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What to expect after Russia’s latest escalatory nuclear rhetoric

It’s impossible to know what Putin is thinking, but there’s reason not to take it as an indication that Russia is presently planning a nuclear attack.

Russian President Putin At The Annual Valdai Discussion Club Event
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke during the annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club last week in Moscow.
Photo by Contributor/Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

Russian rhetoric about the use of nuclear weapons was rife with seemingly mixed signals last week.

First, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called around to his Western counterparts, claiming that Ukraine is preparing to use a radioactive “dirty bomb” — which is not a nuclear weapon itself, but could conceivably be used in a false-flag attack as a pretext for Russian nuclear escalation. But then, President Vladimir Putin on Thursday offered a reassurance after tactical nuclear drills that his military is not planning a nuclear attack on Ukraine.

It’s impossible to know what Putin is actually thinking — and how far he’s willing to go to justify his continued attack on Ukraine — but there’s reason not to take this week’s messaging from Moscow as an indication that Russia is presently planning a nuclear attack.

Experts told Vox the likelier explanation is that this is an attempt to pressure the West into forcing Ukraine to come to a settlement for peace. The war is going poorly for Russian forces and Europe faces a long, cold winter without Russian energy supplies. It’s also an attempt to skew the information environment and sow confusion and disinformation — an integral part of Russian warfare doctrine.

Putin has warned throughout Russia’s seven-month-long war on Ukraine (and even before) that he would use nuclear weapons in response to perceived aggression from NATO and the West. But Wednesday’s drills aren’t necessarily a sign he is following through. The drills, in fact, occur every year; Russia’s defense apparatus followed protocol in alerting the US Department of Defense about them, and NATO began conducting its own nuclear exercises October 17.

The Russian narrative that Ukraine is planning to use a dirty bomb has obvious similarities to its false claims that rebel groups perpetrated chemical attacks in Syria. Although no Western officials or experts find the dirty bomb claims credible, Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov reached out to his counterparts in both the US and the UK on Monday to express his alarm. Shoigu called defense officials in the US, UK, France, and Turkey Sunday with the same message, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). Monday’s call was the first such between Gerasimov and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley since May. That it happened at all is a positive development, indicating that channels of communication between Russia and the West still exist, reducing the likelihood of escalation.

But it’s also an indicator that Moscow is likely trying to poison the information space and raise doubts in the West about the risks of backing Ukraine in its continued fight for its sovereignty, Katherine Lawlor, a senior intelligence analyst at the ISW, told Vox.

“The fact that we’re having these conversations means it’s working,” she said.

Putin might be trying to escalate, but not the way we think

As with a lot of nuclear posturing, the point of Russia’s latest moves about nuclear weapons might be less about actually using nukes than exerting pressure and sowing fear and confusion.

This week’s nuclear drills aren’t themselves unusual; they were planned, and Russian defense officials alerted the US Department of Defense that they were going on, as Moscow is required to do according to its obligations as a signatory to the New START treaty. “In this regard, Russia is complying with its arms control obligations and transparency commitments to make those notifications, and so that is something that we will continue to keep an eye on,” Pentagon spokesman Air Force Gen. Pat Ryder said Tuesday.

The drills simulated a response to a potential attack and activated Russian air, land, and sea defenses, as Reuters reported Thursday.

But it’s important to keep in mind that such drills aren’t just training maneuvers, they’re also shows of force, propaganda in a sense. That’s what kept experts watching this week’s drills, according to Natia Seskuria, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

“Now Russia is increasingly using the nuclear threats to blackmail the West,” she told Vox via email. “Last time, Russia held such drills just before launching the war in Ukraine,” so the drills could signal some form of escalation, but not necessarily in a nuclear sense.

“It seems like Putin is trying to put extra pressure on the West and overshadow the fact that Russian conventional forces are failing to achieve any success in Ukraine. The Kremlin is hoping that by scaling up the nuclear rhetoric the West would be willing to try to convince Ukraine to negotiate and accept concessions,” Seskuria said.

