Putin is spreading fear of nuclear war as he has few other opportunities to dissuade European leaders from helping Ukraine or sanctioning Russia
On February 27, in a televised meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces to adopt a higher level of readiness. This led to alarmed reporting in the West, with some journalists mistaking the status of forces for “high alert”, the one they would adopt if Russia believed a nuclear threat or attack was imminent.
In contrast, a higher state of readiness than in peacetime is not a state of high alert or an indication of an attack. In fact, the Russian nuclear forces were already in a higher state of readiness as they conducted the Grom 2022 exercise, scheduled for this time of year.
There is no evidence of unusual activity by Russian nuclear forces beyond this exercise.
In 2014, during its invasion and annexation of Crimea, Russia’s leadership used the same nuclear signaling tools to tell the world, “we’ll do our thing and you’ll stay out – otherwise”.
It has long been an open secret that during a full invasion of Ukraine, Russia would use nuclear signals to deter the West. This has been implied in all major Russian security documents of the past decades (as this author explained in 2020). Nobody, at this stage, should be surprised.
Russia knows the red lines of the West, like fighting on NATO territory. This is why the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, was equally clear when he declared: “I think that Vladimir Putin must also understand that the Atlantic alliance is a nuclear alliance. That’s all I will say about it.
And there is no indication that Putin does not understand the implications of the statement.
Don’t worry about what “staying out” of Ukraine actually means for the West: there are long-established rules on this.
In the Soviet era and the decades that followed, the West and Russia supported different factions in conflicts without descending into nuclear war.
One of the most recent examples is the war in Syria, which officially involves military personnel from both sides.
Neither sanctions nor arms deliveries to a party violate the rules. In the case of Ukraine, it would be a violation of the rules for NATO combat forces to go to war, whether in the form of aircraft or ground troops.
Imposing a no-fly zone over Kyiv – as many Ukrainians demand – would be such a case. For this reason, NATO and the United States have repeatedly refused to do so.
Still, many in the West fear that Russia has an escalating advantage over NATO, as the country has 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 the fear of a superior enemy is mutual.
The United States would likely use strategic nuclear weapons to retaliate against Russia’s use of any nuclear weapons. And Putin and his military entourage are seriously overestimating the capabilities of US missile defense systems, fearing they will provide a shield behind which the US could hide after carrying out a disarming first strike on Russia.
Moreover, the superiority of US intelligence on Russia’s actions – as impressively demonstrated by the preparation for the all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine – casts doubt on Moscow’s ability to win over the element of surprised in a nuclear confrontation. Given these considerations, Putin is almost certainly keen to downplay the risk of a nuclear conflict with NATO.
And, finally, there are direct lines of communication between the Russian staffs and the nuclear-armed members of NATO. Deconfliction measures are in place to deal with issues that both sides view as particularly destabilizing.
So why did Putin make his recent statement about Russian nuclear forces? The answer lies in the country’s political principles of nuclear deterrence, which state that it works in conjunction with such measures as “information policies” (propaganda) and efforts to “deter aggression” (achieve objectives of Russian foreign policy). In other words, the Kremlin uses the fear of nuclear war to make others bend to its ambitions.
Russia has been losing many of its sympathizers in the West at a staggering rate. Even Germany has abandoned its long-held foreign policy beliefs, increasing defense spending and supplying arms to Ukraine. Former Kremlin apologists either denounced Putin or remained silent.
Russian propaganda channels lost most of their appeal in Europe and were blocked by many European governments.
Putin is spreading fear of nuclear war because he has few other opportunities to dissuade European leaders from helping Ukraine or sanctioning Russia. But it’s a propaganda trick. Although Putin’s actions are shocking and unnecessary to many, they make sense in the world he has created in his mind. Doomsdays, however, does not. — This article was first published on ecfr.eu
Gustav Gressel is Senior Policy Researcher with the Wider Europe Program at the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.