Russia’s war against Ukraine has been marked by many mistaken judgments. Russian leaders began the war with ambitious objectives well beyond the capabilities of their fighting forces, underestimating the determination of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the competency and valor of Ukrainian forces, and the willingness of NATO members to supply Ukraine with significant military capabilities. Facing these obstacles, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his advisers have frequently resorted to issuing threats of nuclear escalation to compensate for reversals and disappointments at the front.
This rocket diplomacy is not entirely new for Russia; Putin has been referencing Russia’s high-end nuclear capabilities — and his willingness to use them under certain circumstances – since at least 2007. Nevertheless, Russia’s cavalier use of nuclear coercive diplomacy is a misguided tactic, and it has dangerous implications for future international relations and Russia’s own national security policy.
First, Russia’s overreliance on nuclear threats may lead to an eventual numbing effect on the part of listeners. As the frequency of threats increases, they become part of the accepted rhetorical and policy backdrop to military events. Russia’s nuclear arsenal is the world’s largest. The last thing Russia’s government should want to do is to use nuclear weapons as a stage prop for diplomatic detours into absurdity, given the fact that the United States has almost as many nuclear weapons as Russia and both the United Kingdom and France are nuclear powers. Instead, Russia’s public pronouncements should follow the official military doctrine of the Russian Federation. According to this doctrine, Russia will use nuclear weapons: (1) in response to a nuclear or other attack using weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against Russia or an ally; or, (2), in the event of an invasion of Russia by conventional armed forces that threatens the very survival of the state. The first condition includes the protocol that Russia will react promptly to an unambiguous warning of nuclear attack based on its national technical means of launch detection and validation.
In addition, insiders including U.S. Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) contend that Russia now accepts the idea of a limited nuclear first use as part of a strategy of “escalate to de-escalate” an ongoing conventional war. Experts disagree as to whether this is really a part of Russian military thinking or a Western deconstruction of Russian approaches.
Moreover, Russia’s excessive nuclear rhetoric over time diminishes the status of nuclear danger as a special category of threat to international peace and security. To the contrary: it normalizes nuclear brinkmanship as part of diplomatic standard operating procedure and understates the risks attendant to inadequate escalation control. The greatest challenge to deterrence stability in the future will be the safe operation of nuclear forces under conditions of regional rivalry, crisis instability, and the acquisition of nuclear arsenals by “new learners,” like China.
Example of Irresponsible Behavior
A second reason why Russia’s repeated references to the possibility of nuclear war are dangerous is that they set a bad example of irresponsible behavior for other states, including new or prospective nuclear powers, to follow. If other states conclude that Russia succeeded in deterring Ukraine or NATO by nuclear coercive diplomacy, they may be more willing to escalate their own nuclear rhetoric, or to resort to nuclear first use, in future crises. One of the features of the new international system of the 21st century is that the armed forces of new or rising nuclear powers such as China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea are supported by technologically advanced conventional forces and command-and-control systems.
This raises the possibility of nuclear war fought within the context of a conventional war of high-tech weapons and fast-moving operations over which leaders have lost control. Hypersonic weapons and massive drone strikes are two examples of technologies that could destabilize the conventional battlefield, since they can be fired from distances a thousand miles away, and prompt nuclear escalation.
A third reason why Russia’s repetitive resort to nuclear threats is a mistake is that it will encourage nuclear proliferation. States that feel threatened by regional adversaries that already possess nukes could decide that even a small nuclear arsenal can provide a great deal of deterrence in an uncertain world. As Iran may be moving closer to a nuclear-weapons threshold capability, for example, leaders in Turkey or Saudi Arabia might give further consideration to establishing their own nuclear arsenals. South Korea is already threatened by North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and frequently outrageous nuclear bombast.
With regard to international peace and security, new nuclear-weapons states may not fully appreciate the difference between stable and unstable nuclear forces. A stable nuclear force does not invite attack on itself; that is, it has the capability to retaliate and to inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy after having absorbed a nuclear first strike. A plethora of nuclear forces that are vulnerable to a preemptive first-strike that eliminates retaliatory capability is a recipe for deterrence instability and international chaos.
Legitimizing the Use of Other WMD
A fourth reason why Russia’s nuclear rhetoric during the war in Ukraine is bad judgment is that it also tends to legitimatize more broadly the use of other weapons of mass destruction. Any use of chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine would be a humanitarian disaster and an international war crime. If Russia took that step, it could turn the war in Ukraine into a war between Russia and NATO, with uncertain outcomes and consequences. NATO has made clear that the alliance will regard Russia’s use of chemical or biological weapons as a game changer, and U.S. officials have underscored this sentiment, though neither has been specific as to how it would respond. Whether Russia will resort to such desperate measures if its military operations in Ukraine are forestalled is at present unknown and unpredictable.
The established nuclear weapons states, especially the United States and Russia, need to set examples of best practices such as adhering to their publicly declared nuclear doctrines, for transparency, rather than engaging in malign nuclear mismanagement, regardless of how the conflict in Ukraine ends. To do any less would place the world in great danger. As President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev stated in 1986 at Reykjavik, both sides should eliminate nuclear weapons, and a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
As soon as the war in Ukraine ends, talks on extending New START should begin. This treaty, which was negotiated by the Obama administration and Putin’s government for a 10-year term and extended by both sides when President Joe Biden took office last year, now expires in February 2026. It limits the number of deployed missiles and heavy bombers to 700 and the number of warheads on those delivery systems to 1,550. Allowing this treaty to expire could result in a new nuclear arms race. That would be the ultimate mistaken judgment.