The West Cannot Cure Russia’s Nuclear Fever

July 18, 2023
Hanna Notte

The following is an excerpt from War on the Rocks.

In June 2023, Russia’s expert community descended into a public debate about the wisdom of preemptive nuclear use. The exchange occurred against the backdrop of Ukraine’s counteroffensive and betrayed a fear that Russia might lose the war — if not imminently, then over time. The debate about nuclear use marked a qualitative shift compared to previous Russian debates in that select voices flirted expressly with nuclear strikes against European countries, expressing considerable confidence that the United States would not retaliate in kind. Though the majority of the debate’s participants argued against preemptive nuclear use, the debate suggested a frustration with the perceived diminishing returns of Russia’s verbal “saber-rattling” and evoked an urgent need to restore Russia’s nuclear coercive reputation.

The nuclear musings are especially disconcerting in light of the “known unknown”: Vladimir Putin’s threshold for using a nuclear weapon. Putin’s views matter, since he is the one ultimately deciding on nuclear use. While he appears to have always viewed nuclear weapons as a deterrent, Putin has also championed the development of nuclear systems intended for regional warfighting, repeatedly recalled the United States’ bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as having set a “precedent,” and embellished his statements on the nuclear subject with messianic overtones. Those looking toward Russia’s declaratory policy for firm cues about the circumstances that could trigger nuclear use will not find comforting certainty, either, since it is meant to deter with intentional ambiguity.

Western observers must therefore accept an uncomfortable reality: For as long as Russia fights against Ukraine, and for as long as the United States and Europe support Ukraine in its defense, there will be no cure against Russia’s “nuclear fever” — and the risk of nuclear war will remain. Russia’s heightened efforts to induce fear via nuclear signaling are also entirely consistent with the country’s deterrence strategy, which has been honed over decades. At best, Western states can hope to lower the temperature and seek to credibly deter Russia’s crossing of the nuclear threshold. At worst, U.S. and European leaders have to contemplate how to respond to nuclear use and all the implications that any such decision may entail.

Continue reading at War on the Rocks.

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