The West Cannot Cure Russia’s Nuclear Fever
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.
The “Karaganov Debate”
The recent Russian debate was triggered by prominent intellectual Sergey Karaganov. In an article entitled “A Difficult But Necessary Decision,” Karaganov argued that, should the United States and Europe fail to stop supporting Ukraine, Moscow would ultimately have to resort to preemptive nuclear use against Western countries. He conceded that the employment of “God’s weapon” would entail “grave spiritual losses” for his country and that Russia’s non-Western friends — chiefly China and India — would be abhorred at first. But since “winners are not judged,” Russia would ultimately be forgiven for having broken the eight-decade-old nuclear taboo.
While Karaganov had likely hoped to agitate Western audiences, the commotion caused by his article was predominantly domestic. Dmitry Trenin, another prominent expert, partially sided with Karaganov. Though he stopped short of calling for nuclear strikes against Europe and was less dismissive than Karaganov of escalation risks resulting from such strikes, Trenin echoed Karaganov in bemoaning the loss of fear of nuclear war in the United States and Europe. He urged the Russian leadership to put the “nuclear bullet” into the “revolver drum,” calling for nuclear signaling in action, not just rhetoric.
Other participants in the debate pushed back. Ivan Timofeev urged for Russia’s retention of a high bar for nuclear use, while Ilya Fabrichnikov pleaded for “demonstrative restraint” vis-à-vis the West. Fyodor Lukyanov, the prominent editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs, argued that Russia “won’t be able to ‘sober up the West’ with a nuclear bomb.” A group of scholars at Moscow’s Institute of World Economy and International Relations penned a piece in Russia’s daily newspaper Kommersant, questioning the suitability of limited nuclear use for preventing further escalation and solving “strategic problems.” Karaganov himself rounded off the debate by publishing a second, more strident piece, in which he offered specific recommendations for moving up the nuclear escalation ladder. This is a concept first championed by American physicist Herman Kahn that describes escalation between adversaries, beginning with crisis and ending at strategic nuclear war.
The lively exchange coincided with an intensified obsession, shared among Russian politicians and propagandists alike, over alleged U.S. and European efforts to inflict a “strategic defeat” upon Russia. The fear — no matter how outlandish it may seem to American and European audiences — is that the United States and Europe seek to “dismember” the country and destroy it as an independent entity. This obsession, coupled with Ukraine’s counteroffensive, likely explains the timing of the “Karaganov debate” as symptomatic of a wider anxiety among Russia’s ruling elites over the course of the war.
The subject matter is gloomy. However, this discussion is welcome, especially considering the political environment in which it is taking place. In wartime Russia, it has become damaging to one’s career and, potentially, dangerous to stay outside the chorus of pro-war voices. That numerous Russian scholars have argued publicly for nuclear restraint is a good thing. Some Russian experts have also privately dismissed Karaganov as a marginal voice or, worse, as someone who has lost touch with reality. This line of reasoning suggests that the nuclear weapon skeptics are by far the more credible side of the debate. Yet even Karaganov’s critics admit that there is a worrying nuclear normalization unfolding in Russia. They concede that discussions on nuclear use have become more widespread and acceptable. The casual nuclear talk has transcended the strategic community to reach mainstream media coverage and public discourse in what some scholars have termed Russia’s new nuclear normal or Russia’s nuclear fever. In late June, Russian Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov likened Russian domestic television coverage of nuclear weapons use to “dog food commercials,” suggesting that the weapons had been mentioned 200 times in the preceding two weeks alone.
But What’s Actually New?
The arguments themselves presented by Karaganov (and to some extent Trenin) are not new. Last year, Trenin had already contended that the fear of nuclear war needed to be reinstilled in the United States and Europe, while Karaganov had welcomed that Russia was finally, if belatedly, moving up the escalation ladder. Their arguments also fit with longstanding elements of Russia’s nuclear doctrine and declaratory policy. As Michael Kofman and Anya Fink wrote in these pages, Russian strategic deterrence — employed in wartime for the purpose of “escalation management” that can be aimed at terminating hostilities on terms acceptable to Moscow — foresees the heavy use of “nuclear signaling” to induce fear. Russian strategic deterrence, according to Kofman and Fink, is holistic in that it comprises – besides political, military, and diplomatic means — “informational measures” (including saber-rattling) in an iterative process that takes into account reactions by the adversary.
