A Russian Yars intercontinental ballistic missile system drives during a military parade on Victory Day in Red Square in central Moscow, Russia May 9, 2023.
A Russian Yars intercontinental ballistic missile system drives during a military parade on Victory Day, which marks the 78th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in Red Square in central Moscow, Russia May 9, 2023. (Alexander Avilov/Moscow News Agency/Handout via REUTERS)

Nuclear weapons and threats figured among topics discussed during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual meeting with the Valdai Discussion Club on October 5. Since Russia’s all-out assault on Ukraine in 2022, Putin and others have rattled the nuclear saber — sometimes subtly, sometimes loudly — in a bid to dissuade Kyiv from resisting and the West from supporting that resistance.

Those nuclear threats have had limited success. They have not prompted Ukraine’s surrender and, while they slowed decisions on providing Western weapons, they did not stop the arms flow. In general, Moscow has done a poor job drawing nuclear red lines. The cacophony of Russian voices has produced nuclear signals that are confusing, contradictory, and increasingly dismissed as bluff. That should please neither the Kremlin nor the West.

The Kremlin’s nuclear threats

For years, Putin has regularly reminded audiences of Russia’s large nuclear arsenal, perhaps because it provides Moscow’s last best claim to great power status. The Kremlin has particularly played the nuclear card since late February 2022. On February 27, three days after the Russian invasion, Putin announced that Russian nuclear forces were on “special combat readiness.” Yet, the Pentagon reported no change in the Russian nuclear posture, and the White House saw nothing to justify altering U.S. nuclear alert levels.

Other officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, reiterated the nuclear warning. Putin’s nuclear threats peaked in September 2022, as Russia’s army faltered on the battlefield. When claiming to annex four Ukrainian regions (Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia), Putin stated: “We will defend our land with all the forces [emphasis added] and resources we have.” To underscore the point, he referenced the “precedent” set by the 1945 American nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

However, an interesting thing happened later that fall. With Ukrainians continuing to fight — they regard the war as existential — and Western arms continuing to flow, the threats were not working. Moreover, they did not go down well with audiences important to Moscow, such as Beijing. Putin, the Foreign Ministry, and Lavrov acted to lower the nuclear rhetoric. In late October 2022, Putin asserted that claims about Russian nuclear threats amounted to “very primitive” efforts to tarnish Russia’s reputation and added that “we have never said anything proactively about Russia potentially using nuclear weapons.” Shortly thereafter, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement on preventing nuclear war, and Lavrov in late November agreed to a G-20 statement that included language on the inadmissibility of using or threatening to use nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons may deter nuclear attacks or large-scale conventional invasions, but beyond that their coercive power seems limited.

Moscow speaks with many voices

One problem with Russia’s nuclear signaling: the many actors articulating nuclear threats, often not in sync with one another. The often contradictory signals confused and undercut the message. Putin and Lavrov presumably speak authoritatively, while the military leadership has remained largely silent on the question, possibly because they well understand the risks and consequences of nuclear use.

However, others in Moscow seemed not to have received last fall’s memo about toning down the threats. Former President Dmitry Medvedev, currently deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, has regularly brandished the nuclear saber. He has claimed the war with Ukraine could be “brought to an end within a few days” by using nuclear weapons. Earlier this year, Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Duma (Russia’s lower legislative body), threatened that continued provision of Western arms would lead Russia to use “more powerful weapons.”

Last December, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the propaganda outlet RT, opined that “Either we win in the way we consider our victory, or there will be World War III, sooner or later.” Just days ago, she suggested detonating a nuclear weapon over Siberia as a way to warn Ukraine and the West. Other TV pundits, such as Vladimir Solovyov, frequently propose nuclear strikes.

In June, Sergey Karaganov, honorary chair of a Russian think tank, argued that Russia should use nuclear threats and, if the West failed to back down, “we will have to hit [with nuclear weapons] a group of targets in a number of countries.” Karaganov contends that the West has lost its fear of Russian nuclear arms and therefore Moscow should threaten or, if necessary, use nuclear weapons to reestablish that fear and deter hostile actions such as arms supplies.

In an October 9 interview in Moscow Komsomolets, Karaganov reiterated his argument. He proposed nuclear strikes on Western Europe, claiming that would pose little hazard for Moscow as no U.S. president would retaliate with nuclear weapons against Russia and put American cities at risk. When the reporter replied that, at the least, that could invite conventional U.S. attacks against military forces on Russian territory, Karaganov postulated another round of nuclear strikes, including against U.S. military bases in Europe, in which case “tens of thousands of American troops will die.”

Karaganov proposes a risky bet. For more than 60 years, the United States has invested serious amounts of senior level time and significant treasure to assure allies in Europe that, were Russia to use nuclear arms against NATO members, a U.S. nuclear response would ensue. Moreover, were Russian nuclear strikes to kill tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers, what American president would not respond with nuclear weapons?

In what almost certainly was a planned question at last Thursday’s Valdai Discussion Club, Karaganov put his argument to Putin. The Russian president said he was familiar with Karaganov’s view. However, he used the opportunity to soberly take the high road. Putin said current Russian nuclear doctrine required no change, and he doubted “anyone in their right mind would consider using nuclear weapons against Russia.”

Russia’s nuclear signaling

Moscow’s nuclear signaling over the past 20 months of the Russia-Ukraine war has had limited success at best. One could argue that it deterred the United States and NATO from involving their forces. Indeed, one of the Biden administration’s stated goals has been to avoid a direct NATO-Russia military clash, and the nuclear factor undoubtedly figured into the latter goal. But it is not likely that NATO would have sent troops in any case. Ukraine has not asked the West for soldiers, only arms and ammunition. There is no evidence of a debate within the alliance about NATO forces directly joining the fight.

One could argue that nuclear signaling slowed Western decisionmaking. Perhaps. Decisions on providing Ukraine with tanks and F-16 fighters took months and caused much anguished debate in NATO capitals. That said, the Ukrainian military now operates Leopard and Abrams tanks, and F-16s are in the pipeline. The Kremlin’s efforts to signal possible escalation, perhaps even to the nuclear level, may have slowed — but they have not prevented — a flow of increasingly sophisticated arms to Ukraine.

Moscow has done a poor job drawing red lines, spelling out consequences, and making them stick. That includes its nuclear threats. The Kremlin cannot be happy with the assessment taking hold in the West that Russian red lines amount to little more than bluff.

That poses a problem for Russia … and for the West. The Kremlin presumably would want the ability to use nuclear signaling in some future crisis with the West. If its signals are misinterpreted, misheard, or ignored, that negates a communications tool that Moscow might need in a dire security predicament. The United States and NATO should take no pleasure in this. After all, it is in their interest that, if Moscow wants to send a serious nuclear signal, it is clear and understandable. The costs of misinterpretation or miscalculation could prove catastrophic.