Ambiguous nuclear threats heighten catastrophic risks

Protests in Moscow against partial mobilization announced by Vladimir Putin, who said his promise to use all military means in Ukraine was 'no bluff' and hinted Moscow was prepared to use nuclear weapons. Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images.
Protests in Moscow against partial mobilization announced by Vladimir Putin, who said his promise to use all military means in Ukraine was 'no bluff' and hinted Moscow was prepared to use nuclear weapons. Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images.

Until now, Russian nuclear doctrine consistently stated Russia would only use nuclear weapons first should the existence of the state be threatened, rather than its ‘territorial integrity’.

However, the planned referenda which aim to annex parts of Ukraine would mean any Ukrainian attempts to reclaim that territory could then be framed as a threat to Russia’s territorial integrity.

The impact of nuclear weapons use would be grave and would require a strong response – and therefore could escalate quickly to become a large-scale regional war and possibly all-out nuclear war.

Nuclear war cannot be won

The Reagan-Gorbachev statement that ‘nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’ has been restated by all five nuclear weapon states twice, once in January 2022 weeks before the invasion of Ukraine began, and again in early August 2022 at the start of the NPT Review Conference.

But Russia’s nuclear threats are being made with the intent of instilling fear in European countries and keeping NATO from actively being involved in the conflict.

This level of ambiguity, attempting to keep a careful balance between threat and reassurance, is designed to create uncertainty about what Russia might be prepared to do.

While this uncertainty is destabilizing, it is also a crucial aspect of nuclear deterrence strategies and so is difficult to escape. Putin’s threat was deliberately vague, leaving room for doubt about where the red lines might lie.

In this latest nuclear threat, Vladimir Putin also warned ‘this was not a bluff’, sparking questions about whether the sabre-rattling is a sign of weakness or strength.

It is important to understand Putin’s repeated nuclear threats have always been directed towards NATO, and not against Ukraine itself. Indeed, the emphasis in the media indicates that they would be targeted at the UK.

These latest threats are intended to sway public support against Ukraine by inciting fear of Russian nuclear weapons use in Europe – but giving in to nuclear blackmail would only embolden Putin further.

There would be major risks for Russia if it were to detonate even a ‘low-yield’ nuclear weapon – a demonstration shot – in, for example, rural Ukraine, because the humanitarian and ecological impact of nuclear weapons use are far-reaching and devastating.

The enormous blast, plus immediate radiation and heat may be far enough away from Russian troops to avoid their destruction but the radioactive debris – the fallout – from the blast would easily blow in their direction and in the direction of Russia itself. Weather systems could also end up spreading radioactive debris all over Europe, Asia even across the Atlantic and into the southern hemisphere.

Nuclear use in Ukraine would also likely dispel Putin’s argument that the Russian invasion was about saving Ukraine, therefore risking the Russian government losing popular and international support – as well as leading to an attack on Russia by NATO in return.

The ambiguity of the threats also makes it more difficult to determine what level of engagement in the conflict would lead to nuclear use. Even when reserving nuclear weapons as ‘weapons of last resort’, the risk they may be used remains high.

The problem with nuclear weapons is there are no small mistakes and the gambit is always significant along with the risks. In times of crisis, ambiguity often leads to misunderstandings, miscalculations, and catastrophic missteps. In the case of nuclear weapons, these risks affect everyone.

Julia Cournoyer, Research Assistant, International Security Programme and Marion Messmer, Senior Research Fellow, International Security Programme.

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