Coping with Rising Nuclear Fears

Russia’s rhetoric shows why it’s important to denounce nuclear risks without spreading anxiety.

On the day President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he warned the West against interfering by threatening an instant response, with “consequences […] such as you have never seen in your entire history” — a not-so-veiled nuclear threat. Days later, he publicly called for nuclear forces to be put on a “special regime of combat duty,” which was later clarified to be an increase in personnel at command centers rather than raising the level of alert.

Since then, Putin, his close associates, and Russian state media have regularly brought up nuclear weapons in public settings with different degrees of seriousness. A TV presenter, well-known for his ties to the Kremlin, depicted how a nuclear torpedo could raise a 500m wave carrying doses of radiation that would turn the United Kingdom (and also extent non-NATO, staunchly anti-nuclear Ireland) into a radioactive desert. Yet, this scenario is fraught with technical inaccuracies, notably vast exaggerations of the yield, scale, and effects of such a weapon that would be unlikely to cause a tsunami. Former President and now Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council Dmitry Medvedev warned of a “threat to the existence of humanity” should the West attempt to punish Russia.

Every new nuclear threat, whether blatant or veiled or in reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal, is picked up by media around the world, particularly in Europe where geographical proximity to the war has led to a renewed interest in nuclear issues. Journalists’ and analysts’ questions reflect the general public’s concern about the likelihood of nuclear war breaking out. They ask what such a war would look like; what the effects of nuclear radiation would be; if Russia could resort to using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine; who could stop Putin; whether nuclear weapons can be stopped once launched; whether the United States or NATO would retaliate; how we could survive a nuclear attack; and what can be done to prepare.

None of these questions are unreasonable or far-fetched. They reveal how a resurgence of the nuclear shadow so close to home is creating risks and apprehensions, which, for many Europeans who grew up after the Cold War ended, existed mostly in history textbooks or as related to North Korea, Iran, and, perhaps more recently, China. Finding ways to address these fears without spreading anxiety or encouraging blind faith in nuclear deterrence will become increasingly challenging as the war continues.

PROVIDING SOME ANSWERS

As a researcher working on nuclear issues, I’ve tried to answer many of these questions on numerous occasions and so have my peers in at least every European country for nearly every media outlet. I have also had similar discussions with family, friends, Facebook acquaintances who somehow remembered I worked on “something nuclear” and pretty much anyone I meet shortly after explaining my job.

While most of us believe the likelihood of nuclear weapon use remains very small, it still exists. The challenge, therefore, lies in explaining the risks of possible nuclear escalation and their consequences without either overstating or downplaying them. The former would unnecessarily inflame nuclear fears, which already led to a surge in demand for iodine tablets in Europe, while the latter would exhibit an overconfidence in deterrence no one can truly claim given the limits of what we can infer about Putin’s mindset.

At a time where, in Europe, it seems atypically easier to advocate for more deterrence rather than disarmament measures, carefully balancing deterrence imperatives without losing sight of arms control and disarmament objectives is increasingly challenging.

The late nuclear scholar, diplomat, and campaigner Michael Krepon encapsulated this challenge remarkably well in his piece “The Use and Misuse of Nuclear Fear.” He noted the difficulty in “knowing how best to convey messages regarding nuclear anxiety during crises” and, in the case of this one, how to “characterize nuclear danger without playing into Putin’s game plan.” Indeed, raising the possibility of a nuclear response, often described as an element of “nuclear signaling,” is an integral part of Russia’s strategy. Nuclear threats can serve to draw red lines. They can distract from other conventional actions by diverting attention. They can also purposefully instigate fear, with the intent to push for more cautious Western policies so as not to cause a nuclear war.

Therefore, explaining that Putin’s threats form part of Russia’s nuclear signaling strategy is key, as are clarifying concepts of deterrence and the specificities of Russian nuclear doctrine. Outlining scenarios in which Putin could resort to nuclear weapons may help understand the limited uses for them in conflict and emphasize de-escalation pathways. Denouncing the use of nuclear threats as increasing the risk of misunderstanding and escalation highlights the need for rhetorical restraint and avoiding dangerous one-upmanship. Describing the effects of nuclear weapons use is an important reminder of their devastating consequences.

Overall, these different analytical approaches have contributed to more awareness regarding nuclear weapons: their risks and their purpose in defense doctrines. As the war continues, nuclear threats will likely continue to be a part of Russia’s strategy. And when the war does ultimately end, at a human and economic cost that is already unimaginably high for the Ukrainian population, nuclear deterrence will conceivably remain a core policy for the United States, Russia, NATO, France, and the United Kingdom.

RE-AWAKENING TO NUCLEAR REALITIES

In Europe, talk of nuclear weapons and in particular reliance on them for security was at times an uncomfortable debate in the post-Cold War era. Putin’s nuclear boasting has revived the reality of nuclear weapons’ role in defense strategies — and in Russia’s case, their coercive use — and how they can mutually limit states’ freedom of maneuver. Some European states have now forsaken past ambiguities regarding reliance on extended deterrence.

In Germany, for example, political parties currently in government previously advocated for the removal of US nuclear weapons from German soil. Within weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the German government settled the question over the future of its dual-capable aircraft (those that can carry US nuclear weapons) by agreeing to purchase the F-35 fighter jet and thereby shutting any doubts about its views on relying on extended deterrence for its security. Sweden and Finland, both formerly neutral countries, will soon be joining NATO, extending the US’ nuclear umbrella to two more states.

Governments are becoming more assertive with regard to nuclear deterrence but public opinion is also changing. Recent polls in Germany have shown how quickly this change can happen, with 52% of those polled in May 2022 in favor of keeping US nuclear weapons in Germany as opposed to only 14% a year ago. Survey work done in Central and Eastern Europe shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion revealed a conflicting picture: fear of Russian nuclear threats, strong opposition to any use of nuclear weapons but also support for national nuclear weapons programs. An important caveat is that these polls capture sentiments at a specific moment in time and will likely evolve as the war continues. They also fail to depict nuances of what these choices imply, notably in terms of cost, reputation, and legal consequences.

LONG HAUL INFORMATION MISSION

The regularity with which nuclear threats are expressed, only to be downplayed by other Russian officials, may lead ultimately to a form of “nuclear fatigue.” This is also dangerous since dismissing nuclear rhetoric as meaningless could drive actors on both sides to resort to bolder actions to signal intent, in turn increasing the risk for misinterpretation or escalation. For those of us who try to explain nuclear risks as part of our everyday work, Krepon refers to the “Chicken Little syndrome,” whereby raising the nuclear alarm may eventually be equated with inciting unreasonable fears.

At a time where, in Europe, it seems atypically easier to advocate for more deterrence rather than disarmament measures, carefully balancing deterrence imperatives without losing sight of arms control and disarmament objectives is increasingly challenging. It will require sustained efforts from governments, civil society, and experts to engage the wider public on what deterrence does and does not provide, the risks and costs it entails, as well as the complementary arms control efforts it requires. Such balancing has always been difficult but the war has added new urgency to this engagement for Europeans who are quickly becoming reacquainted with the concept of nuclear deterrence and the anxieties it can cause.

Névine Schepers is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zürich (Switzerland). Her research focuses on nuclear arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament issues.