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By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization

(Washington D.C.) Russian threats to use nuclear weapons are by no means new or surprising at this point, given their previous rhetoric and well-documented tendency to “escalate” to win, pressure or intimidate. However Putin’s most recent “threat” points to a broader question of great significance, such as “is this scare tactic working?”

Russia, Ukraine & Nuclear Weapons 

It is a clear and significant question, meaning does this kind of threatening rhetoric, scare tactics or posturing truly afford Putin some kind of strategic advantage? It might. Certainly the prospect of nuclear catastrophe and the realities of a potentially unwinnable war are sufficient to cause any country pause when it comes to the questions of any escalation, yet Russia has a long history of using these kinds of tactics to essentially “hold the world hostage.” Is it pure manipulation to compensate for what appears to be military inferiority?

A Russian Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launcher parades through Red Square during the general rehearsal of the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 7, 2022.

A Russian Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launcher parades through Red Square during the general rehearsal of the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 7, 2022.

The Biden Administrations 2022 Nuclear Posture Review uses the interesting and significant term “shield” to “justify” aggression, suggesting that indeed Russia uses the prospect of a nuclear attack as a specific and pointed defense against being intervened upon or stopped militarily by NATO. 

“Russia has conducted its aggression against Ukraine under a nuclear shadow characterized by irresponsible saber-rattling, out of cycle nuclear exercises, and false narratives concerning the potential use of weapons of mass destruction. In brandishing Russia’s nuclear arsenal in an attempt to intimidate Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Russia’s leaders have made clear that they view these weapons as a shield behind which to wage unjustified aggression against their neighbors,” the text of the 2022 Pentagon NPR says.

However realistic the threat, and it is properly being taken quite seriously, the mere use of the possibility may be one reason why NATO is extremely careful to try to avoid escalation. Is this concern part of why there was never a decision to establish a no-fly zone? Is it part of why much longer-range missiles able to reach into Russia are not being sent? It would make sense if this were the case, as the consequences of nuclear war are so immense that, however small the risk, it is not one worth taking.

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Should this be the case, then it means that Russia’s “escalate to win” manipulation is arguably having some success. After all, escalation does introduce the very realistic question as to whether Putin would actually do that. Observers have for years made the point that Putin appears to be somewhat of a “rational actor” and therefore not inclined to make decisions which could be interpreted as “suicidal.” Certainly Putin has to realize that a use of nuclear weapons would most likely lead to his own elimination.

Does NATO and the west call the bluff? Take the risk? It is a delicate balance which the Pentagon seems to be handling well, given that DoD and the administration are being careful to avoid escalation in terms of rhetoric and even paused a few ICBM tests. At the same time, the Pentagon continues to express great confidence in the readiness and ability of its nuclear triad, arsenal of weapons and strategic deterrence posture.

“It (Russia’s threats) does not affect the department's commitment to continue working closely with our international partners and our allies on providing Ukraine with the support that it needs in their fight to defend their country,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters, according to a Pentagon transcript.

Looking forward, it appears unlikely that Russia’s nuclear ambitions will slow anytime soon, as recent activity indicates the opposite. Not only has Russia made a spectacle about its emerging nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons, but Putin is both modernizing and expanding the country’s nuclear arsenal.

“Russia has pursued a wide ranging military modernization program that includes replacing legacy strategic nuclear systems and steadily expanding and diversifying nuclear systems that pose a direct threat to NATO and neighboring countries. This includes up to 1,550 accountable deployed warheads on strategic delivery vehicles that are limited by the New START Treaty,” the 2022 NPR says. ”Russia has an active stockpile of up to 2,000 non-strategic nuclear warheads that is not treaty-limited. Similarly, Russia is pursuing several novel nuclear-capable systems designed to hold the U.S. homeland or Allies and partners at risk, some of which are also not accountable under New START.”

Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.