Washington Institute For Defence & SecurityWashington Institute For Defence & SecurityWashington Institute For Defence & Security
Washington, DC 20001
Examining the significance of Russia's nuclear posturing

Ever since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Kremlin has attempted to intimidate the country and prevent the West from offering support by threatening to use nuclear weapons. Although Kyiv and its allies cannot disregard Moscow’s nuclear threats, they also need to realize that the Russian government is not in favor of a nuclear conflict.

Decoding Russia’s nuclear threats

From the start, Russian President Vladimir Putin has attempted to throw a nuclear shadow over his country’s full-scale invasion. Putin said that the Russian nuclear forces were in a state of “special combat readiness” three days after Russian soldiers had invaded the boundaries of Ukraine from the north, east, and south. Afterwards, the US Defense Department said that it had not noticed any changes to Russia’s nuclear forces. On May 6, the Kremlin made its most recent attempt to use the nuclear card. 

The Southern Military District of Russia, which is close to the Ukrainian border, will host an exercise employing non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons, the Russian Defense Ministry declared. Such nuclear drills have been carried out by the Russian military on a regular basis; this time, they made advance announcements. On May 7, Belarusian tyrant Alexander Lukashenko, Putin’s ally in Minsk, joined in by declaring the country’s nuclear drills. It is impossible to employ these weapons without Moscow’s approval. Since they are unable to cover targets that Moscow could not already hit from bases in Russia or its Kaliningrad exclave, their deployment to Belarus was primarily a symbolic gesture.

Analyzing Russia’s nuclear posturing

Though not to the extent that the Kremlin had intended, the nuclear card has caused some concern in the West. Although combat forces from NATO have not been involved in the conflict, they were never really up for grabs. Beyond that, the threats have delayed rather than reversed Western choices to provide Ukraine with increasingly advanced weaponry. Later this year, Ukraine will acquire F-16 fighter fighters in addition to long-range ATACMS. 

It is obvious that restrictions on striking targets in Russia with weapons supplied by the West are deteriorating. September 2022 was the pinnacle of Putin’s nuclear threats. Following the purported annexation of regions in Ukraine including the oblasts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson by the Kremlin, Putin declared that Russia will protect “our land with all the forces and resources we have.” “All the forces” was understood by analysts to include nuclear weapons.

Is Russia’s nuclear rhetoric just bluster?

The intended outcome of those threats was not achieved. Regarding this battle as a struggle for survival, Kyiv persisted in attacking Russian soldiers in the four oblasts that Putin said were a part of Russia. While threatening “severe consequences” for any nuclear use by Russia, Western leaders kept supplying Ukraine with weapons, allowing Moscow to figure out the finer points. China was among those who denounced the nuclear gamesmanship. Apparently realizing this, especially the backlash from Beijing and other major capitals, the Kremlin soon softened its stance. Putin refuted any threat to deploy nuclear weapons in late October 2022 and accused the West of attempting to damage Russia’s standing. The Russian Foreign Ministry reiterated that a “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” in a statement on the inadmissibility of nuclear war the next week, non early November. 

Russia participated in a G20 declaration later that month that said the “use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible.” Putin hasn’t changed all that much in terms of nuclear threats since then. Propagandists on Russian television have not done the same, frequently entertaining fantasies about nuclear assaults on Europe without taking into account the possible consequences for Russia. Last October, I was informed by a former Russian official that the West should concentrate all of its attention on Putin when it comes to nuclear rhetoric.

The reality behind Russia’s nuclear signals

When the nation with the biggest nuclear weapons makes overt or subtly provocative nuclear threats, it is difficult to ignore them. But it’s important to keep in mind that Putin opposes nuclear conflict. A fight of this nature would unleash a host of unpredictably harsh, destructive, and possibly disastrous repercussions, especially for Russia. He aims to scare Ukraine and the West by implying that Putin is better prepared than they are to take the chance on a conflict of that nature. They have the option to resist feeling scared. 

Another issue brought up by Moscow’s bluster is that it makes it difficult to identify and decipher potential true nuclear signals. Putin might be the one receiving attention, but should we ignore Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian Security Council’s deputy chairman, who frequently discusses nuclear weapons as he did most recently on May 31? We would want the Kremlin to make a strong statement if the situation worsens to the point where it seriously contemplates using nuclear weapons. Western leaders must accurately assess the risks, even though they may not give in. The issue at hand is that such a signal may be obscured by the cacophony of Moscow’s nuclear bluster. The West and the Kremlin should both be concerned about this.


Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up to receive latest news, updates, promotions, and special offers delivered directly to your inbox.
No, thanks