Spilnota Detector Media

Lesia Bidochko

Deputy Head of Detector Media Research Center

Oleksandr Siedin

Detector Media analyst

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On Monday, May 6, 2024, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced exercises directed by Putin for the “practical implementation of preparation and deployment of non-strategic nuclear weapons.” Later, it was announced that Belarus would join the nuclear exercises, as it recently started storing Russian tactical nuclear weapons on its territory.

Tactical (non-strategic) nuclear weapons are designed to be used on the immediate battlefield, on the contact line, or in the enemy’s close rear to target vital targets or concentrations of troops. Their power is generally considered to be lower (a few kilotons of TNT) compared to the bombs used by the USA during the nuclear bombing of Japan in 1945 (15-20 kilotons of TNT), although some charges can reach up to 100 kilotons of TNT. These charges can be delivered by various means, including conventional artillery, which complicates the detection of the enemy’s preparation for their use. The perception of lower power or a closer range might psychologically lower the barrier to the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons, and the legally undefined limits of such classification mean that breaking the nuclear taboo could likely lead quickly from a “small” to a “large” nuclear war.

The Russian Ministry of Defense described the exercises as a response “to provocative statements and threats by certain Western officials against the Russian Federation.” Later in the evening, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement in which nuclear threats were officially linked for the first time to specific actions or statements by Western officials supporting Ukraine. The exercises were meant to “cool the hot heads in Western capitals, help them realize the potential catastrophic consequences of strategic risks they generate, and deter them from both supporting the Kyiv regime in its terrorist actions and from being drawn into a direct armed confrontation with Russia.” That same day, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the ambassadors of the United Kingdom and France to present them with a set of threats individually.

This article explores how and why Moscow and its propaganda machine are using nuclear rhetoric and why this form of blackmail has recently gained momentum.

Nuclear Blackmail Now Being Documented

Before the Russian Foreign Ministry’s document released on May 6, Moscow’s nuclear threats at the highest official level were predominantly indirect. While state television speakers allowed themselves to fantasize about destroying Britain with a single launch, Putin, during announcements such as the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, abstractly threatened those who would hinder Russia with “consequences they have never encountered in their history.” Putin would employ such hints more than once. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of official Moscow regarding the supply of Western weapons to Ukraine was notably calm and confident. According to Putin, the Russian army could handle anything on the battlefield, and Russian air defense “cracks American weapons like nuts.” These supplies allegedly only prolong, not alter, the nature and results of hostilities. Until now, Western leaders had drawn their own red lines regarding the types of arms supplies to Ukraine. Now, however, Moscow has independently identified its sore spots, or at least those spots it wishes to portray as sore to the West.

The document first mentions the words of British Foreign Secretary David Cameron from May 2 about Ukraine’s right to strike Russian territory with British weapons. It then refers to the newly delivered versions of American longer-range ATACMS missiles in Ukraine, which, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry, can strike deep inside Russian territory. The Russian Foreign Ministry then shifted its attention away from the Russian-Ukrainian war and accused the USA of deploying ground-based medium and short-range missile complexes around the world, the development and deployment of which were restricted by a relevant treaty until 2019. The Kremlin promised to respond in kind.

Later in the text, Moscow returns to Ukraine and states that any F-16 fighters supplied to Ukraine, in any modification, will be considered nuclear weapon carriers, and such delivery will be deemed a deliberate provocation. Implicitly, there seems to be a threat to use nuclear means to eliminate the supposed nuclear threat posed by these aircraft to Russia. Further mentions include Poland’s desire to host American nuclear weapons and statements by French President Macron about the possible deployment of military units from certain NATO countries to Ukraine. We have analyzed the propaganda reaction to Macron’s statements in more detail here.

Further on, the Russian Foreign Ministry, referring to some alleged Western media, writes about the possible presence of “mercenaries from the French ‘Foreign Legion’” in Ukraine. “This is hard to interpret as anything other than readiness and intent to enter into direct armed confrontation with Russia, which would mean a frontal military collision of nuclear states,” the document states. Pro-Russian Telegram channels previously wrote about the French ‘Foreign Legion’ being allegedly deployed in Sloviansk to support the 54th Motorized Brigade, citing an article by a former assistant to the Deputy Head of the Pentagon, Stephen Bryen, for Asia Times. Official Paris has denied these rumors.