Still, the recent expert exchange is noteworthy in several ways: First, while Western experts have long agonized over Russia’s potential use of a nuclear weapon against Ukraine, the Karaganov debate centered exclusively on Russian strikes against NATO countries. Indeed, Karaganov hinted specifically at Poland and the Baltic states as targets of preemptive nuclear use, rather than of nuclear strikes in response to any prospective direct U.S. and European aggression against Russia. He also argued with considerable self-confidence that Russia could engage in such strikes without risking a U.S. nuclear response. Russian military strategists have never discounted the possibility of preemptive nuclear use per se, nor do they believe such use will inevitably escalate uncontrollably. But, unlike Karaganov, they do not write off nuclear escalation risks in recklessly optimistic terms, either. It is in the spirit of healthy risk awareness that Russian scholar Alexey Arbatov, inserting himself into the recent debate, mockingly challenged Karaganov to “share his secret [for how to reduce the risks of nuclear escalation] with the [Russian] General Staff, which has been trying to solve this problem for many decades.”
Restoring Russia’s Nuclear Coercive Reputation
The Karaganov debate is also noteworthy in that some of its participants urged the Russian leadership to explore intermediate rungs on the escalation ladder more aggressively. Proponents of such escalation likely recognize that Russia’s verbal saber-rattling, intended to deter NATO’s direct entry into the Ukraine war and to slow or prevent Western military support for Ukraine, is less threatening than when the war began.
Russia has already moved from words to actions. It is proceeding with the deployment of short-range nuclear weapons to Belarus and has suspended its participation in the New START Treaty. Going forward, Karaganov — who counts two dozen steps Russia could take on the escalation ladder — advocates for the redeployment of missiles, among other measures. Russia could conceivably conduct a nuclear test, having hinted at the possibility in February. Others have written that its military may also be contemplating new ways to manipulate alert levels or other strategic gestures. Again, such measures fit with Russia’s existing doctrine, which envisions a broad arsenal of “preemptive measures” and “demonstrative actions” for the purpose of intrawar deterrence by fear inducement and escalation management. In light of current fears in Russia that the Ukraine war might not end on terms acceptable to Moscow, calls to resort to such measures should not come as a surprise.
What Does Putin Think?
While the Russian military can experiment with various forms of “fear inducement,” it is the president who ultimately decides on the most extreme measure of nuclear use. Looking at his statements made over the years, Putin appears to have always viewed nuclear weapons as an instrument of strategic deterrence rather than as a warfighting tool. His past contention that it is “impossible” to consider nuclear weapons “as a factor in any potential aggression, because it … would probably mean the end of our civilization” has betrayed a healthy skepticism of the notion that limited nuclear use à la Karaganov is viable.
That said, Putin has also presided over nuclear modernization programs focused on a wide range of nuclear weapons suited for not just deterrence, but also regional warfighting contingencies. He has cultivated a preoccupation with American precedent, repeatedly pointing out that it was the United States that first used nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That reference is disconcerting because Putin seems to be obsessed with what he considers the entitlements of American power. Putin is convinced that Russia has the right to emulate any and all aspects of past U.S. conduct: If the United States can forward-deploy nuclear weapons on the territories of European allies, then Russia can do the same in Belarus. If the United States can withdraw from nuclear agreements, so can Russia. Similarly worrying are the messianic overtones in some of Putin’s statements on the nuclear subject. In 2018, he maintained that Russia would be forced to defend itself using all available means if its very existence was put at stake. He concluded by asking: “Why would we want a world without Russia?” In another statement, Putin asserted that Russians “will go to heaven” in the event of nuclear war.
Given the mixed evidence regarding how Russia’s “first person” looks at nuclear use, Western observers are left to ponder the country’s declaratory policy. Its latest incarnation permits nuclear use under four conditions, including “when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” That notion, however, affords the Russian leadership — which may well equate regime survival with state survival — considerable interpretative leeway, and intentionally so. If the weakening of Russia’s conventional military force continues, where Russia might draw the line on what triggers nuclear use might well change; indeed, Putin might not yet have defined that line himself.
