The death of nuclear fear

In the wake of Prigozhin’s mutiny, war hawks are once again brandishing Russia’s nuclear potential. Why aren’t their threats working?

Within days of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed insurrection, Russia’s National Security Council chair Dmitry Medvedev was once again threatening the West with nuclear armageddon. The logic of these threats ran counter even to Medvedev’s own earlier admission that the coup had alarmed the West, with the prospect of Russia’s nuclear arsenal landing in a pair of hands as untrustworthy as Prigozhin’s. Nor did the saber-rattling impress its intended audience. While pro-Kremlin nuclear strategists might lament that the West has lost the fear that underpins nuclear deterrence as such, the contradictions of Russia’s wartime nuclear policy are coming to a head in the wake of a coup that exposed the weakness of the Kremlin’s grip on the rest of the country. In an article written for the independent journalism cooperative Bereg, political scientist Mikhail Troitsky analyzes Russia’s current nuclear dilemma. Meduza publishes his article with permission.

About a month ago, sensing that Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine might bring the Russian army a new crop of failures at the front, a number of pro-Kremlin nuclear weapons experts started to bring up the idea of “limited” nuclear weapon use as a quick and decisive way to end the war in Russia’s favor.

The current regime’s position has since become only more fragile. Prigozhin’s mutiny, albeit short-lived, has cast doubt on the integrity of Russia’s security and law enforcement apparatus. It’s easy to expect that, upon completing some “inquiry,” Russia might well accuse Ukraine and its Western partners of helping foment the coup, using those insinuations to double up on threats to resort to nuclear weapons. Those threats are, in fact, already in the air.

A week into the discussion, prominent Russian experts are advising the government not to flinch at “massive nuclear strikes” that might “put an end to Europe as a geopolitical entity.” They also suggest it might be possible to provoke a large-scale migration crisis ahead of such a strike by threatening countries that “play the most active role in Russophobia.”

Having briefly plunged Russia into turmoil last week, the Prigozhin-led armed insurrection sheds new light on the possible scenarios of a Russian nuclear strike.

The risk of panic

Those who like to threaten a nuclear attack, while avoiding any mention of repercussions for Russia itself, should consider what Prigozhin’s mutiny has revealed about Russian society and its way of responding to extraordinary situations. The lesson is simple: When people sense that what’s happening affects not only their well-being but even their physical safety, they start acting quickly, uncontrollably, and on a mass scale.

During the insurrection, tens of thousands of Muscovites bought up airline tickets for the nearest dates, while higher-ranking officials and business executives fled the city in private jets or else prepared alternative escape routes for themselves and their families. A nuclear escalation (even in words only) would create even more upheaval among those who can afford either a train ticket or airfare out of danger. If Russia tried to balance on the cusp of nuclear war, the resulting social dynamic would be an order of magnitude more pronounced than what happened during the Wagner insurrection. If Russia were to deal a nuclear strike on one of the European NATO members (as proposed by Sergey Karaganov, chair of Russia’s Foreign and Defense Policy Council), the alliance might reply in kind, with strikes on Russia’s own densely-populated areas. Since the Russian population understands this as well as anyone, rumors of such an impending nuclear strike would inevitably lead to panic in Russian society, with destructive consequences for Russia’s larger cities.

Russia’s military doctrine only permits resorting to nuclear weapons in extraordinary situations, when either Russia itself has been attacked by nuclear means or else when the state is faced with an existential threat. In the conditions of war with Ukraine (a country with no nuclear arsenal of its own), the population’s support of a Russia-first nuclear strike would depend on the consensus about the degree of danger to the country. According to a recent Russian Field poll, three-quarters of Russia’s population now consider a nuclear strike unacceptable as a means to achieving victory in war. Sixteen percent of respondents believe that using nuclear weapons in war is impermissible in principle, and only five percent believe that using nuclear weapons is acceptable when in danger of defeat.

This suggests some meaningful conclusions. It’s doubtful that major segments of Russian society would put the “survival of the state” (as understood by Moscow) above their own physical survival. It’s also unlikely that they’d see an immediate threat to their own lives either in Ukraine’s combat efforts or in its existence as a state. Russian citizens, even those who support the so-called “special military operation” (the Kremlin-prescribed euphemism for the full-scale invasion), are not ready for an imminent risk of death from nuclear warfare or some other kind of nuclear catastrophe. Their support for their government’s military exploits, such as it is, stems from the sense that their scope is limited and presents no danger to themselves.