Then, the Kremlin moves on to direct threats:

“The regime in Kyiv and its Western backers should finally realize that their reckless actions are increasingly leading the situation towards an explosive ‘critical mass’... The above assessments formed the basis of the decision to conduct Russian military exercises involving elements of nuclear deterrence, intended to be a sobering signal to the West and its puppets in Kyiv.”

The ambassadors of Great Britain and France were summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry. Statements regarding these summonses appeared later on the department’s website. It was stated that Cameron’s statements amount to a de facto recognition of his country as a party to the conflict. “Nigel Casey [British ambassador to Russia] was warned that responses to Ukrainian strikes made with British weapons on Russian territory could include any military facilities and equipment of Great Britain in Ukraine and beyond.”

A report about the summoning of the French ambassador read: “It was emphasized that attempts by the French authorities to create ‘strategic uncertainty’ for Russia with their irresponsible statements about the possible deployment of Western troops to Ukraine are doomed to failure. The goals and objectives of the special military operation will be achieved.”

Maria Zakharova, the official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, later made a statement about Macron at a briefing: “It is notable that President Macron himself explains [his rhetoric] by the desire to create ‘strategic uncertainty’ for Russia. We are forced to disappoint him. For us, the situation appears more than certain. We have long made up our minds. If the French appear in the conflict zone, they will inevitably become targets of the Russian armed forces. Paris already has proof of this... Such statements and steps to reinforce them are ruining not only European security (which is already ruined) but also the security of France itself.”

Striking at the West’s Weaknesses or Exposing Its Own

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has assessed Moscow’s escalatory rhetoric as a campaign of reflexive control. According to the analysts, reflexive control is a key element of Russia’s hybrid warfare toolkit — a tactic based on manipulating the adversary through targeted rhetoric and information operations so that the adversary voluntarily takes actions that benefit Russia.

ISW noted that Moscow has used nuclear saber-rattling throughout the full-scale invasion of Ukraine to compel the West (the adversary Russia has designated) to cease military support to Ukraine. The analysts consider the ostensibly marginal recent threats by Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council, regarding the “onset of a global catastrophe” as a planned part of the Kremlin’s response measures.

Researchers link the latest wave of intimidation to the anticipated arrival of large shipments of Western weapons to Ukraine, interpreting it as an attempt to limit these deliveries or restrict the use of newly arrived weapons. Meanwhile, ISW continues to assess the likelihood of using tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine or elsewhere as extremely low.

The effectiveness of the Kremlin’s nuclear blackmail evidently depends on the unity and resolve of Western countries. Possibly, Moscow has ramped up aggressive rhetoric due to a certain desynchronization in the rhetoric of Western countries in recent months. In the first two years of the great war, Western countries had a unified public position on the necessity of aiding Ukraine, although with precautions to prevent the escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian war into a global conflict involving NATO countries. Only isolated leaders of small European countries, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán or, from the fall of 2023, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, declared a desire to appease the aggressor, but they relented under pressure from other allies and refrained from blocking aid to Ukraine. The sabotage of aid to Ukraine remained a noticeable yet marginal position in the West.

However, the fact that part of the US Republican Party, along with its future presidential candidate, Donald Trump, managed to delay a key package of military-financial aid to Ukraine for half a year brought the proposition of appeasing Putin back into play. In such circumstances, whether for balance, due to pessimism about the situation on the battlefield, or through a sharper realization of the pan-European threat from the regime in Moscow, a third camp emerged in the West, led by French President Macron, which began to consider violating the red lines that Western leaders had set for themselves before and during the full-scale invasion.

Playing on the discrepancies between these three camps could be one of the goals of Russia’s nuclear rhetoric. Moscow continuously alternates conciliatory rhetoric with nuclear threats to disorient and provoke a split among Western elites. We have separately written about Russia’s “good cop/bad cop” game with the West here.

This time, Moscow’s nuclear threats also coincided with the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who came to Europe for the first time in five years, starting with France. A separate paragraph in an article by Xi Jinping for the French press on the occasion of his visit referred to the Russian aggression as the “Ukrainian crisis” without mentioning Russia at all. However, the article emphasized respect for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity and cautioned that “nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear war must not be fought.”

