Nuclear blackmail is an element of Russia’s hybrid war to expand its geopolitical influence and gain economic advantages. By violating the Budapest Memorandum in 2014, Russia has effectively destroyed the global nuclear consensus. The Russian leadership perceives the presence of nuclear weapons as an indulgence for any aggression.
Putin’s goal is obvious: he is trying to redraw the map of Europe. The blitzkrieg in Ukraine, which was defeated, and the slowdown in offensive initiatives in the East and south of the country caused another propaganda information wave of nuclear blackmail.
Russia creates such an information field not only in the West, but also among its population.
Since 1999, tactical nuclear weapons have played the role of so-called “de-escalation”weapons in Russia’s military strategy. The Russian doctrine of” de-escalation ” through nuclear escalation has long been present in the Kremlin’s official rhetoric. Such a doctrine is a key element of the Russian hybrid war against the world, since even voicing threats of the use of nuclear weapons by the Russian Federation pushes some leaders of countries to capitulate.
In January 2000, Russia published a new concept of national security, where the use of nuclear weapons was regulated not only by threats to the Russian Federation, but also by the right to use nuclear weapons to repel armed aggression and in local wars on the borders with the Russian Federation. Since then, Western reminders of Russia’s ability to destroy major cities and industrial centers have become systematic.
After that, the General Staff of the Navy reported that the future belongs to tactical nuclear weapons based on long – range cruise missiles from submarines.
In 2011, chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces Mikhail Makarov did not rule out the possibility that “local and regional armed conflicts could escalate into a global war using nuclear weapons.” And in March 2014, during the occupation and annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin openly warned of a nuclear attack in the event of an attempt to interfere with Western military forces.
It was on the day of the so-called referendum on the annexation of Crimea that propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov expressed the thesis that “Russia is the only country in the world capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.” And in August of the same year, 2014, Putin announced his intention to “please” the West with new developments in the field of offensive nuclear weapons in the near future and recalled that “Russia is really one of the largest nuclear powers.”
Russia’s public threats to use nuclear weapons were not only aimed at provoking the Western alliance to respond militarily, but also served as a rehearsal for creating a pretext for further military aggression by Russia against other countries.
In March 2018, during his address to the Federal Assembly, putin boasted about the creation of a super-powerful Sarmat nuclear missile, Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, nuclear-powered cruise missiles and a nuclear submarine. A significant part of his speech was devoted specifically to intimidation of Russia’s nuclear power. Then he stressed that the Russian military doctrine provides for the use of any weapon of mass destruction in the event of aggression against Russia, even with the use of conventional weapons, if the existence of the Russian state is threatened. Any use of nuclear weapons against the Russian Federation of any power will be perceived as a nuclear attack on Russia with corresponding consequences.
As soon as the Russian army invaded Ukraine, Russian officials began to openly speculate about the possible use of nuclear weapons, raising concerns about a possible Third World War. Vladimir putin warned third countries against standing in the way of his ‘special military operation’, threatening them with unprecedented consequences. Several days later, he ordered Russia’s nuclear arsenal to be put on high alert. At the end of March, Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov took a somewhat softer stance, denying that Putin had threatened to use nuclear weapons if a third party became involved. Yet, more recently, Dmitri Medvedev, Russia’s ex-president and deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia, said that, ‘under certain circumstances’, international sanctions could be taken as an ‘act of international aggression’. In such a case, according to Medvedev, Russia might resort to the right to ‘individual and collective self-defence’. What are those ‘circumstances’, and what is behind all these contradictory statements?
Moscow’s Nuclear Bluffing: A Foreign Policy Tradition
Foreign Minister sergey lavrov claimed in early March that he did not believe in the possibility of nuclear war, but at the end of April he already stated that “the risks of nuclear war are now quite significant. Although understanding the consequences of a hypothetical nuclear strike by the Russian Federation is a deterrent for it, the threshold for Russia’s use of nuclear weapons is still quite low.
Russia, demonstrating such a strategy to the whole world, carries out the ideas of the so – called reflexive management strategy-to influence the enemy so that he does not interfere with the achievement of planned goals.
putin learned well from his predecessors. He understands that Russia’s nuclear status opens almost endless opportunities to raise the stakes in the international arena. For instance, in August 2014, at the height of hostilities near Ilovaisk, the Western community was considering increasing sanctions on Moscow. Putin played his foreign policy trump card, reminding the West that it is better not to mess with Russia, ‘one of the most powerful nuclear powers’ in the world. His words had the intended effect. Despite the illegal annexation of Crimea, the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17 and the igniting of war in eastern Ukraine, the West introduced personal sanctions on only a very limited number of low-ranking Russian officials.
Notably, Brussels’ list of sanctioned individuals was much shorter than Washington’s, allowing some of Putin’s close associates – such as former president of Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin – to continue to feel comfortable in the EU. The sanctions on cooperation with Russia in the defence and energy sectors posed certain difficulties for Russian entities, but in many cases these restrictions were circumvented. Subsequently, even when facts unequivocally pointed to Moscow’s responsibility for crimes such as the poisoning of the Skripals or the explosions in Vrbetice, many Western countries still preferred to turn a blind eye to the Kremlin’s malign activities and resisted the imposition of harsher restrictions.
For Putin, the most important thing is to keep his ‘vertical of power’ functioning and prevent his elites from splintering off. The use of tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine – even on territory far from populated areas – would considerably increase the risks to his regime. A nuclear strike would clearly not fit the narrative of a ‘special operation’, and could deepen divisions within Russian society. It was already obvious during the notorious open session of Russia’s Security Council that not all participants were enthusiastic about recognising the independence of the so-called ‘people’s republics’. Putin cannot be sure that all his associates would be willing to share responsibility for a nuclear attack. Furthermore, China, India and NATO member Turkey – countries that are critically important to Russia’s ability to circumvent international sanctions – would certainly distance themselves.
Putin’s aggressive, sabre-rattling rhetoric is aimed firstly at legitimising his rule by appealing to Soviet-era stereotypes and secondly at provoking divisions and undermining Western unity on Russia. Hence, the Kremlin’s statements are often not followed by actions. For example, Minister Sergey Lavrov and his deputies have frequently threatened to attack the supply routes for Western weapons to Ukraine, but the shipments continue and not a single Russian bullet has hit the convoys.
Putin’s foreign policy is provocative, but still appears to be based on rational calculations of costs and benefits. The West’s inability to respond decisively is perceived by the Kremlin as a weakness and may encourage Russian recklessness. Conversely, strict adherence to declared Western principles, vigorous actions and the drawing – and most critically the upholding – of ‘red lines’ can curb the appetites of Russia’s dictator.