Three weeks before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I suggested there “would not be a nuclear war, but a war with an undeniable nuclear dimension.” This remains true today – despite some recent claims to the contrary. The risk of nuclear escalation may have increased since 24 February, but it is still extremely remote. Genocide, however, is a certainty if Western leaders, paralysed by the Kremlin’s nuclear talk, were to abandon Ukraine.
Nuclear rhetoric from Russia has been the norm throughout this war. This should not come as a surprise. Russia’s nuclear weapons are an integral part of its escalation-management toolkit, and frequent referrals to its nuclear potential are standard practice. According to researchers Anna Clara Arndt and Liviu Horovitz, Russia calibrates its nuclear rhetoric in pursuit of three distinct goals: “to deter foreign military intervention; dissuade foreign aid to Ukraine; and coerce the government in Kyiv”.
The Kremlin has achieved at most one and a half of these goals. Pointing to the risk of nuclear escalation, Ukraine’s international supporters continue to abstain from direct military intervention, whether through boots on the ground or a no-fly zone. They have, however, supplied increasingly sophisticated weapons. These allowed Ukrainian forces to reverse the Russian army’s advance on Kyiv, frustrate its campaign in the east, and eject occupying forces from Kharkiv. But Western countries still withhold some aid, including ground-attack missiles with longer ranges, fighter jets, and Western-produced tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. Concerns about escalation seem to have played a role these decisions.
Where the Kremlin has undoubtedly failed is in coercing Ukrainians into surrendering to Russian occupation. Just this week, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated that peace negotiations with Russia could only start once Ukraine’s territorial integrity had been restored. And even the recent terror bombing of residential areas and energy infrastructure has not diminished the Ukrainian people’s defiance. After the mass murder, rape, and deportations committed by Russians in – at least – Bucha, Irpin, and Mariupol, who would doubt them?
Nuclear escalation will be a possibility for as long as Russia continues its war of aggression. So, the goal of Western policy should be to disincentivise the use of nuclear weapons: to make the Russian leadership understand that nuclear restraint is always the preferable option.
This requires serious diplomatic skill. Efforts by US defence officials to engage their counterparts in Moscow over Russia’s manufactured ‘dirty-bomb’ scare have shown promise in this regard. Russian president Vladimir Putin and other senior figures have since dialled down their nuclear rhetoric: “There is no sense in [using a ‘dirty bomb’ or nuclear weapon] for us, neither political nor military,” Putin remarked in late October.
Still, Western leaders should expect the ebb and flow of Russian nuclear threats to continue. Russia’s conventional forces are severely depleted. The 12,000-strong 11th Army Corps from Kaliningrad has been decimated in Kharkiv. Several of its other best-equipped formations have suffered a similar fate. They will be rebuilt in due course. But, until then, Moscow will rely on its nuclear capability to compensate for its conventional weakness, just as it did during the early post-cold war years.
However, Western leaders and publics should recognise that there is no correlation between Russian nuclear rhetoric and actual preparation for nuclear use. For example, if Russia were preparing for a nuclear strike, there is a good chance that Western intelligence services would have found evidence of this – such as movement of warheads from central storage. But they have seen no such developments. Even more importantly, the Kremlin would send a specific deterrent message, removing any ambiguity from Russia’s nuclear rhetoric and presenting Ukraine and its supporters with a clear choice to stop their advance or suffer the consequences.
To make sure that it stays that way, both backchannel diplomacy and public statements should aim to disabuse the Russian leadership of any belief that nuclear use would put them in a better position to prosecute their failing war. NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg’s recent warning that “any use of nuclear weapons would fundamentally change the nature of the conflict, and have severe consequences” follows that logic of deterrence by punishment.
Western leaders should complement these activities with greater efforts to strengthen deterrence by denial: ensuring that nuclear threats or use do not bring the benefits the Russian leadership would hope to attain. NATO countries have already provided Ukraine’s armed forces with equipment to protect against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats, which would enable units to continue operating in contaminated environments. Western-supplied missile-defence systems also make it harder for Russia to conduct a nuclear strike against targets in Ukraine.
But Western leaders should also credibly commit to Ukraine’s long-term defence. A limited nuclear strike would do little to change the conditions on the battlefield. The Kremlin is likely well aware of this – so any use of nuclear weapons would be intended to frighten the West into abandoning Ukraine. Ukraine’s international allies should therefore strengthen their support and forge an enduring bond to deny Russia the benefits of breaking Ukraine away from its Western supporters through nuclear blackmail.
To signal such commitment, European leaders could place orders from the defence industry for Western-produced weapons. German chancellor Olaf Scholz could, for instance, greenlight the production of 100 Leopard 2A7 tanks – which, according to the producer of the tank, would arrive in Ukraine in 36 months’ time. This would not help Ukraine weather the current phase of the war (and there are other steps Western governments should take now) but it would underline that, regardless of how the war continues to develop, Ukraine can count on Western support over the long run.
None of this can eliminate the risk of nuclear escalation; some cornered “genius” may still decide that starting a nuclear war is a gamble worth taking. Thanks to these enduring uncertainties, I will never have the pleasure of sending an email to my colleagues saying, “I told you so”. But to reduce the number of scenarios that could lead to me receiving one, strong deterrence measures of both denial and punishment can help the Kremlin’s nuclear tactics remain at the level of rhetoric.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.