Putin had previously warned that he would be willing to use nuclear weapons during his 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, and Russian nuclear doctrine does allow for a first use in response to conventional warfare — not necessarily just as a response to a nuclear attack. According to an April report from the Congressional Research Service, “This doctrine has led some U.S. analysts to conclude that Russia has adopted an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategy.”

While Ukraine is not a NATO member (it has applied for membership), it has the backing of the US and other NATO allies, which have supplied weapons and training for Ukrainian troops to great effect. But throughout the war, NATO members have been careful to avoid the possibility or appearance of direct conflict with Russia or a strike on Russian territory — a line that might be increasingly difficult to walk considering Putin’s annexation of four southern Ukrainian regions earlier this month.

The dirty bomb rhetoric, too, is an old tactic — it’s similar to Russian claims in Syria that rebel groups, the White Helmets rescue group, though those groups didn’t have access to chemical weapons and the Syrian regime, supported by Russia, was actually carrying out the attacks. Kremlin-aligned Twitter accounts and media sources then repeatedly amplified Russia’s claims.

Now, “Russian state media has been spreading the ‘dirty bomb’ accusations and planting fear,” Seskuria told Vox. “Russian media has a large share in mobilizing public opinion and is part of the Kremlin’s war propaganda machine, she said, adding that “the ‘dirty bomb’ accusations [are] directed at domestic consumption as well in conjunction with a high likelihood that Russia may be preparing a false-flag operation.”

What is likely to happen next?

Putin said Thursday that Russia would not strike Ukraine with nuclear weapons, despite his previous threatening rhetoric.

“There is no point in that, neither political, nor military,” Putin said, claiming statements about using all the means at his disposal to protect Russia were in response to Western threats.

Though Putin’s threats to use tactical nuclear weapons should be taken seriously, there are also a number of preparatory steps that would occur before such weapons were actually used on the battlefield. “I think we would see additional steps on the escalation ladder before we got [to a nuclear attack],” such as an above-ground weapons test, Lawlor said. The public would likely learn about such steps via leaks from US and allied intelligence, since there would be significant backchannel conversations. While US officials such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken have indicated that they are taking the possibility of escalation seriously, the evidence thus far doesn’t point to the imminent use of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield.

Furthermore, such weapons likely wouldn’t be very useful for Russia, given their fairly limited utility on the frontline and the inability of Russian conscripts to actually fight in that landscape. “Operationally, I don’t think Russian forces are prepared to do battle in a nuclear environment, because the ‘correct’ doctrinal use of nuclear weapons [...] would basically be using to punch holes in Ukrainian lines,” Lawlor said, enabling Russian mechanized units to push through and attack Ukrainian units from behind.

Given what we have seen from Russian troops thus far, the likelihood them carrying out those plans successfully isn’t high. “Even the units that are trained for that are so degraded at this point,” Lawlor said. “And you’re going to tell me that a guy who was a policeman in Krasnodar Krai three weeks ago and got forcibly mobilized off the street is going to charge into an irradiated area? Absolutely not.”

It’s not really clear that using battlefield nuclear weapons would achieve Putin’s immediate goal of stopping Ukrainian forces from further advances and allow Russian forces to advance, given how devastating a NATO response to tactical nuclear weapons could be, Lawlor told Vox. “The operational effects of NATO retaliation in Ukraine — which would likely include targeting Russian forces, probably not troop concentrations but command posts, logistics, things like that — is going to devastate his operational capacity to continue advancing along the frontline.”

The nuclear weapons and false dirty bomb threats don’t make much sense from a logistical perspective, and they’re not new.

That doesn’t mean the West can ignore Putin’s nuclear posturing — the risk is too great, as Ankit Panda, the Stanton Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner earlier this month. “Hopefully, this is somewhere we don’t have to actually go, but, of course, governments plan for all kinds of contingencies, and these conversations have been playing out behind closed doors in recent months, as the prospect of nuclear escalation has lingered,” he said. To that end, the US has also sent private communications to Moscow warning against the use of nuclear weapons, the Washington Post reported in September.

But sowing discord, confusion, and disinformation into the information space is a known, tested part of Russian asymmetric warfare doctrine, which Ukraine and partner countries deliberately combatted leading up to and in the early days of the war. Don’t expect it to let up anytime soon.

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