Putin’s Increasingly Loose Talk on Use of Nukes
When it comes to nuclear weapons, Russia’s recent doctrinal documents and official statements are quite consistent in describing the conditions under which the country could resort to using these weapons. The problem is, as I have noted when researching Vladimir Putin’s nuclear rhetoric, that he has been increasingly willing to expand these conditions in the context of his war in Ukraine. The Russian leader’s loose talk on nukes even has Russia’s long-term strategic partners such as India and China worried. But will their admonishments suffice to restrain Putin’s nuclear saber rattling? I would not bet on it.
What Russian Documents and Statements Say
To hear the Russian government most recently say it, its policy on nuclear deterrence “is strictly and consistently guided by the tenet that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Additionally, its “doctrinal approaches … are defined with utmost accuracy, pursue solely defensive goals and do not admit of expansive interpretation.” This allows Russia “to hypothetically resort to nuclear weapons exclusively in response to an aggression involving the use of weapons of mass destruction or an aggression with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy,” according to the “Statement of the Russian Federation on Preventing Nuclear War,” which the country’s Foreign Ministry published this November.
The last sentence of the Nov. 2 statement repeats almost verbatim the January 2022 statement by P5 leaders on “Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races,” while its last sentence is identical to the language found in both of the publicly available Russian doctrinal documents that describe under which circumstances Russia would use nuclear weapons. These are the 2014 Military Doctrine and the 2020 Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence. Putin himself personally signed off on the 2014 and 2022 documents, as well as on the P5 statement, in his capacity as the Russian commander-in-chief and the top link in the country’s nuclear command and control system.
Yet, as my analysis of remarks Putin has made since ordering the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 reveals, Putin has lately not been feeling obligated to constrain himself to the language on conditions for nuclear weapons use outlined in the official Russian documents.
What Putin Says
When announcing the “partial” mobilization in support of his “special military operation” in Ukraine on Sept. 21, Putin said: “Our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO countries have. In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.” This was the first instance, since the beginning of the invasion on Feb. 24, of Putin publicly hinting at the need to prevent the loss of Russia’s territorial integrity and the need to protect Russian people under conditions that could prompt him to authorize a first nuclear strike. Neither of these conditions appear explicitly in the language on first use of nuclear weapons in Russia’s publicly available strategic documents, such as the aforementioned 2014 Military Doctrine and its 2022 Basic Principles of State Policy on Nuclear Deterrence. (Both of these documents say: “The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.”)
Putin again cited his own two conditions (preventing the loss of territorial integrity and protecting Russian people) during the Q&A at the Valdai forum on Oct. 27. “As for Russia…we have the Military Doctrine, and they should read it. One of its articles explains the cases when, why, in relation to what and how Russia considers it possible to use weapons of mass destruction in the form of nuclear weapons to protect its sovereignty, territorial integrity and to ensure the safety of the Russian people,” he said.
What Putin Means
That Putin would repeat his two conditions at the Valdai forum, while also explicitly referring to nuclear weapons as the means by which to address them, indicates that while he had been recently careless or forgetful in his attempts to recall facts, he was probably neither on the two aforementioned occasions (Sept. 21 and Oct. 27). Rather, he has probably purposefully engaged in what I have earlier described as a broad interpretation of the doctrinal conditions under which Russia could resort to a nuclear strike to signal to Ukraine and its Western allies that he, as the commander-in-chief, would be fully within his rights to order nuclear strikes to not only prevent the loss of annexed Ukrainian provinces, but also to protect the population of these provinces. Such a broad interpretation of conditions for a first nuclear strike, which his deputy at the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev has publicly embraced, could be meant to deter Ukraine from trying to retake its lands, while also coercing Kyiv (and its Western allies) to concede to negotiations.