It is precisely in this context that the nuclear implications of the failed mutiny led by Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin appear most ominous. As several analysts with deep knowledge of Russia’s 12th Main Directorate, the primary military organization responsible for nuclear munitions, noted, the odds of Wagner being able to take control of nuclear weapons, let alone using them, were extremely low. But should Prigozhin’s mutiny have been indicative of a brittleness of the Russian state, then the implications for nuclear escalation pathways with Russia might not be trivial. What if Wagner had marched closer toward Moscow, with Prigozhin’s end game remaining unclear throughout? What if panic had taken hold among those in the Kremlin? And what if — in that situation — there had been concern over Western states exploiting the situation or over Russian frontlines collapsing in Ukraine? Would the “very existence of the state” have been feared in jeopardy, per Putin or his closest advisors? It is welcome that the United States reportedly communicated with the Kremlin as the mutiny unfolded to affirm that Washington had nothing to do with Prigozhin’s actions. Still, future manifestations of vulnerability at the heart of the Russian state, whether perceived or real, could lead to sudden spikes in nuclear fever, elevating the importance of careful crisis communication as an immediate antidote.
Russia’s Nuclear Fever Has Few Outside Cures
For as long as Russia is fighting a war against Ukraine, and for as long as the West supports Ukraine in fighting back, the West cannot cure Russia’s nuclear fever. Since the Russian leadership has convinced itself that prevailing in Ukraine is an existential matter for the Putin regime, messaging alone — clarifying that “strategic defeat” of Russia means only its exit from Ukraine, but not its dismemberment — will unlikely suffice to tone down Russia’s nuclear signaling.
Short of curing the fever, the United States and Europe can still take steps to lower the temperature. Considering Karaganov’s confidence that non-Western states would eventually forgive Russia for using nuclear weapons, the United States should continue to press Beijing, New Delhi, and other capitals to reinforce the nuclear taboo in their dealings with Moscow. It is welcome that Chinese leader Xi Jinping, while in Moscow in March, reportedly warned Putin personally against nuclear use. NATO, meanwhile, should hone its focus on strategic risk reduction with Russia, taking unilateral steps that reduce the risk of nuclear war without compromising allied defense and deterrence. Most importantly, the U.S. administration should disabuse the Russian leadership of any misplaced hubris regarding its ability to control the fallout from “limited” nuclear use. Deterrence has both nuclear and conventional dimensions. In line with the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, it is the role of the U.S. nuclear forces to deter both large-scale and limited nuclear attacks against both the U.S. homeland and the territory of allies and partners. On the heels of the Karaganov debate, the Financial Times reported that the United States, the United Kingdom, and France informed Putin that they would attack Russia with conventional means in the event of Russian nuclear use. Yet even if Russia were to meet only with a conventional response to nuclear first use, it must appreciate that the escalation risks would be overwhelming, given the nuclear arsenals that back up NATO’s conventional means as both sides move up the escalation ladder.
Still, such measures will unlikely suffice to cure Russia’s nuclear fever, absent a more fundamental resolution to its confrontation with the West over Ukraine. Western societies may well have to live with recurrent spikes of nuclear signaling for a long period to come. Those spikes should neither be discarded as mere “bluff” nor be read as indicative of Russia’s imminent resort to nuclear weapons. Rather, nuclear signaling will always need to be contextualized: That requires accurate readings of how Moscow — at any given moment in time — views the dynamics surrounding the Ukraine war and, concomitantly, assesses the requirements of intrawar deterrence and escalation management. In pursuit of such accurate readings, Western defense establishments will have their work cut out.
Hanna Notte, Ph.D., is a senior research associate with the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation and a senior associate (nonresident) with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Her work focuses on arms control and security issues involving Russia, the Middle East, their intersection, and implications for U.S. and European policy. She holds a doctorate and M.Phil. in international relations from Oxford University and a B.A. in social and political sciences from Cambridge University.