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If Russia’s nuclear rhetoric turns real, will the West believe it?

Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin/Pool Photo via AP
File – Russian President Vladimir Putin is pictured during a meeting in Moscow on Oct. 3, 2022.

The boy who cried “wolf” in Aesop’s fable is looking more Russian every day. Senior Russian officials, up to and including President Vladimir Putin, have issued dozens of veiled and explicit threats of nuclear employment during its atrocious war in Ukraine. The problem is that Russia’s careless nuclear rhetoric is devaluing any future nuclear deterrence signals it will send when it is actually contemplating nuclear employment.

The United States and the NATO alliance can only hear so many Russian cries of “Nuclear war!” before they begin to doubt the credibility of the message and the messenger. This dynamic risks making deterrence more likely to fail, potentially catastrophically.

Russian nuclear threats have grown increasingly unhinged as its war continues. In February, Putin warned that states that “interfere” in Russia’s war would face “consequences you have never seen.” He subsequently placed his nuclear forces on “special” alert in response to Western sanctions and “aggressive statements.” Then, in March, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Ukraine of developing nuclear weapons in a clumsy attempt to justify the Russian invasion.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev toed the party line in June by reminding Finland and Sweden that, should they seek NATO membership (as they subsequently did) they could expect “warships with nuclear weapons on their doorstep.”

And, in a truly Russian-level absurdity, Medvedev invoked the possibility of nuclear war in July if the International Criminal Court investigated the Russian leadership for war crimes.

It is vital for the United States and its allies to disabuse Russian officials of their habit for issuing careless nuclear threats. These threats create the conditions for deterrence failure should Russia ever seriously issue a nuclear threat against Western nations who have grown accustomed to dismissing Russian nuclear bravado.

Discouraging Russians from utilizing a favorite rhetorical tactic will be a difficult, long-term project, but should involve a mix of communication strategy and cost imposition. 

As a start, President Biden and his officials should stop raising the specter of “World War III” every time they have public reservations about providing a specific military capability to Ukraine. This apocalyptic rhetoric feeds Russia’s belief that it can deter Western support via nuclear threats. Medvedev apparently took this lesson to heart when he recently warned that the Western and Ukrainian cooperation may begin World War III.

Instead, Biden should emulate another U.S. president experienced in countering Russian nuclear threats: Ronald Reagan. In 1983, the United States successfully partnered with NATO states to deploy Pershing II ballistic missiles in Europe as a response to increased Soviet intermediate-range threats.

In a bid to scare the Americans off their deployment decision, Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov publicly announced a plan to increase deployments of Soviet Delta nuclear-armed submarines off the East Coast of the United States. When asked to respond to this development, Reagan disarmed the Soviet threat, stating: “If I thought there was some reason to be concerned about them, I wouldn’t be sleeping in this house tonight.”

To reinforce the message, Reagan’s Navy Secretary John Lehman welcomed the Soviet move into the Atlantic, saying the Soviet subs were more vulnerable there and, “from a military standpoint, it pleases us.”

A similar U.S. and NATO communications strategy would acknowledge Russian nuclear rhetoric and condemn it but do so in a way that emphasizes Western military advantages and resolve. A little mocking wouldn’t hurt, either.

But the West can do more. In 2016, the United States sent 330 Marines to Norway for joint training, which elicited a Russian warning that Norway should be added to “the list of targets for our strategic weapons.” The United States and Norway ignored the threat, and the next year doubled the number of Marines deployed to Norway, showing Russia there is a cost for loose threats.

With Russian losses in Ukraine mounting and U.S. and European support for Ukraine solidifying, Putin may indeed decide to employ nuclear weapons — with or without warning. Until then, however, the United States and NATO must work together to dissuade Russia’s careless nuclear threats so that when the threat is real, the West will be ready for the Russian who cried “Wolf!”

Matthew R. Costlow is a senior analyst at the National Institute for Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Costlow.

Tags Biden Dmitry Medvedev NATO Ronald Reagan Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian nuclear threats Sergei Lavrov Vladimir Putin World War III

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