That Putin would engage in loose talk on nukes is ironic, given that, since the beginning of the invasion into Ukraine, he has never failed to accuse his Western counterparts of resorting to nuclear blackmail and threatening Russia with rabid, aggressive rhetoric. But such talk is not without cost. First, it tests Putin’s credibility. Should Putin have meant what he said, then the retreat of Russian forces from newly-annexed parts of the Kherson region would have constituted a cause for using nuclear weapons (per Putin’s first condition). Fortunately for humanity, that is not happening. Second, Putin’s “liberal” interpretation of conditions for use of nuclear weapons may have contributed to frictions with the leadership of India and China, whose importance for Russia as partners has increased considerably following the West’s efforts to isolate Moscow. In fact, both Chinese and Indian leaders have recently publicly urged Putin to refrain from using nuclear weapons.
Admonishments on loose nuclear talk from Beijing and New Delhi will probably not suffice to stop Putin from rattling his nuclear saber so long as he thinks it can help coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Western counterparts into negotiating an end to hostilities on conditions favorable to Moscow. Nevertheless, these public expressions of concern may help convince Putin that if there is something that can unite not just the collective West, but also China, India and most of the rest of the world in viewing him as a profound threat to international security, it would be a first nuclear strike, especially if it is in response to the “new conditions” he has come up with.
Below, see the statements Putin has made on nuclear weapons since announcing the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, with my commentary in italics.1
- Feb. 24: Announcing the “special military operation in Ukraine,” Putin said: “No matter who tries to stand in our way, or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.” (Kremlin.ru, 02.24.22) “Immediately” implies launch-on-warning, which Putin has repeatedly described as Russia’s actual nuclear posture, although there is no explicit language about such a posture in Russia’s publicly available strategic documents, such as the 2014 Military Doctrine and the 2022 Basic Principles of State Policy on Nuclear Deterrence.
- Feb. 27: Putin told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Staff chief Valery Gerasimov: “You see that Western countries are not only taking unfriendly economic actions against our country—I mean the illegitimate sanctions of which everyone is well aware—but top officials of the leading NATO countries are indulging in aggressive statements directed at our country. Therefore, I order the defense minister and chief of the General Staff to put the Russian Army’s [nuclear] deterrence forces on high combat alert.” (Kremlin.ru, 02.27.22)
- Putin later clarified that “the top officials of the leading NATO countries” whose statements apparently prompted him to order the alert included the U.K.’s then Foreign Secretary [and future PM] Liz Truss. (Kremlin.ru, 03.05.22)
- April 21: Putin said on the occasion of the test launch of Russia’s 10-warhead liquid fuel ICBM “Sarmat”: “This truly unique weapon will strengthen the combat potential of our Armed Forces, reliably ensuring Russia’s security against external threats, and will be a wakeup call for those who are trying to threaten our country in the frenzy of rabid, aggressive rhetoric.” (RM, 04.21.22) The fact that, on Putin’s watch, Russia puts 10 warheads on an land-based, and, therefore, more easily detectible ICBM, indicates Putin is keen to maintain numeric parity per New START ceilings for the sake of preserving Russia’s status as an equal nuclear superpower, but is not as gravely concerned about Russian strategic nuclear forces being wiped out in a surprise strike. Otherwise, he’d opt for more mobile ICBMS and SLBMS.
- June 23: During their virtual summit, Putin and other BRICS leaders issued a joint declaration that said: “We reaffirm our commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons and stress our strong commitment to nuclear disarmament ... We note the [P5] Joint Statement ... on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races on Jan. 3, 2022, in particular the affirmation that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” (FMPRC.gov.cn, 06.23.22) That both the Chinese leadership and Indian leadership subsequently told their Russian counterparts to refrain from using nukes is significant.
- June 25: Putin told visiting Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko: “As to security issues, indeed, the Americans have 200 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, mostly atomic bombs. Two hundred of them are in six European countries, members of NATO, the North Atlantic bloc. To use these weapons, 257 planes have been prepared—and they are not only U.S. planes but also of those countries... I suggest the following. The Belarusian Army has a fairly big number of Su-25 planes. They can be respectively re-equipped [to carry nuclear weapons]... And second. As we had agreed on the issue you raised, a decision was made in our country: within the next several months, we will transfer to Belarus the Iskander-M tactical missile systems, which are known to use both ballistic and cruise missiles, both conventional and nuclear.” (Kremlin.ru, 06.25.22) That’s a method Putin has employed in the past: cite Western practices, with varying degrees of plausibility, to justify Russia’s own actions in the same domain.