Another explanation for the new wave of nuclear threats could be the increased determination of certain Western countries, both in rhetoric and in the range of weapons supplied to Ukraine. In this case, the Kremlin, through its nuclear threats, has demonstrated its vulnerability to this resolve and has effectively acknowledged what truly unnerves Moscow: F-16s, ATACMS, deep strikes into Russia, or French troops in Ukraine.

“Warnings Before the Inauguration” vs. “Nuclear Blackmail No Longer Intimidates”

Propagandists have reacted differently to the Kremlin’s nuclear blackmail, ranging from approving of the Kremlin’s “radicalism” and “ability” to clearly define red lines, blaming French President Macron for attempts at escalation, to mocking such rhetoric, accusing Russian politicians of empty talk and unjustifiable treachery.

“Russia is staking a claim: if anyone intrudes — there will be a nuclear strike, we are ready, are you? The West is advised not to expand the scope of the current conflict, meaning either to end it through negotiations or to slowly watch as Ukraine’s territory melts away along with the collateral for loans in the form of energy and other infrastructure. Macron’s game has played against him and Ukraine,” wrote a propaganda channel with 416,000 subscribers, referring to Macron’s rhetoric, who for several months has not ruled out the possibility of sending NATO troops to Ukraine. This is a typical propaganda tactic — mixing up cause-and-effect relationships and shifting their own blame for aggression onto someone else.

Some propagandists, trying to justify Russia’s renewal of nuclear blackmail somehow, linked it to Putin’s inauguration, which took place the next day. “It seems Russia, by rhetorical escalation, is trying to convince the West not to strike on the night before the inauguration,” wrote a Telegram channel with half a million subscribers, suggesting that by brandishing nuclear weapons, Putin merely wants to ensure a relatively peaceful night before the coveted inauguration day, nothing more. “Today’s date will be remembered as the day when Russia broadcasts determination in full accordance with the West’s harsh rhetoric. Perhaps it’s a warning on the eve of the inauguration. As is well known, there were many statements from the other side of the frontline about the desire to launch a strike on the Crimean Bridge on this very day,” commented the turncoat Oleh Tsariov. In trying to add grimness and grandeur to Putin in the run-up to an important event, propagandists, on the contrary, demonstrated that he had no convincing arguments or effective solutions left, other than intimidation.

“Of course, destroying Abrams tanks has become a routine, so Russia announced the start of exercises on the practical implementation of issues related to the preparation and deployment of non-strategic nuclear weapons,” mocked the author of one of the Russian pro-war channels with 670,000 subscribers, as if ridiculing the Russian military leadership for making rash strategic decisions.

There was also skepticism both about the feasibility of fulfilling apocalyptic promises and about the effectiveness of such rhetoric and achieving the desired result — curbing Western recklessness. “I don’t think that rattling tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) will in any way impress the collective West. I think that no one there will give in but will continue to raise the stakes further. I doubt that there really are people in the Kremlin who are so fanatical that they are willing to turn the whole world to ashes for the sake of an idea,” wrote a Russian channel with more than half a million subscribers.

“Imagine that a decision has been made, and they tried breaching the defense of the Ukrainian Armed Forces with the help of TNWs. The same Chasiv Yar can be taken in half a day. Next — Kostiantynivka, Vuhledar, and Sloviansk with Kramatorsk within a few weeks. Kharkiv — in a month, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, considering the need to cross the Dnipro — a bit longer... After using TNWs, Russian troops must enter this zone, which thrills neither them nor their families. What next to do with contaminated lands and people affected by radiation, and why does Russia need either?” read another post on the same channel.

The West Is Taking It in Stride

The ostensible effectiveness of nuclear blackmail would paralyze international law worldwide and be disastrous for international relations as it normalizes and encourages such practices. Western countries recognize this and are trying to take it in stride. For instance, two days after Russia’s nuclear threats, on May 8, the United Kingdom announced the expulsion of the Russian military attaché, the revocation of diplomatic status for some real estate properties, and the restriction of the duration of Russian diplomatic visas. The UK Home Secretary, James Cleverly, explained these actions as a consequence of Russia’s malicious activities across the UK and Europe.

