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Nuclear threats: Why words matter

Vladimir Putin
In this image made from video released by the Russian Presidential Press Service, Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he addresses the nation in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. (Russian Presidential Press Service via AP)

We live in a world of alarming threats, both real and perceived. So, when leaders of countries, particularly ones at war, use threatening words or phrases, people rightly go on high alert.

“By all means necessary” and “all the means at our disposal,” are code words in foreign policy for the potential use of nuclear weapons. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most recent use of the second phrase in a nationally televised address is not the first such warning from him, but it comes at a dangerous time in the war with Ukraine when bluffing could have serious consequences.

Recent Russian military setbacks, with Ukraine’s forces taking back territory previously in the hands of Putin, are no doubt both embarrassing and frustrating for Moscow. When dictators like Putin feel cornered, they can lash out in unpredictable ways, and the West has no choice but to consider, out of public view, the consequences of his words.

The threat of force, nuclear or conventional, is often a ploy either to pressure others to come to the negotiating table or to presage new actions. In Putin’s case, it appears his escalation in tone has been accompanied by actions such as ordering a partial mobilization of forces and calling for referendums in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson, which could be a pretext for formally annexing these territories and then interpreting them as Russian should they come under renewed attack. That would risk further widening the war to all of NATO and the United States, luring us into a major conflict where nuclear weapons would not be out of the question.

How should the United States respond to Putin’s escalating rhetoric?

From a public diplomacy standpoint, the Biden administration is right to avoid getting drawn into a tit-or-tat response. Debating who would strike first, and where, is counter-productive and carries the risk of an accidental launch of nuclear weapons by Russian forces inside Ukraine. Ukraine reportedly does not have nuclear capabilities, nor does it fall under the West’s nuclear umbrella. Any talk of nuclear escalation would put pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to reject any diplomatic options to end the war.

But from a policy standpoint, leaders in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere have no choice but to take Putin’s threatening language seriously. Russia is still a nuclear superpower with a huge arsenal of weapons. Putin reminds the West on a near daily basis that he will not give up war against Ukraine, although his war aims are constantly shifting.

Behind the scenes, the United States and NATO no doubt are drawing up contingency plans if Putin turns his nuclear saber-rattling into reality. Countermeasures would have to be ordered, even though technically Ukraine does not have a security guarantee from NATO.  

Most importantly, unarmed aerial reconnaissance flights would have to be ordered if there is any sense of movement in Russia of nuclear assets.  

But it is important to recall that both the U.S. and Russia have pulled out of the Open Skies Treaty in the last few years — an agreement designed to reduce the risk of war. 

Its history is relevant. The Open Skies concept goes back to President Eisenhower, who suggested it to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Finally in 1992, Russia agreed to it and it became one of three arms control arrangements (including the Vienna Document and the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty) that could serve, as then-Secretary of State James Baker noted, as “the most direct path to greater predictability and reduced risk of inadvertent war.”  

More than two dozen nations signed the Open Skies Treaty, permitting signatories to conduct short notice, unarmed, reconnaissance flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities. The treaty created confidence-building measures and transparency — both of which would be useful today.

America ended its accession to the Open Skies Treaty under President Trump, in May 2020, citing concerns over Russian compliance. A year later the Russian Duma passed a law ending its adherence to the treaty. President Biden, upon taking office, said that renewing America’s commitment to the treaty would send the wrong message to Russia. 

Messages do matter. We are heading into the eighth month of the Russia-Ukraine war, and the messages between Moscow and Washington are getting uglier. Confidence between the capitals is low. This is a time to rethink diplomatic engagement and bring more countries into the process to avoid a nuclear escalation that could leave countless human beings dead. It’s time for conflict resolution, not escalation.

Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice in Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Tags Biden European Union nuclear threats Nuclear weapons Open Skies Agreement Open Skies Treaty Russia Russia-Ukraine war russian invasion of ukraine Ukraine United States Vladimir Putin

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