Why Russia Keeps Rattling the Nuclear Saber

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On May 6, the Russian Ministry of Defence announced that its navy, air force, and ground missile forces would conduct tactical nuclear drills in the Southern Military District. This came days before Putin was re-inaugurated on May 7 and the May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Russia. But according to Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, the reason for the drills “first and foremost emanates from Ukraine.” The Russian Ministry of Defence framed the drills as a response to “provocative statements and threats of certain Western officials regarding the Russian Federation,” and Russian press secretary Dmitry Peskov pointed to statements from British and French leaders as justification for the drills, including a statement by French president Emmanuel Macron on May 2 indicating that France might send troops to Ukraine.

Nuclear threats have been part of Russia’s strategy in Ukraine since the invasion in February 2022. The Kremlin clearly perceives some benefit from this strategy. One reason might be deterrence and nuclear signaling. But another reason Russia continues to rely on nuclear saber-rattling is because it is getting away with it. These risky behaviors are essentially cost-free to Moscow and have drawn little-to-no response from the wider international community, aside from statements of opprobrium by the United States and some European states. Reducing nuclear risks will require more countries to confront Russian nuclear saber-rattling, such as the latest drills, and impose diplomatic or economic costs.

Nuclear Risky Business

Reliance on nuclear threats and signals is an enduring trend in Russia’s activities amid the war in Ukraine. On February 27, 2022, Putin put Russia’s deterrence forces on “high combat alert,” justifying it on the grounds of aggressive actions and rhetoric by the West, while Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. In October 2023, Russia conducted readiness drills of its nuclear warning system in a scenario in which 70 percent of the country was destroyed and included a simulated nuclear exchange. And in December 2023, Lukashenko claimed that Russia had completed the transfer of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus intended to deter NATO members.

Nuclear bullying of this kind fits into Russia’s wider strategy and nuclear doctrine. Russia’s 2020 nuclear doctrine outlines one role of nuclear weapons as “the preclusion of the escalation of military actions and their cessation on conditions acceptable to the Russian Federation and (or) its allies.” Russian leadership may be assuming it has more at stake in Ukraine than NATO, and nuclear threats are one means of signaling its commitment to winning the war in the hopes of scaring off Western intervention. The nuclear threats could serve a secondary purpose of dividing NATO and testing the strength of the alliance in the face of a determined nuclear-armed adversary.

Whether or not Russia’s nuclear threats have had the desired deterrent effect remains a topic for debate. On the one hand, NATO has not provided boots on the ground and was slow in the initial days of the war to provide direct military aid to Ukraine. On the other hand, that level of military intervention was likely never in the cards, especially for the United States. Additionally, and more importantly, however, the West has consistently tested and often crossed Russia’s red lines. For example, the West has repeatedly provided Ukraine with weapon systems that the Kremlin explicitly warned against, including tanks and long-range missiles.

While Russia may perceive its nuclear saber-rattling as having a stabilizing deterrent effect and keeping the West at bay, it has also raised nuclear risks to the highest level since the end of the Cold War.

How Russia Gets Away with It

But Russia also continues with its policy of nuclear saber-rattling because it has not suffered any costs for doing so. With the important exception of the deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus, there has been no international public outcry, including by world leaders, regarding Russian nuclear aggression aside from that by Western countries. The Global South and other members of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) have largely remained silent on Russia’s nuclear bullying as the source of rising nuclear risks.

Russia’s responsibility for increasing nuclear risks is not limited to its saber-rattling in Ukraine but also includes its piece-by-piece dismantlement or challenging of the international nuclear order. This includes the de-ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the suspension of participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), and historical violations of agreements including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and Presidential Nuclear Initiatives.

Additionally, Russia vetoed a UN resolution preventing the deployment of nuclear weapons in space in April 2024. In a joint U.S.-Japan statement, U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said, “Russia abandoned that responsibility by vetoing a straightforward resolution—a resolution that wasn’t just ours, but belonged to all 65 cosponsors.” Earlier in April, Russia vetoed another UN Security Council resolution to extend the mandate of the North Korea UN Panel of Experts, which is tasked with observing compliance with UN sanctions on North Korea for nonproliferation purposes.