France has dismissed Moscow’s intimidating rhetoric and declared its ongoing support for Ukraine. “France notes that diplomatic channels have once again been used to manipulate information and intimidate... France will continue to support Ukraine in the long term as it defends its sovereignty and territorial integrity against Russian aggression,” stated the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The United States also demonstrated confidence in the face of the Kremlin’s belligerent rhetoric. John Kirby, the National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the White House, commented on the threats: “If Putin and Russian officials are concerned that their troops in Ukraine may be hit by weapons manufactured in other countries, the easiest way to avoid this is to simply withdraw their troops. For the leader of a major nuclear power, it is simply reckless and irresponsible to brandish nuclear arsenals and hint at their potential use. Obviously, we are watching this closely now and have been very carefully monitoring it before. I can tell you that so far, we have seen nothing, even amid the reckless rhetoric, that would make us change our strategic deterrence posture,” added Kirby.

However, it is difficult to ignore the fact that Russia’s nuclear status has played one of the key roles in restraining military-political support for Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war. This was indirectly confirmed again by Cameron, explaining why Western countries cannot repel Russian missile attacks on Ukraine in the same way they repelled the Iranian missile attack on Israel. 

Kremlin’s Steps Toward Nuclear Escalation

Since he took office, Vladimir Putin has steadily lowered the barriers to using nuclear weapons, both rhetorically and legally. In 2010, then-formal President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev approved a new military doctrine. According to this doctrine, Russia could deploy nuclear weapons in response to the use of weapons of mass destruction against it or its allies or in the case of conventional aggression against Russia that threatens the very existence of the state. The doctrine removed a section that prohibited the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states.

In 2018, in the film by the propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, World Order 2018, Putin rhetorically asked, “Why would we need a world without Russia?” Later that year, at the Valdai Discussion Club, Putin assured that in the event of nuclear war, Russians as victims of aggression and martyrs would go to heaven, while their opponents “will simply die because they won’t even have time to repent.”

The presidential decree published in 2020, On the Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence, further weakened the barriers to the use of nuclear weapons. It stated that the policy of nuclear deterrence aimed to protect sovereignty and territorial integrity, to deter potential adversaries from aggression against Russia or its allies, and to “prevent escalation” of hostilities and end them on terms acceptable to Russia and its allies. This decree reflected the growing popularity in the Kremlin of the concept of “escalation for de-escalation”, where nuclear escalation could ostensibly lead to a de-escalation of international tensions.

In June 2023, Sergei Karaganov, a Kremlin-aligned “foreign policy expert”, in his keynote article, called on Moscow to be the first to use nuclear weapons supposedly to save humanity. The article was also translated into English, presumably aimed at affecting Western elites.

In February of this year, the Financial Times, allegedly based on leaked secret Russian documents, indicated that the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons in Russia is even lower than it has ever publicly acknowledged. The lowering of the nuclear threshold is supposedly dictated by the substantial conventional weaponry advantage of potential adversaries. It remains unclear whether the leak was genuine or orchestrated by the Kremlin to enhance nuclear pressure on the West.

Russia uses its nuclear status as part of its psychological pressure efforts. For this purpose, it gradually escalates rhetorically and practically to ensure that its policy of deterring Ukraine’s allies yields results. In this case, previously tabooed nuclear tests might follow. In any case, documented threats should be taken seriously. Written Russian ultimatums to the West preceded the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, taking threats seriously does not mean succumbing to nuclear blackmail.

Some Western politicians have long been and remain susceptible to the Kremlin’s aggressive rhetoric, fearing the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Moscow cynically plays on this fear, constantly reminding the West of the risks of a major nuclear war. The Kremlin has been making veiled threats to use nuclear weapons over the last decade, and since the full-scale invasion in 2022, Moscow has started talking about it regularly.

In September 2022, Putin declared that the Kremlin would use all available means of defense in case of a “threat” to Russian territories. At that time, Russia increased pressure on Ukraine and the world through the mining of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and continues this strategy to date. State Duma deputies and a general openly said on state television they could “strike Berlin and Britain,” and Russian laws and doctrines, including the nuclear one, allgedly extend to the occupied territories of Ukraine. With such rhetoric, the Kremlin tries to prove that Russia is still “powerful” and should be reckoned with, as was the case with the USSR during the Cold War.

The only adequate response to nuclear blackmail is identical to that for any other type of blackmail. Succumbing to it only strengthens it and invites even worse consequences than ignoring it, as alarming as that may seem. The effectiveness of nuclear blackmail will destroy the world order no less than the deployment of a nuclear bomb, which is even more likely to be used for further intimidation in case of the international community’s weakness in the face of aggressive nuclear rhetoric.

Illustration and infographic by Nataliya Lobach.

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