Any conflict with a nuclear power like Russia carries the risk that nuclear weapons could be used, and President Vladimir Putin is aggressively exploiting such concerns. With its nuclear threats, the Kremlin is moving away from Russia’s doctrine that ascribes a protective role to its nuclear arsenal. In this way, Moscow aims not only to deter Western governments from providing more substantial support to Ukraine, but also to intimidate the Western public.
Some experts s think, as long as NATO does not intervene directly in Ukraine and the Russian regime does not feel existentially threatened, both intentional and unintentional nuclear use remain extremely unlikely. Nevertheless, Moscow’s nuclear threats still entail significant negative consequences.
If Russia succeeds in using nuclear deterrence to shield an offensive conventional war, this could further destabilise Europe and the global security order.
The Kremlin has given the war in Ukraine an explicit nuclear dimension through various actions and statements. First, Russia conducted a manoeuvre with its nuclear forces in mid-February, shortly before the invasion. While it had been known for a few months that the exercise would take place in early 2022, the choice of timing seemed linked to the Ukraine crisis. After all, this annual exercise of Russia’s nuclear forces normally takes place in the fall, and Russian news coverage deliberately drew attention to the event. On February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin then warned in a speech that there would be unprecedented consequences should third states attempt to “obstruct” Russia. Such wording is traditionally considered to imply a threat to use nuclear weapons. The Russian president went further on February 27, announcing that Russia’s deterrent forces, which include nuclear weapons, would be placed on a “special regime of alert”.
This was the first time since the 1960s that Moscow had made such a public announcement regarding its nuclear alertness, even if its exact meaning was at first unclear. Indeed, some of the country’s strategic nuclear weapons are always on high alert and, hence, always ready to be used. Moreover, there are several levels of alert, ranging from purely administrative to very substantial, such as loading nuclear weapons onto heavy bombers. A statement by Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu the next day indicated, however, that Putin’s announcement merely referred to an increase in personnel at some command centres and thus a comparatively minor measure. Nevertheless, shortly thereafter, Russia conducted military exercises involving nuclear submarines in the Barents Sea and mobile intercontinental ballistic missile launchers in Siberia. Also, in early March, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted somewhat vaguely that a third world war would certainly “be nuclear”. Nonetheless, during the following weeks, a number of Russian officials attempted to qualify or even roll back Putin and Lavrov’s remarks.
The West strongly criticised Moscow’s nuclear threats, accusing the Kremlin of fabricating artificial threats to Russia in order to justify further aggressive action. Washington warned Moscow against using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but refrained from making similar public threats to Russia or raising its own level of nuclear alert. In addition, the United States postponed a planned missile test in order to avoid further rhetorical escalation.
Moscow Expands the Role of Its Nuclear Arsenal
According to Russia’s official doctrine, nuclear weapons primarily guarantee the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The deterrence principles published in 2020 reflect this stance. Accordingly, Moscow would use its nuclear forces in the event of a nuclear attack on Russia and/or if the existence of the state were threatened by conventional aggression.
Putin’s announcements during the war against Ukraine, however, suggest that for Russia’s leadership, the function of its nuclear arsenal goes beyond the narrow defensive role set out in the official doctrine. Rather, the Kremlin seems to be using nuclear weapons to pursue expansive political goals. Indeed, Putin appears bent on shielding his conventional war of aggression under a nuclear umbrella. Through his threats, he seeks to deter outside actors from interfering and to keep the conflict at a level that Russia considers a “local war”.
In this way, nuclear weapons are a tool of intimidation and of escalation management.
Putin’s red lines, however, are intentionally vague, as they are meant to deter as many Western activities as possible. Yet, this kind of strategic ambiguity creates risks as it is difficult for the West to assess what level of engagement in the conflict could trigger a nuclear escalation.