I have never heard so many people in Moscow talk about a possible nuclear war as I have in the last few weeks. Friends and relatives, who have nothing to do with foreign or security policy, ask me, half worried, half-joking if it makes any sense to plan for even the nearest future because there might not be one.
There are no recent polls conducted in Russia on this issue. However, a study by the governmental pollster WCIOM from September 2021 shows that 49% of Russians are concerned about nuclear war in one way or the other, while only 7% thought it was possible in the coming 2-3 years. I have no doubt that if such a poll were conducted today, both numbers would be higher.
In the United States, nearly 70% of participants of a recent survey by the American Psychological Association said they “are worried the invasion of Ukraine is going to lead to nuclear war. They fear that we are at the beginning stages of World War III.” The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres summed it up nicely on Mar. 14, 2022, when he said, “the prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility.”
Since the end of the Cold War, there has never been a situation where nuclear weapons seem possible. It started with a clear warning by President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 24, 2022, the morning of the “special military operation” in Ukraine:*
“I would now like to say something very important for those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside. No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”
Many have seen this warning as a sign of the readiness of the Russian authorities to use nuclear weapons in case any NATO country directly interferes in their military campaign in Ukraine. Putin’s words — “No matter how the events unfold, we are ready. All the necessary decisions in this regard have been taken. I hope that my words will be heard” — raised the stakes to the highest level.
I have never heard so many people in Moscow talk about a possible nuclear war as I have in the last few weeks.
And he followed up with actions. On Feb. 27, 2022 — for the first time since the Cold War — the Russian president put the country’s nuclear deterrence forces on a special mode of combat duty. Putin explained that this action was because “top officials of the leading NATO countries allow aggressive statements against Russia.” But Putin did not provide any more details or examples of the statements he was referring to. A day later, his press-secretary Dmitry Peskov explained that Russia was alarmed by “unacceptable” remarks of the British foreign minister Liz Truss in an interview with Sky News. Yet, he did not specify which of her comments the Kremlin found so unacceptable. She did accuse Russia of lying:
“When I was in Moscow I was assured by Sergey Lavrov that there would be no invasion of Ukraine. That was not true. President Putin said there would be no invasion of Ukraine. That is not true. So what we know is that Russians weren’t and aren’t serious about diplomacy.”
UNDERSTANDING RUSSIA’S NUCLEAR MOVEMENT
The fact that Truss’ remarks were so misinterpreted led many commentators to think that Russia was looking for a reason to justify preparations for a possible first strike. But experts with a deep understanding of the Russian nuclear doctrine and decision-making process, like UN Institute for Disarmament Research’s Pavel Podvig, author of the blog “Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces,” explained that the special mode of the nuclear forces allows Russia to be better prepared should they need to respond to an attack. Nevertheless, the United States and other NATO officials considered the move a “dangerous escalation,” warning that it could have unintended consequences.
Russian officials, in return, accused the West of escalatory rhetoric and actions. On Mar. 3, 2022, in an interview for several TV channels, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recalled: a statement by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who indicated that nuclear weapons could be deployed in Eastern Europe; remarks by the Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky that his country might reconsider the Budapest memorandum; Foreign Minister of France Jean-Yves le Drian’s warning to Moscow that Paris also has a nuclear arsenal; and Truss’ interview. Lavrov reasons that collectively, these remarks had put Russia on high alert. Lavrov said, “Please note also what US President Joseph Biden has said. When asked whether there was any alternative to the current ‘sanctions from hell’ he said World War III was the only alternative to these sanctions.” And “It is commonly understood that World War III means nuclear war.” According to him, the thought of nuclear war is constantly running through the minds of Western politicians but not the minds of Russians. He insisted:
“I assure you that we will not let any provocations cause us to lose our balance. But if a real war is unleashed against us, this must be a concern for those hatching such plans. And I believe these plans are being hatched.”
These statements might well resonate with many Russians. According to a study by the independent Russian pollster “Levada,” published on Apr. 27, 2022, there has been a sharp deterioration in attitudes of Russian citizens toward Western countries in the recent weeks: 72% of the people polled in March 2022 said they have a negative attitude toward the United States, while in February this number was 55%. The same trend can be seen in the attitude of Russians toward European countries: 67% negative in March 2022, compared with 48% in February. And 78% said they have a terrible attitude toward NATO, though this has been consistent over the past few years.