Blog Post

Putin’s Latest Nuclear Messaging: Softer Tone or Threat of Use?

| Mar. 15, 2024

On March 13, President Vladimir Putin granted an interview, in which he again delved into the conditions under which he says he would initiate the use of nuclear weapons. His remarks were so ambiguous that it caused mainstream Western media organizations—which tend to agree on what to emphasize in news out of the Kremlin—to put divergent headlines on the news stories that they ran about this particular interview. “Putin, in Pre-Election Messaging, Is Less Strident on Nuclear War. The Russian leader struck a softer tone about nuclear weapons in an interview with state television,” was the NYT’s headline. In contrast, the FT’s headline was “Russia ‘prepared’ for nuclear war, warns Vladimir Putin. President resumes bullish rhetoric over use of atomic arsenal if west threatens Moscow’s sovereignty,” while CBS News ran with “Putin again threatens to use nuclear weapons, claims Russia's arsenal ‘much more’ advanced than America's” and WSJ led with “Putin Rattles Nuclear Saber Ahead of Presidential Elections; Raising specter of nuclear confrontation.”

So, which is it? Has Putin just struck a softer tone about nuclear weapons or has he rattled his nuclear saber yet again? The answer is both.

On the one hand, Putin sought to assure his audiences at home and abroad that he doesn’t think a nuclear war is imminent, if only because the U.S. is not ready. As the Americans “are developing all their [nuclear triad] components, so do we. But, in my view, this does not mean that they are ready to wage this nuclear war tomorrow,” Putin told his interviewer Dmitry Kiselev (who, by the way, once boasted that Russian nuclear forces could turn America into “radioactive ash”). The commander-in-chief of Russia’s armed forces and owner of one of Russia’s three Cheget nuclear launch briefcases also said, “I do not think that it is getting closer to a head-on collision,” when commenting on the state of Russian-U.S. relations.

On the other hand, in the course of the interview, Putin vowed that Russia was ready for a nuclear war at least twice,1 repeatedly going beyond the language on the conditions under which Russia would initiate the use of nuclear weapons that can be found in the 2014 Military Doctrine and the 2020 Basic Principles of State Policy on Nuclear Deterrence—the two main publicly available Russian strategic documents that outline such conditions. 

First, when asked “when there were tough moments at the front in connection with Kharkov or Kherson, were you thinking of tactical nuclear weapons?” Putin replied: “The decision to withdraw troops from Kherson was taken at the suggestion of the then command of the grouping. But it did not mean at all that our front was falling apart there. Nothing like that ever happened.”  Second, when his interviewer asked the Russian president whether using nuclear weapons “ever occurred” to him, Putin gave the following response: “Weapons exist to be used. We have our own principles; what do they say? That we are ready to use weapons, including the ones you have just mentioned, when it is about the existence of the Russian state, about harming our sovereignty and independence. We have everything spelled out in our strategy. We have not changed it.”   

Putin’s claim that Russia would initiate the use of nuclear weapons if the existence of the Russian state is at stake is firmly rooted in the 2014 doctrine and 2020 principles: both documents explicitly allow first use in case of “aggression against Russia with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” In addition, according to the 2020 principles, “conditions specifying the possibility of nuclear weapons use by the Russian Federation” also include the “arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of Russia and/or its allies; use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against Russia and/or its allies; attack by [an] adversary against critical governmental or military sites of Russia, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions.” Contrary to Putin’s March 13 claim, however, neither of these documents calls for first use when Russia’s sovereignty and independence are harmed—at least not explicitly. Nor do the two documents say anything about initiating the use of nuclear weapons when Russia’s front collapses in a conflict with another state, which is, again, something that Putin implied could have led to his decision to resort to first use in the March 13 interview.2

This is not the first time Putin claims Russia’s nuclear doctrine allows first use under conditions that are actually nowhere to be found in the 2014 military doctrine or the 2020 principles. For instance, Putin said at the annual Valdai forum in October 2022: “We have the Military Doctrine, and they should read it. One of its articles explains the cases when, why, in relation to what and how Russia considers it possible to use weapons of mass destruction in the form of nuclear weapons to protect its sovereignty, territorial integrity and to ensure the safety of the Russian people.” Furthermore, since the launch of the so-called special military operation (SVO) in Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Putin and his team have also described the following additional conditions that could trigger first use of nuclear weapons: participation of regular troops from Western countries in the Russian-Ukrainian war, Ukrainian strikes on Crimea; loss of territories that Russia has captured from Ukraine; and nuclear weapons being supplied to Ukraine. Again, none of these conditions are explicitly mentioned in either the 2014 doctrine or the 2020 principles.

That Putin would combine pledges to stick to conditions for first use as explicitly stated in Russia’s doctrinal documents with claims that these documents also contain some additional conditions, which cannot be found in these documents, reflect his desire to be able to keep his Western counterparts off balance, by reassuring and threatening them at the same time. As I wrote after one such display of duality by Putin in December 2022: “[T]he Russian president can be expected to continue playing both bad cop and good cop when ‘thinking out loud’ about the conditions under which Russia could resort to nuclear weapons, as long as he thinks such alterations can help him deter the West from greater involvement in Ukraine’s war efforts while also accommodating China’s wish that Russia avoids rattling its nuclear saber too loudly.”

Footnotes

  1. He also said Russia was ready to resume nuclear tests if the U.S. did.
  2. It should be noted that in the course of the interview, Putin did try to portray a loss in Ukraine as a development that, per the language on first use in the 2014 doctrine and the 2020 principles, amounts to “aggression against Russia with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” In particular, he claimed that a loss in Ukraine “could be catastrophic for Russian statehood” and that “it is a matter of life and death for us.” However, it is rather difficult to imagine that a loss of Crimea could end Russia’s statehood.
  – Via Russia Matters.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Saradzhyan, Simon,  "Putin’s Latest Nuclear Messaging: Softer Tone or Threat of Use?" Russia Matters, March 15, 2024

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