The threat of nuclear escalation is one of the most effective instruments of Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy. But the international community has the means to neutralise its potency.
As soon as the Russian army invaded Ukraine, Russian officials began to openly speculate about the possible use of nuclear weapons, raising concerns about a possible Third World War. Vladimir Putin warned third countries against standing in the way of his ‘special military operation’, threatening them with unprecedented consequences. Several days later, he ordered Russia’s nuclear arsenal to be put on high alert. At the end of March, Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov took a somewhat softer stance, denying that Putin had threatened to use nuclear weapons if a third party became involved. Yet, more recently, Dmitri Medvedev, Russia’s ex-president and deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia, said that, ‘under certain circumstances’, international sanctions could be taken as an ‘act of international aggression’. In such a case, according to Medvedev, Russia might resort to the right to ‘individual and collective self-defence’. What are those ‘circumstances’, and what is behind all these contradictory statements?
Moscow’s Nuclear Bluffing: A Foreign Policy Tradition
Many Western politicians are susceptible to the Kremlin’s belligerent rhetoric, fearing, as during the Cold War, that confrontation between the West and Russia could push the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. But Russia is not the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a semi-autarkic regime, and the Party nomenklatura had practically no links to the Western world. They seemed more prone to dangerous adventures, eager to demonstrate how far they were ready to go in a confrontation with the West. During both the Suez and Cuban crises, Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev threatened nuclear attack. Although their threats were more explicit than Putin’s, they did not act on them as they were absolutely sure of a massive nuclear response from the West.
The decline of the USSR and internal instability there did not make things simpler. On the contrary, since the times of ‘perestroika’, Western elites have feared that the Kremlin losing centralised control over its nuclear capability would be the biggest threat to their own existence. When the Soviet empire began to disintegrate, they helped Mikhail Gorbachev in every way possible to keep control of the political situation. Even so, the West could find no answer to the question of how to deal with the disintegration of a country with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and in possession of nuclear weapons. Put otherwise, Russia’s significant nuclear arsenal made the West hostage to the Kremlin’s political and economic insolvency. For its part, Moscow has always cynically exploited this fear, trying its hardest to sell the threat of a major nuclear war to the West. Gorbachev did so in a desperate effort to save face amid total defeat in the Cold War, while Yeltsin played on this fear to secure the economic and political support he needed in his power struggle with the Russian Communists.
What Did Putin Change?
Putin learned well from his predecessors. He understands that Russia’s nuclear status opens almost endless opportunities to raise the stakes in the international arena. For instance, in August 2014, at the height of hostilities near Ilovaisk, the Western community was considering increasing sanctions on Moscow. Putin played his foreign policy trump card, reminding the West that it is better not to mess with Russia, ‘one of the most powerful nuclear powers’ in the world. His words had the intended effect. Despite the illegal annexation of Crimea, the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17 and the igniting of war in eastern Ukraine, the West introduced personal sanctions on only a very limited number of low-ranking Russian officials.
Notably, Brussels’ list of sanctioned individuals was much shorter than Washington’s, allowing some of Putin’s close associates – such as former president of Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin – to continue to feel comfortable in the EU. The sanctions on cooperation with Russia in the defence and energy sectors posed certain difficulties for Russian entities, but in many cases these restrictions were circumvented. Subsequently, even when facts unequivocally pointed to Moscow’s responsibility for crimes such as the poisoning of the Skripals or the explosions in Vrbetice, many Western countries still preferred to turn a blind eye to the Kremlin’s malign activities and resisted the imposition of harsher restrictions.
The current Russian elites are more cynical, and have much more to lose. They have managed to acquire apartments in New York and London, they send their children to study at the best Western universities, and they prefer to spend their holidays in their villas on the French Riviera and Lake Como. So far, both the EU and Washington have avoided targeting one of the most vulnerable spots of Putin’s regime – the assets that belong not only to Putin’s associates and oligarchs, but also to their family members and ex-spouses. It is no secret that in most cases the fortunes of the Russian elites are registered under other names – targeting these, along with an oil and natural gas embargo, would probably be among the most effective ways to stop Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.
The Bottom Line
Having unleashed a full-scale war, Putin has regularly allowed his hand to hover over the ‘nuclear button’ to scare Western governments into limiting their financial and military aid to Ukraine. Until recently, this worked flawlessly. Western governments, wary of ‘provoking Putin’, have refused to help neutralise the Russian Air Force’s advantage in the skies over Ukraine, and have been reluctant to even discuss supplying offensive weapons to Kyiv. But the barbaric bombardment of Ukrainian cities, the Bucha massacre, and the stiff and courageous resistance of the Ukrainian army have triggered tectonic changes in the West’s approach to the war. NATO members have begun to seriously consider the supply of heavy weapons to Ukraine.
For Putin, the most important thing is to keep his ‘vertical of power’ functioning and prevent his elites from splintering off. The use of tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine – even on territory far from populated areas – would considerably increase the risks to his regime. A nuclear strike would clearly not fit the narrative of a ‘special operation’, and could deepen divisions within Russian society. It was already obvious during the notorious open session of Russia’s Security Council that not all participants were enthusiastic about recognising the independence of the so-called ‘people’s republics’. Putin cannot be sure that all his associates would be willing to share responsibility for a nuclear attack. Furthermore, China, India and NATO member Turkey – countries that are critically important to Russia’s ability to circumvent international sanctions – would certainly distance themselves.
Putin’s aggressive, sabre-rattling rhetoric is aimed firstly at legitimising his rule by appealing to Soviet-era stereotypes and secondly at provoking divisions and undermining Western unity on Russia. Hence, the Kremlin’s statements are often not followed by actions. For example, Minister Sergey Lavrov and his deputies have frequently threatened to attack the supply routes for Western weapons to Ukraine, but the shipments continue and not a single Russian bullet has hit the convoys.
Putin’s foreign policy is provocative, but still appears to be based on rational calculations of costs and benefits. The West’s inability to respond decisively is perceived by the Kremlin as a weakness and may encourage Russian recklessness. Conversely, strict adherence to declared Western principles, vigorous actions and the drawing – and most critically the upholding – of ‘red lines’ can curb the appetites of Russia’s dictator.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).