Interestingly, a wider group of states has called out Russia’s recent vetoes and challenges to existing arms control structures; however, the voices most noticeably absent from expressing opprobrium are those in the Global South. Indeed, the response from the international community has largely come from Western states or allies, but otherwise has been muted. As a result, Russia can continue to hold nuclear exercises, make nuclear threats, and deploy nuclear weapons to Belarus with impunity.

Perhaps one of the most egregious examples of this came in June 2022 at the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) Meeting of States Parties. Its members include Austria and Ireland, along with Mexico, South Africa, the Philippines, and a host of other countries from Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. The TPNW prohibits parties from “[using] or threaten[ing] to use nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” And yet, the TPNW states failed to call out Russian nuclear threats amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.

One possible explanation is that Russia has had success in courting the Global South. Moscow has taken a more transactional approach to its relationship with the Global South and aligned its own anti-Western interests with those of many countries in the Global South. In a 2023 speech, for example, Putin stated, “a new, fairer and more democratic system of international relations is emerging that meets the needs of the world majority.” Additionally, Russia relies heavily on trade with its BRICS partners, with 20 percent of its trade being with China and 8 percent with India, predominantly in crude petroleum. And in 2023, other BRICS states opposed Western-led sanctions on Russia in response to the war in Ukraine, saying they were “incompatible” with the UN Charter.

There is at least one other exception to this trend. According to subsequent reports, Russian military leaders were considering the use of tactical nuclear weapons in October 2022. Around the same time, Chinese president Xi Jinping publicly called for the international community to “jointly oppose the use of, or threats to use, nuclear weapons.” India’s defense minister similarly warned his Russian counterpart that nuclear use would go “against the basic tenets of humanity.” Russia subsequently de-escalated nuclear tensions and changed its narrative. There are, of course, a host of potential explanations for why Russia didn’t use nuclear weapons in October 2022 or at any other time. But the intervention of a wider set of international actors, nonetheless, should not be easily discarded.

A Risk Reduction Strategy

Russia seems unlikely to abandon its strategy of nuclear saber-rattling any time soon. Indeed, when Western support reaches Ukraine and challenges Russian gains, though this may not happen in the near future, nuclear threats may become more prevalent. As a result, risks of nuclear use may continue to rise. Managing these risks should include a three-pronged approach.

First, the United States should continue to build multilateral support for risk reduction measures, such as the direct-ascent ASAT test ban, which garnered the support of 155 states in the United Nations. This strategy should prioritize engaging other members of the BRICS and Global South to build consensus recognition of the growing risk of nuclear use and who is responsible for that risk. As Baroness Catherine Ashton recently pleaded, “stop taking the Global South for granted.” Many of these countries are deeply committed to existing institutions, such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and to concepts of fairness and responsibility. They are valuable partners in strengthening international norms and reducing nuclear risks.

Second, the United States and other nuclear possessors, including Russia, should pursue practical risk reduction measures. One potential forum for progress in this area is the P5 process, which Russia currently chairs. This should include ongoing discussion on the transparency of nuclear doctrines and the exploration of new risk reduction opportunities, especially the impact of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, on nuclear risks, along with the development of new crisis communication channels.

And finally, non-nuclear weapon states also have a responsibility to reduce nuclear risks. They are key players in the global nuclear order. Their voices also matter. Those voices should be used to condemn exactly the type of behavior coming out of Moscow. Holding Russia accountable for raising the risk of nuclear use and breaking down nuclear guardrails will not only uphold norms but also deter Russia from continuing with its irresponsible behavior. Expanding multilateral initiatives through the United Nations provides one such opportunity for condemning Russian nuclear saber-rattling, along with using multilateral forums such as the NPT. But ultimately, unless Russia perceives any costs to its nuclear bullying, the behavior is likely to continue.

Heather Williams is director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Director, Project on Nuclear Issues and Senior Fellow, International Security Program