In the Thick of ItA blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
In Nuclear Messaging to West and Ukraine, Putin Plays Bad and Good Cop
Should a nuclear war “never be unleashed” or can nuclear weapons be used to “ensure the safety of the Russian people?” Both, according to Putin, who, as our analysis of his statements since ordering the invasion of Ukraine shows, has become fond of alternating assertive and conciliatory tones in his rhetoric on nuclear arms as he tries to push Ukraine and its Western backers off balance while keeping China content.
Russia’s conventional forces barely had time to launch their multi-pronged offensive into Ukraine on Putin’s orders in the early hours of Feb. 24, 2022, when he was already on Russian TV, issuing veiled threats to use nuclear weapons to dissuade NATO from interfering on Ukraine’s side. Perhaps concerned that his initial warning was not convincing enough, Putin then rattled his nuclear saber again on Feb. 27, accusing NATO countries of “aggressive statements” and ordering his top brass to “put the Russian army’s deterrence forces on high combat alert.” The Russian leader then took a two-month break from nuclear threats as his ground forces advanced to re-capture large swaths of Ukrainian land, including a land bridge to Crimea. However, his key aides quickly filled the vacuum, with some trying to outdo each other in rattling Russia’s nuclear saber (see below for our compilation of what Putin and his aides had to say on nuclear weapons, including conditions for their use, during the period of Feb. 24-Dec. 9).
With Russian troops forced to retreat from the suburbs of Kyiv in early April, the commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces perhaps felt it was necessary to resume implicit threats to use nuclear weapons. Speaking to Russian MPs on April 27, Putin declared: “If anyone intends to intervene from the outside and create a strategic threat to Russia that is unacceptable to us, they should know that our retaliatory strikes will be lightning-fast.”1 The next time the Russian autocrat felt the need to weigh in on the subject of nuclear weapons publicly, he did so in written and conciliatory form: He joined Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi and other BRICS leaders on June 23, 2022, in signing a declaration that reaffirmed the P5’s Jan. 3, 2022, statement that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”2 Only two days later, however, Putin rattled his nuclear saber again, making an explicit pledge to upgrade some Belarussian warplanes to be able to carry Russian nuclear weapons.
If that was not enough, Putin decided to expand the boundaries set for use of nuclear weapons in Russia’s strategic documents in his rhetoric as his “special military operation” continued to flounder, with Ukrainian forces advancing to capture large swaths of land in the Kharkiv region. As noted in RM earlier, he made these remarks during his Q&A at the meeting of the Valdai Club on Oct. 27, claiming that Russia’s military doctrine allows use of nuclear weapons to “protect its sovereignty, territorial integrity and to ensure the safety of the Russian people,” even though there is no such language in Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine. This document says that “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.” Another public Russian strategic document which regulates use of nuclear weapons is the 2020 Basic Principles of State Policy on Nuclear Deterrence. These principles list several conditions for use of nuclear weapons, but neither of them refer to violations of Russia sovereignty, territorial integrity and safety of the Russian people as conditions that permit such use. Like the 2014 doctrine, the 2020 principles 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.” The 2020 document then lists four conditions “specifying the possibility of nuclear weapons use by the Russian Federation:” a) arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies; b) use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against the Russian Federation and/or its allies; c) attack by adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions; and d) aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.”
Although it is difficult to nail down exactly when, but at some point Putin’s loose talk on use of nuclear weapons began to seriously concern his fellow autocrat in China. The latter was reported to have registered his opposition to threats of using nuclear weapons, including in the context of the Ukraine war, on three occasions in November 2022 alone. Those included his meeting with Olaf Scholz on Nov. 4, his meeting with Joe Biden on Nov. 14 and his signing of the G-20 summit’s Nov. 16 final declaration. (India’s Narendra Modi, who also signed the G-20’s declaration, has also repeatedly registered his concern with Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling.)
Post hoc ergo propter hoc (or not) but in the first public remarks on the subject of nuclear weapons that Putin made since that G-20 summit’s declaration, the Russian leader chose not to repeat his earlier claims that Russia’s strategic documents allow him to order use of nuclear weapons when the safety of the Russian people and the territorial integrity of Russia are threatened. “We are not going to wield these weapons like a razor, running around the globe,” he promised. Two days later, however, Putin returned to the theme of liberalizing Russia’s conditions for use of nuclear weapons, asserting that the Russian leadership “should think” about adopting the concept of a disarming first strike.3
That Dec. 9 statement was the last that Putin had made at the time we were researching this commentary. But could it also become the last time Putin alternated between dialing the volume of his nuclear rhetoric up and down? It’s doubtful. The Russian autocrat can be expected to continue playing both bad cop and good cop when “thinking out loud” about the conditions under which Russia could resort to nuclear weapons, as long as he thinks such alterations can help him deter the West from greater involvement in Ukraine’s war efforts while also accommodating China’s requests to avoid rattling Russia’s nuclear saber too loudly.
- Putin used the term “otvetno-vstrechny udar,” which has often been translated in Western publications as “launch-on-warning.” In contrast, the Kremlin staff translated this term as “reciprocal counter strike” in October 2018, but in April 2022 and December 2022 they chose to translate it as “retaliatory strike.” See more on Putin’s earlier descriptions of “otvetno-vstrechny udar” in the RM blog.
- Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, whom the Russian leader had sent to Indonesia to represent Russia instead of himself, signed the declaration and both the Kremlin and Russian Foreign Ministry posted English-language and Russian-language versions of the document on their websites.
- Until then, Putin had repeatedly and publicly stuck to the concept of “otvetno-vstrechny udar,” which has often been translated in Western publications as “launch-on-warning” and which the Kremlin staff translated as either “reciprocal counter strike” or “retaliatory strike.” Transition from the launch-on-warning concept to the disarming first strike concept, which has been defined as an “attack on an enemy's nuclear arsenal that effectively prevents retaliation against the attacker,” would signal a more aggressive posture.