Even at the height of the Cold War, Soviet and Western leaders tacitly accepted that loose talk about nuclear options was a rhetorical flourish too far. When Ronald Reagan said in 1984, “I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes,” it was a careless joke during a soundcheck, and not intended for broadcast. When it was leaked, Washington quickly sought to smooth Soviet hackles. Vladimir Putin, though, is distinctly less circumspect.
The official Kremlin line is increasingly that the conflict in Ukraine is actually rather wider. In the words of the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on 26 April: “Nato, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy. War means war.” Speaking to Russian media, he went further, warning that there was a “considerable” risk of this conflict escalating into a nuclear exchange.
Lavrov, once a titan on the diplomatic scene, is increasingly diminished, relegated simply to parroting the crudest of Kremlin talking points, and certainly in these latest warnings he is following Putin’s lead. The Russian president’s rhetorical arsenal has for years included heavy-handed hints of nuclear retaliation, including the video presentation apparently showing a simulated strike against the then-US president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida in 2018.
However, since the invasion in February, the tone and tempo of such threats from him and his circle have only grown. On 27 February, three days into the war, for example, Putin ordered Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, to bring Russia’s nuclear forces to a “special regime of combat duty”. When Finland and Sweden indicated they were moving towards joining Nato, the deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council and its former president, Dmitry Medvedev, warned that this would mean “there can be no more talk of a nuclear-free status for the Baltic”.
Meanwhile, Western governments are increasingly worried that in order to break the stalemate in Ukraine, Putin might use a smaller – yet still devastating – tactical nuclear weapon.
On 27 April, the Russian president warned that any attempts by outside countries to intervene in the war that “creates unacceptable threats for us that are strategic in nature” would be met by a “lightning fast” military response. He added, in an apparent reference to Russia’s unique arsenal of hypersonic missiles, “we have all the tools for this, that no one else can boast of having… We’ll use them, if needed.”
While alarming, this ought still to be considered an attempt to intimidate the West. Putin’s language, after all, is always couched in ostensibly defensive terms: if you do something that we consider a threat, then this is how we will respond. Following the recent successful test of the RS-28 Sarmat missile (dubbed “Satan II”), for example, he suggested that the missile would “provide food for thought for those who, in the heat of frenzied aggressive rhetoric, try to threaten our country”.
So far there seems to be nothing behind his language. Putin may have ordered a “special regime of combat duty”, but no one seemed to know what that meant; it actually turned out not to be a raising of the alert level. Arguably, this had no practical effect – but it did certainly make Western headlines and concentrate the minds of Western diplomats and defence planners. Which was obviously the point.
Indeed, if anything this language is a sign of weakness. Unlike the Soviet Union, today’s Russia is trying to play the role of a great power with very little to back up its ambitions. Its economy is distinctly limited and facing growing pressure; its soft power is virtually non-existent; its military is mired in Ukraine. Its nuclear weapons – or at least their threat – remains one card Moscow can still play.
Yet Shoigu did not look happy when he got his orders back in February. Maybe he, like the rest of us, cannot be sure quite how far Putin would go. Three months ago, it seemed inconceivable that he might use a nuclear weapon, even a tactical one. Yet today’s Putin is not the essentially cautious figure of the past, and his next move is much harder to predict. It still seems monstrously unlikely, but no longer unthinkable.