“This nuclear sabre-rattling rhetoric is dangerous and … is only increasing tensions,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told an early June press conference in Washington as he condemned recent Russian nuclear exercises. 

That statement echoed President Joe Biden’s guest opinion essay in The New York Times at the end of May reminding the world: “Any use of nuclear weapons in this conflict on any scale would be completely unacceptable to us as well as the rest of the world and would entail severe consequences.”

While tensions have decreased in the last few weeks with Russian President Vladimir Putin indicating that Finland and Sweden joining NATO would pose no threat to Russia, it needs to be noted that the comment was made soon after Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov warned of far-reaching consequences if the two countries did join NATO. 

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This kind of inconsistent messaging and threats from Moscow are not new tactics – certainly not in the conflict in Ukraine. Putin indicated at the end of January that he “didn’t want an escalation” but less than a month later Russia invaded. In the spring, Putin warned that if intervention and “strategic threats for Russia” proceeded – in the form of Western military aid to support Ukraine’s defence – then “retaliatory strikes will be lightning-fast.” Russian nuclear rhetoric, known as “escalating to de-escalate,” causes a dangerous ebb and flow of nuclear tension.

The question is: Will Putin truly unleash a nuclear weapon?

Maybe. That should be concerning enough to convince the West to take a different approach.

When the words “might” or “could potentially” escalate to nuclear use are expressed by nuclear weapons states, the words are meant to convey uncertainty to the public, but they are understood as reassuring by experts. 

The word “might” indicates a possibility of action – or inaction – because we cannot know the future. Certainly, there is a possibility that the war in Ukraine will not escalate to the point of nuclear action. Russian escalation of nuclear threats could therefore be intended only as a rhetorical demonstration of strength. But why are we risking that alternative?  

“Might” also means other terrifying possibilities. Currently, there are two: deliberate or inadvertent use. 

Deliberate use is exactly what it sounds like. Putin might order the launch of nuclear weapons, massacring people, and threatening to destroy the Earth and the international order. It is an outcome that most arms control and disarmament communities warn against and dread. We are not prepared to deal with the fallout of use of a nuke.

Additionally, there are four Ukrainian nuclear power plants that could be destabilized by a nuclear strike – a disaster that would be felt across Europe. If that were to happen, the global community would have to wrestle with how to act and how to send aid. 

Experts believe inadvertent use is a larger concern than deliberate. Within the chaos of conflict, an accidental order or strike might occur. The impact is, unfortunately, the same.

On Feb. 27, Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces on their highest-level alert in response to Western sanctions and what he called “aggressive statements” by NATO leaders. This represents a concerning shift in policy because the 2020 Russian government policy “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence” designates using its nuclear weapons as a deterrence measure.

However, we need to understand that Russian deterrence vastly differs from Western deterrence and that Russia does not have a no-first-use policy. If Russia deems the current conflict is threatening its state, its nuclear weapons are fully on the table to be used. Russian deterrence policy deems nuclear weapons “defensive by nature,” but they are not an untouchable piece of weaponry – as nuclear deterrence theory may make them seem.  

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Russia might use its nuclear weapons as a demonstration of strength if Putin is pushed into a corner and the West runs out of further reactive measures, such as sanctions on Russia, and arms and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Russia’s global reputation has been hurt; its military morale is low; and ongoing state crackdowns on Russian media and anti-war protests will continue to contribute to Putin’s possible feelings of insecurity and a possible breakdown of state power.

Because Putin makes his hold on Russia synonymous with the existence and survival of the country, he might use a nuclear weapon as a means to demonstrate and preserve his power. 

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The unpreparedness and chaos following the February invasion of Ukraine, as well as reports of Putin’s increased isolationism while being surrounded by “yes men” paints an image of an unreliable nuclear state leader. The concept of strategic nuclear deterrence depends on reliable leaders to maintain a level of calm and caution to avoid escalating to the point of using a nuke. 

Anyone who downplays the possibility of nuclear weapons being used fails to understand that the very threat of them being mentioned casually as a possibility is a serious matter.

There is nothing casual about a nuclear weapon. 

The current conflict is with a former superpower, one that has been baiting the West, most notably the United States – for example through election interference – for about a decade. 

Moreover, it “normalizes nuclear brinkmanship as part of diplomatic standard operating procedure and understates the risks attendant to inadequate escalation control.” The use of nuclear threats to deter the West from giving military aid to Ukraine will be monitored by other nuclear states, such as China, to help them determine whether the West can be deterred from protecting its allies. 

So, what should we do? What can we do?

Calls for action are rightfully being calmed, much to the frustration of many, to avoid pushing Russia farther than the world is prepared to respond. 

I realize that some in the nuclear community believe that anyone using hyperbole is doing no favours to the seriousness of the situation. However, I argue that to ignore the possible reality of the use of nuclear weapons is the equivalent of putting our heads in the sand and hoping for the best. I’m not saying we should all invest in bunkers, practice duck-and-cover drills, and engage in Cold War rhetoric. But I do hope that readers take to heart how serious and complicated this issue is. 

It is so important that we realize these nukes have the power to make issues we currently think are the most serious – such as the climate crisis – into an instantaneous global disaster, not one evolving over years and into the future.

As the conflict in Ukraine enters its fourth month and atrocities mount along with global tensions, we must approach Russia with ongoing caution and a level head. It will take special skills of diplomacy to cool the waters, and the West must start considering a different approach because the status quo is no longer what it was. It is, in fact, much more dangerous. 

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Julie Clark
Julie Clark is a Canadian Global Affairs Institute fellow and PhD candidate at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Her research examines the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and arms control. Twitter @juliecPhD

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