

The Russian president’s remarks in a televised speech to the country appeared to imply that the Ukrainian conflict could escalate into a nuclear crisis.

He declared a partial military mobilisation, with 300,000 reservists to be called up as the Kremlin strives to retake ground in the face of a counter-attack by Ukrainian forces.

And when Putin promised to deploy nuclear weapons if its territory was threatened, he declared, "It’s not a bluff."

But Truss, who addressed the United Nations General Assembly as world leaders gathered at a summit in New York to discuss the ongoing Russian assault on Ukraine, said Putin was “making yet more bogus claims and sabre-rattling threats.”

But what does ‘sabre rattling’ mean?

Here is everything you need to know.

What does ‘sabre rattling’ mean?

Simply put,the Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘sabre rattling’ as, “talking and behaving in a way that threatens military action.”

The phrase originates from the early 20th century, when an officer would threaten to draw his sabre. In modern use on the world stage, it is often accompanied by an implied disbelief that such threats would actually ever be followed through on.

For instance, British diplomats are taking Putin’s nuclear threats seriously, but the thinking is they have already seen him lie and bluff during the war.

(Photos: Getty Images/Pexels)(Photos: Getty Images/Pexels)
(Photos: Getty Images/Pexels)

A former adviser to Putin suggested the Russian leader would be ready to use nuclear weapons against western nations such as the UK.

On whether nuclear missiles could be targeted at London, Russian political scientist Sergei Markov claimed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme “yes, it is possible”.

Markov added: “This nuclear war could be a result of the crazy behaviour of the president of the United States Joe Biden and prime ministers of Great Britain Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.”

But Evgeny Popov, a member of the Duma for Putin’s United Russia party, told the BBC: “We are not going to attack western countries first. We are not going to do some nuclear massacre in the world.

“It’s not our policy. It’s not our practice. We are peaceful people in Russia, but we can respond if you attack us.”

Who has accused Russia of sabre rattling?

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said Putin’s actions were “an admission that his invasion is failing” and “Russia is becoming a global pariah”.

Melinda Simmons, the UK’s ambassador in Kyiv, said the Russian president’s “essential weakness” was “he still refuses to understand Ukraine”.

A British defence intelligence update suggested Putin was being forced to undermine his own public position that the war in Ukraine was a “special military operation” rather than a full-scale conflict.

“These new measures have highly likely been brought forwards due to public criticism and mark a further development in Russia’s strategy,” the Ministry of Defence said.

“Putin is accepting greater political risk by undermining the fiction that Russia is neither in a war nor a national crisis in the hope of generating more combat power.”

The Guardian’s defence and security editor Dan Sabbagh says a “fresh bout” of “sabre rattling” was inevitable.

“To some extent, Putin’s announcements are about news management,”he writes, “to seize the agenda with tenuous claims that Russia is threatened by Nato ’nuclear blackmail’.”

“That helps cover up the fact that the mobilisation... is a measure that will take months to have any meaningful military impact.

“In military terms, the Kremlin should have taken the mobilisation decision months ago. Exact figures are hard to come by, but Ukraine may well have more troops available than Russia now.

“Putin, by reinforcing warnings that nuclear weapons will be used ’if the territorial integrity of our country is threatened’, will hope to sow uncertainty in the eyes of policymakers’... perhaps to limit supplies from countries reluctant to allow Ukraine to have certain weapons.

“The nuclear sabre-rattling is designed principally to produce uncertainty and fear in the west, while the belated mobilisation can only help improve Moscow’s prospects from next spring.”