Signal and noise: What Russia’s nuclear threat means for Europe

The Kremlin instrumentalises fear of nuclear war to make others bow to its ambitions. The West and Russia have often supported different factions in conflicts without sliding into a nuclear conflict.

Panorama of the center of Moscow with a view of the Kremlin at sunset

On 27 February, in a televised meeting with Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to adopt a higher level of readiness. This led to alarmed reporting in the West, as some journalists confused the status of the forces with a “high alert”, one they would adopt if Russia believed that a nuclear threat or attack was imminent. In contrast, higher readiness than in peacetime is not a state of high alert or any indication of an attack. In fact, Russia’s nuclear forces were already at a higher state of readiness because they were conducting the Grom 2022 exercise, scheduled for this time of the year. There is no evidence of any unusual activity by the Russian nuclear forces beyond this exercise.

In 2014, during its invasion and annexation of Crimea, Russian leaders used the same tools of nuclear signalling to tell the world: ‘we will do our thing and you will stay out of it – or else’. It has long been an open secret that, during an all-out invasion of Ukraine, Russia would use nuclear signalling to deter the West. This has been implied in all major Russian security documents of recent decades (as this author explained in 2020). Nobody, at this stage, should be surprised by it.

It has long been an open secret that, during an all-out invasion of Ukraine, Russia would use nuclear signalling to deter the West

One should not panic about what ‘staying out’ of Ukraine means for the West in practical terms: there are long-established rules on that. In the Soviet era and the decades since, the West and Russia have supported different factions in conflicts without sliding into a nuclear war. One of the most recent examples of this is the war in Syria, which officially involves militaries from both sides. Neither sanctions nor arms supplies to one party violate the rules. In the case of Ukraine, it would be a violation of the rules for NATO combat forces to enter the war, be it in the form of aircraft or troops on the ground. Enforcing a no-fly zone over Kyiv – as demanded by many Ukrainians – would constitute such a case. For this reason, NATO and the United States have declined to do so on numerous occasions.

Russia knows the West’s red lines, such as taking the fight to NATO territory. This is why French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was equally clear in stating: “I think that Vladimir Putin must also understand that the Atlantic alliance is a nuclear alliance. That is all I will say about this.” And there is nothing to suggest that Putin does not understand the implications of the statement.

Still, many in the West fear that Russia would have an escalation advantage over NATO, because the country possesses more modern and versatile non-strategic nuclear weapons. The West, meanwhile, could only respond in kind with fighter jets carrying B-61 gravity bombs. But fear of a superior enemy is mutual. The US would probably use strategic nuclear weapons to retaliate against Russia’s use of any nuclear weapon. And Putin and his military entourage severely overestimate the capabilities of American missile defence systems, worrying that they would provide a shield the US could hide behind after conducting a disarming first strike on Russia. Moreover, superior US intelligence on Russia’s moves – as impressively demonstrated in the run up to the all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine – casts doubt on whether Moscow could gain the element of surprise in a nuclear confrontation. Given these considerations, Putin is almost certainly eager to minimise the risk of a nuclear conflict with NATO.

And, finally, there are direct lines of communication between the general staffs of Russia and nuclear-armed members of NATO. There are de-confliction measures in place to deal with issues either side sees as particularly destabilising.

So, why did Putin make his recent declaration on Russia’s nuclear forces? The answer lies in the country’s policy principles on nuclear deterrence, which state that this works in conjunction with measures such as “information policies” (propaganda) and efforts to “deter aggression” (achieve Russian foreign policy goals). In other words, the Kremlin instrumentalises fear of nuclear war to make others bow to its ambitions.

Russia has lost many of its sympathisers in the West at a stunning pace. Even Germany has abandoned long-held foreign policy beliefs, by increasing its defence spending and supplying weapons to Ukraine. Former apologists for the Kremlin have either denounced Putin or remained silent. Russian propaganda channels have lost most of their appeal in European, and have been blocked by many European governments. Putin spreads fear of nuclear warfare as he has few other opportunities to dissuade European leaders from assisting Ukraine or sanctioning Russia. But it is a propaganda trick. While Putin’s actions are shocking and pointless to many, they make sense in the world he has created in his own mind. Doomsdays, however, do not.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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