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Most Russian nuclear threats are nonsense
But one of the real ones has underappreciated consequences
Many kinds of nuclear threat are emanating from Russia. Most are irresponsible and annoying. Only a few deserve significant weight in Western strategic calculations.
But the newest of those isn’t getting the attention it deserves. And thus people are not yet recognizing a crucial point:
Restarting a fight against an expansionist Russia could carry much more risk of nuclear escalation than would continuation of the conflict now underway.
Why? Because, in a nutshell:
Russia has increasingly declared its territory inviolate, on pain of likely nuclear retaliation.
An operational lull could let Russia declare annexation of conquered territory — and so, by implication, threaten nuclear retaliation against efforts to take it back.
Some Russian nuclear threats should be taken very seriously
It is widely understood that engaging in direct combat with Russian troops risks a Russian nuclear response, at least where NATO is concerned. The US hasn’t seriously run that risk since the Cuban Missile Crisis. This policy seems prudent to continue.
Attacking Russian territory also risks a Russian nuclear response. There is of course some leeway when Russia fights a direct neighbor. Almost nobody suggests that Ukrainian attacks on Russian supply depots will cause nukes to fly, and battles near the Ukraine-Russia border might be handled conventionally as well.
A significant invasion of Russia, however, surely invites a nuclear response – and Russia’s ex-president Dmitry Medvedev just declared an extension to that rule. If Ukraine uses US rockets to attack Russian territory, that will be treated like a direct US attack would be. Ukraine, utterly dependent on US aid, immediately vowed to obey the prohibition. Notwithstanding previous verbiage about an “existential threat” threshold, Russia’s declared nuclear wall now permits only the most minor of penetrations.
And all that raises a dangerous question.
Russian expansionism just got more dangerous
Russia is clearly signaling its intent to annex parts of Ukraine (beyond Crimea). Indeed, a couple of recent Putin speeches indeed suggest he may not want to stop there. So the question arises:
If Russia steals another country’s territory, will it use nuclear weapons against attempts to take that territory back?
A “yes” answer could be catastrophic for all concerned … unless, of course, it so deters the West that Russia can keep expanding with impunity. Fortunately, Russia has communicated that it doesn’t plan to annex more Ukrainian territory until the fighting dies down.
So prudence suggests:
Don’t let the fighting die down. No ceasefires. Keep fighting without letup until the Russian invaders are driven out.
Restarting a fight against Russia could carry much more risk of nuclear escalation than would continuation of the one now underway.
Most Russian nuclear threats do seem like hot air
In other cases, Russian nuclear threats can be pretty safely disregarded. Notably, Russian officials often claim that Western confrontation of Russia raises nuclear risks in some vague way. Examples (and there are many, many more) include:
Russia sent the US a formal diplomatic note implying that providing arms to Ukraine increased the dangers of nuclear war.
Almost the same day, Medvedev threatened to station nuclear weapons in the Baltic Sea if Sweden and Finland join NATO.
So what? Neither of those statements shows a credible path from NATO action to Russian nuclear strikes.
Russian television personalities go a lot further, making all kinds of threats about Russian nuclear use. But they don’t claim they’re speaking for official Russian sources when they do. So again, there’s no credible path from heated rhetoric to mushroom cloud.
And by the way, Russia officially declared just last January that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
Indeed, evidence consistently suggests that Russian leaders don’t want to stumble into nuclear war any more than Americans do.
But what about the Madman Theory?
The “Madman Theory” is based on the idea that:
It’s almost never rational to use nuclear weapons. That fact weakens their use as a threat.
But suppose you convince your adversaries you are crazy enough to possibly use nukes. Maybe that would increase the perceived danger from the threat?
That’s only something to worry about if you believe that a leader could give an insane order to launch nukes, and have it be obeyed -- even though the likely outcome would be the incineration of the country doing the launch, family and friends of those executing the launches not excepted.
In the case of Russia, that assumption seems very implausible. There's no evidence that the relevant officials – led by Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov -- are nearly subservient enough to agree to national suicide. Disobedience is much more likely. Indeed, an attempt to enforce a national-suicide order is one of the few things that could actually get Putin removed in a coup.