Claudia Major heads the security policy research group at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), Berlin. Liviu Horovitz and Lydia Wachs are scientists with the Security Policy Research Group.
Any war with a nuclear power like Russia carries the risk of the unimaginable: the use of nuclear weapons. This is exactly what Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently pointed out when he said that a third world war would surely be nuclear and devastating.
In fact, prior to this explicit rebuke, Putin had made several implicit nuclear threats. First, Russia’s nuclear forces carried out a high-profile maneuver in mid-February. While this had been planned for a few weeks, the timing seemed unusual: Russia normally holds its annual strategic nuclear exercise in the fall. Furthermore, the exercise was highly publicized in the media, suggesting a direct connection to the simultaneous tensions between Russia and the West.
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A few days later, Putin went a step further when he threatened, not very covertly, to use nuclear weapons: interference by outside states, presumably primarily NATO, he warned, would have massive and unprecedented consequences. “Unprecedented consequences” is used as code for the consequences of nuclear attacks.
A game with the public
In late February, in a publicly broadcast meeting, Putin finally ordered Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to put Russian deterrent forces, which also include nuclear weapons, on alert. Exactly what this means was initially unclear, because some of Russia’s nuclear weapons are already on high alert at all times. There are also different alert levels.
Finally, as if to reassure the world public, Defense Minister Shoigu explained that initially it would be more about personnel increases and similar administrative adjustments. Less reassuringly, a few days later, exercises involving strategic submarines and mobile ICBMs were again held. UN Secretary General Guterres also called these events “heartbreaking.”
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These repeated nuclear threats are certainly disturbing. However, the use of nuclear weapons remains highly unlikely. For decades, Russia and the US have been in a so-called balance of terror: both have enough nuclear weapons to be able to destroy the other side. However, this also means that any use of nuclear weapons carries the risk of annihilation itself.
Therefore, such weapons are primarily political tools that a state can use to signal its red lines. Furthermore, states would send much more serious nuclear signals before any use could be considered. Because Putin has waved his saber at him rhetorically so far, but he has not yet endorsed this rhetoric militarily: he could have moved rockets from storage sites to planes, for example, and thus signal a greater readiness to act. But these practical measures have not yet been carried out. Thus far, Putin’s so-called nuclear signaling seems to have been mostly symbolic. But what is the goal of the Kremlin and against whom are the threats directed?
Further Western Meddling Could Provoke Extreme Responses
Russia is at war with Ukraine. Still, Russia’s nuclear saber rattling does not appear to be directed primarily at kyiv. Moscow could destroy Ukraine with its nuclear weapons. But as macabre as it sounds, Moscow has enough conventional options with which it could further escalate the war or put pressure on kyiv. You don’t need nukes for that.
Rather, the West appears to be the target of Putin’s vague threats. In recent weeks, NATO and the EU have not only shown enormous unity. They have also signaled their determination to support Ukraine while economically isolating Russia with the comprehensive sanctions package.
From Moscow’s perspective, the troubling question is what the West might do next. The delivery of fighter jets from the West to Ukraine was even discussed, but dismissed as too chilling. Ukraine and some Western politicians even called for a no-fly zone, which would mean a military intervention by the West and could trigger an open war between NATO and Russia. From Moscow’s perspective, the West is going too far here: Russia seems to be signaling that further interference could result in extreme, i.e. nuclear, responses. By doing so, she hopes to dissuade EU and NATO states from further activities.
The population must be afraid.
Leave the public character of the threats of the head of the Kremlin but they also assume that they are not only directed at western decision makers, but also at the population to instill fear in the west. The hope is that the Western public, concerned about nuclear attack, will either become less engaged with Ukraine or reject harsh measures against Russia. Moscow’s success in this targeted intimidation depends on the ability of Western politicians to explain Russia’s destabilization strategy to their own citizens.
Putin’s nuclear threats paint vague red lines for the West, but they are largely foreign policy propaganda, and irresponsible nonetheless. The good news is that the Russian threats are mostly rhetorical. They should be taken seriously, but there is no need to panic. Use remains highly unlikely.
The bad news is that any conflict with a nuclear power is dangerous. As Putin’s conventional warfare problems deepen and he may feel increasingly cornered, the likelihood that he will continue rattling nuclear sabers increases. The West should be prepared to watch these developments closely, but not to play along with Putin. Give in immediately, then the Kremlin would have achieved its goal.