- Aug. 1: Putin addressed the NPT Review Conference in a letter, saying: "We proceed from the fact that there can be no winners in a nuclear war and it should never be unleashed, and we stand for equal and indivisible security for all members of the world community.” (RFE/RL, 08.01.22) There was no such coupling in Putin’s address to the previous NPT Review Conference in 2015. In fact, “indivisible security,” which has become one of the Kremlin’s favorite principles when expressing grievances vis-à-vis the West, was absent from that 2015 address.
- Sept. 21: In his address on the launch of “partial mobilization,” Putin said: “Washington, London and Brussels are openly encouraging Kyiv to move the hostilities to our territory. ...They have even resorted to nuclear blackmail. I am referring not only to the Western-encouraged shelling of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which poses a threat of nuclear disaster, but also to the statements made by some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO countries on the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction—nuclear weapons—against Russia. I would like to remind those who make such statements regarding Russia that our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO countries have. In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapons systems available to us. This is not a bluff.” (Kremlin.ru, 09.21.22)
- Sept. 28: Putin said on the occasion of Russia’s Nuclear Industry Worker’s Day: “I would also like to emphasize a large contribution you make to the development of modern weapons that have no analogues in the world and reliably ensure nuclear parity and the defense capability of our state.” (Kremlin.ru, 09.28.22)
- Sept. 30: On the occasion of signing presidential decrees the Kremlin calls "accession treaties" to formally seize parts of Ukraine’s Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions occupied by Russia, Putin said: “The United States is the only country in the world that has used nuclear weapons twice, destroying the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. And they created a precedent. Recall that during WWII, the United States and Britain reduced Dresden, Hamburg, Cologne and many other German cities to rubble, … they had only one goal, as with the nuclear bombing of Japanese cities: to intimidate our country and the rest of the world... We will defend our land with all the forces and resources we have, and we will do everything we can to ensure the safety of our people. This is the great liberating mission of our nation.” (Kremlin.ru, 09.30.22) Again, that’s the method Putin has employed in the past: cite Western practices, with varying degrees of plausibility, to justify Russia’s own actions in the same domain. Also note the references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he could have made to make the point that Russia would not be the first to use nuclear weapons—the U.S. has already set the precedent.
- Oct. 27: Putin said at the annual Valdai forum: “Nuclear rhetoric has intensified greatly as of late. Ukraine has moved from irresponsible statements to the practical preparation of a nuclear provocation; representatives of the United States and the United Kingdom are making statements with suggestions of the possible use of nuclear weapons. Biden, let’s say, speaks about nuclear Armageddon, and straight away there are comments in the U.S. that there is nothing to fear. At the same time, the United States is hurrying to deploy modernized tactical nuclear bombs in Europe. It looks like they are rattling the saber while refusing to acknowledge the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis... The only country in the world which has used nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state was the United States of America; ... the U.S. is the only country that has done it because it believed it was in its interests. As for Russia…we have the Military Doctrine, and they should read it. One of its articles explains the cases when, why, in relation to what and how Russia considers it possible to use weapons of mass destruction in the form of nuclear weapons to protect its sovereignty, territorial integrity and to ensure the safety of the Russian people.” (Kremlin.ru, 10.27.22)
- We have limited the time period to statements Putin has made since the beginning of the invasion into Ukraine on Feb. 24, therefore excluding apocalyptic observations that in a nuclear war initiated by their adversaries, Russians will go to heaven, but not before launching their own nuclear missiles (October 2018), as well as the statement that there is no need for a world in which there is no Russia (March 2018). For an earlier compilation of Putin’s, Medvedev’s and other top Russian officials’ views on nuclear weapons use, see this RM product.
Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of Russia Matters.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo by Kremlin.ru shared under a Creative Commons license.