Even if the Ukrainian army succeeds at driving the invading forces back to the boundaries that existed before February 24, 2022, this won’t present any danger to the overwhelming majority of Russians, nor will it convince them that some man-made nuclear catastrophe is necessary. If the country’s leadership threatened to use nuclear weapons in that situation, Russian society and public servants could only take that as a signal of the government’s utter bankruptcy. Even if propaganda were somehow to succeed in justifying a nuclear strike, a mass exodus of people from Russia’s larger cities would be practically a guaranteed response to such designs, along with the elites’ and the bureaucracy’s refusal to support the Kremlin any further.

The power of disbelief

Moscow’s hypothetical attempt to use nuclear blackmail to force Ukraine to give up part of its territory runs into yet another problem. Nuclear strategy experts have long concluded that nuclear weapons are only suitable for deterrence — that is, for preventing catastrophic damage coming from the other side. In other words, nuclear arsenals are useful for prevention but not so much for making things happen. Heads of state only fear nuclear retaliation when they are themselves contemplating an attack that would pose an existential danger to the adversary.

In light of this principle, can Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive be taken as anything that gives Russia the prerogative of nuclear “containment”? What matters in answering this question are not just Russian and Ukrainian assessments of the situation but also the global community’s stance, including the position of states claiming supposed “neutrality” with regard to the Russia–Ukraine conflict.

Until now, no country in the world has recognized occupied Ukrainian territories as parts of Russia proper. It makes sense to expect, then, that none of the key players would agree that Russia is merely exercising a lawful prerogative of “containing Ukraine” if Moscow tried to use nuclear weapons to preserve its occupation of parts of Ukraine.

What kind of event would it take to legitimize a Russian nuclear strike in the eyes of a large part of the world? This is unclear, and Russia’s leadership seems to realize this as well as anyone. In the course of the war, it has on occasion raised the temperature with nuclear rhetoric (as Vladimir Putin did on September 21, 2022, shortly after the Russian army’s retreat from the Kharkiv region), but those threats would inevitably fade later on, even as Russia’s military situation could hardly be said to have improved. (Not long before the Russian army’s surrender of Kherson, Putin did just this in his Valdai address.)

Most observers simply don’t buy Moscow’s justifications of its missile strikes on Ukrainian cities as “retaliation” for the Crimean Bridge explosion, and see them instead as a deliberate effort to suppress Ukraine’s air defenses. This amounts to a state of affairs where even conventional-weapon strikes have to be planned and deliberate. It’s very hard to imagine, in this context, what Ukraine would have to do to compel Russia to engage in more radical, more impromptu steps.

It’s well understood that weapons of mass destruction can inflict irreparable damage even to the side that uses them. This lesson, learned in the course of the First World War, is what prevented the sides from using them again in World War II, regardless of the combat situation.

Moscow would have a very hard time convincing Kyiv and its partners that its nuclear threats are anything other than empty words. The strategic position of “disbelief” has, in fact, been adopted by both Ukraine and NATO until very recently, with both of those players claiming that they see no evidence of Russia’s preparing for nuclear escalation.

The temptation to provoke

Expert discussions and even demonstrative preparations for a nuclear strike will likely do nothing to increase the effect of Russia’s nuclear blackmail. The relatively low risk of nuclear war is already taken into account by both Ukraine and its Western partners when planning their military operations. This is precisely what U.S. President Joe Biden was talking about when he admitted that Russia’s use of its nuclear capabilities cannot be ruled out. In acknowledging this risk, Biden made no reference to any extraordinary measures or changes this should entail with regard to the U.S. policies on Ukraine.

Existential threats to Russia are so faint, and the consequences of a nuclear strike would be so profound, that jointly all this amounts to a good reason to doubt that anyone would obey if ordered to launch a nuclear strike. Prigozhin’s mutiny has also made clear that Russia’s law enforcement and security elite, as well as some civilian bureaucrats, don’t always follow the letter of their job duties when confronted with a crisis. Meanwhile, the effectiveness of the Ukrainian air defenses is such that even a hypersonic Russian missile cannot be guaranteed to reach its target in Ukraine, not to speak of NATO’s domain.

But here comes the least pleasant part. In the situation just described, the only way to revive the fear of a nuclear attack is through flagrantly risk-taking actions, like provoking an “accidental” nuclear explosion near the combat zone or conducting high-powered atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in a remote area. At this time, when experts believe that Putin has shown weakness in handling Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny, the temptation to escalate as a show of strength is especially great.

But balancing on the cusp of a deliberate nuclear strike entails a no less than 50-percent risk of starting a nuclear war. Things can easily get out of control, with all the social consequences described at the beginning of this article, possibly leading, at worst, to a real catastrophe, as warned by that portion of Russia’s nuclear experts who don’t want the Kremlin even to try “reviving” the world’s nuclear fears.